• Fathers and Sons (Отцы и дети)

    the 3rd dust jacket of the Modern Library Fathers and Sons by Turgenev (1862)

  • Author:  Ivan Turgenev  (1818 – 1883)
  • Rank:  #87
  • Published:  1862
  • Publisher:  The Russian Messenger
  • Pages:  243  (ML Edition)
  • First Line:  ” ‘Well, Piotr, not in sight yet?’ was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—-.”
  • Last Line:  “However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that great peace of ‘indifferent’ nature; they tell us, too, of eternal reconciliation and of life without end.”
  • ML Edition:  #21 – five dust jackets (1926, 1931, 1957, 1961, 1969)  /  college paperback / current paperback
  • Film:  A Russian version in 1959 and three television mini-series
  • Read:  Winter 1996

The Novel:  Fathers and Sons is a brilliant Russian novel, one of the works that helps establish that era of Russian Literature, from 1860 to 1890 as perhaps the most vibrant era in all of literary history, the era of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov and Turgenev.  I read it in the same year, 1996, when I first read The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment and several of Chekhov’s plays and stories, a year which solidified in my heart a love for that writing, for those writers, for those books.

I could stop there.  In some ways, I have to stop there.  I remember reading the novel, remember how good I thought it was.  But it’s been almost 15 years now and somehow I’ve never gotten around to re-reading it, to reminding myself of how brilliant it is (I’ve re-read the Dostoevsky because I have newer translations of them and have gone back to them while also reading them anew).  But I can look at it again and be reminded of what it is.  It is in many ways the first modern novel written in Russia and it was certainly the first Russian novel to be widely admired in the Western world.

What it is, is a portrait of Russia long before the Revolution.  It gives us a picture of a divided society, between peasants and aristocracy, between social liberals and nihilists.  It is a novel full of wonderful descriptions of Russia itself:

They came upon little streams too with hollow banks; and tiny lakes with narrow dykes; and little villages, with low hovels under dark and often tumble-down roofs, and slanting barns with walls woven of brushwood and gaping doorways besides neglected threshing-floors; and churches, some brick-built, with stucco peeling off in patches, others wooden, with crosses fallen askew, and overgrown graveyards.

But a great strength of the novel comes in Turgenev’s defining of the gap between the generations: “In vain, then, had he spent whole days sometimes in the winter at Petersburg over the newest books; in vain had he listened to talk of the young men; in vain, had he rejoiced when he succeeded in putting in his word, too, in their heated discussions.”

But aside from the language, there is also the style.  This is almost a fore-thought of the modernism to come.  Look at the sentences quoted above, look at the last line of the novel; take a glance at all the semi-colons.  His complex sentences, carrying the same idea across different clauses, while maintaining them all in one coherent thought would influence Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner.

There is not much more for me to say about it right now, other than look at the last couple of pages, of the amazing description of the graveyard, too long to quote here.  I need to go myself and immerse myself in this novel once again, a novel whose brilliance I have always admired, but whose individual details have faded from memory.

Quotes from the translation by Constance Garnett in the Modern Library Edition