"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 6, 2012

Best short stories of Ivan Turgenev (1): Early stories

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) was born into a wealthy landed family and studied in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Berlin. After finishing his studies, he worked for a short time as government official in Saint Petersburg. From 1855, Turgenev spent most of his life outside of Russia. In 1863 he settled down in Baden-Baden, and got to know German authors as Theodor Storm and Eduard Mörike. In 1871 he moved to Paris where he met George sand, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola. Prosper Mérimée and Henry James. Turgenev never married but had a lifelong love affair with the celebrated opera singer Pauline Viardot. He followed her throughout Europe and sometimes lived with her and her husband in a menage-a-trois. Here we see the "resignation" that played such an important role in his later stories.

In contrast to other great Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, his big theme was not "religion," but he excelled in realistic portraits of characteristic "types" - especially his portraits of young women are very fine - and also concentrated on social-realistic criticism of the position of serfs and lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the Russian countryside. Turgenev wrote also some of the best love stories one can find in world literature. His stories are written in the Russian realist tradition, where the narrator is an uncommitted observer of the people he meets. Besides six novels, Turgenev wrote just over 50 short stories (including the 25 collected in "A Sportsman's Sketches"). We can roughly divide them  into three periods: social-realistic sketches, lyrical stories and fantastical stories, which (very) roughly coincide with "early", "middle" and "late" periods in Turgenev's life.

Here we will look at the stories from his early period.

Social-Realistic Stories (1844-55) - One the one hand, in this period Turgenev wrote "social-realistic" sketches from the countryside, showing the difficult lives of the serfs, coupled with lyrical descriptions of nature, and on the other hand he focused on stories about various "types" of men, such as the "extraordinary man," the "diffident bully," the "desperate character," etc. In this way, Turgenev provides a composite image of Russian society. Although the theme of love is treated somewhat satirically, we already find sensitive portraits of young women, in my view Turgenev's forte.

Andrei Kolosov (1846) The narrator has a friend, Andrei Kolosov, whom he calls an "extraordinary man" - probably meaning Kolosov has a certain charisma. The narrator helps Kolosov in his lovemaking with Varia, by keeping her father occupied by playing cards with him, but he himself also develops tender feelings for the quiet and serious young woman. After some time, Kolosov looses his feelings of love for Varia and stays away from her. The narrator sees his chance and declares his love, although Varia clearly is still fond of Kolosov. She asks him to talk to her father. But the narrator suddenly looses heart and abruptly stops visiting her altogether. He never learns what became of her after that. Both men were unable to commit themselves.

Three Portraits (1846) A love triangle set among gentry in the countryside, a story told about three portraits: a young woman and two men. Good-for-nothing playboy Vassily seduces Olga, an orphan who has been brought up in the house of his parents and who is engaged to marry a neighboring squire, Rogatchov. Olga is a child of the steppes, a wild young woman longing for freedom. Vassily makes her pregnant - but he shrewdly puts the blame on Rogatchov and demands an immediate marriage. Rogatchov, knowing the child can't be his, refuses and is killed by Vassily.

The Duelist (1847) Kister has a morose and diffident friend, Lutchkov, a bully whose only quality is fighting duels. He introduces him to Masha, the daughter of the Perekatovs, although he is somewhat in love with her himself. When his advances are too rough, Lutchkov is jilted and Masha now realizes she loves Kister. They promise to marry, but then Lutchkov challenges Kister to a duel...

The Jew (1847) The narrator, an officer taking part in the siege of Dantzig in 1813, has won at cards and buys the services of a beautiful woman from a "Jew," an agent who provides all kinds of things to the Russian military. But the woman, Sara, is as later appears the agent's daughter and as she feigns fear and soon runs away, it seems all a trick to fleece the narrator. Later the agent is caught when making a detailed drawing of the camp and sentenced to death as a spy.

Pyetushkov or A Desperate Character (1847) The narrator tells us about his nephew Misha, a "desperate character." After his parents both die when he is 18, Misha squanders his fortune in debauchery. It is his greatest joy to booze with peasants and beggars.

A Sportsman's Sketches (1847-1874). A collection of 25 short stories based on Turgenev observations while hunting at his mother’s estate at Spasskoye. The first work that gained Turgenev recognition, even worldwide renown. Although banned in Russia, it was translated into many European languages. These realistic stories and sketches contributed to the abolishment of serfdom in Russia in 1861. Also praised for their descriptions of nature. Turgenev revealed the sharp contrast between the soullessness of the landowners and the lofty inner qualities of the peasants, who were one with the majestic and mysterious world of nature.

The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850). The tragedy of the superfluous man and his alienation from the world. During a business visit to a provincial town, the young protagonist Tchulkaturin develops tender feelings for Liza, the daughter of the Ozhogins. But she falls in love with a visiting prince, who in fact only toys with her affection. Tchulkaturin warns her and even fights a duel with the prince, but at the same time he is vain and insensitive and makes such a hopeless fool of himself towards Liza that he looses all chances with her. She seeks solace with another house visitor, Bizmyonkov, whom she finally marries.

Mumu (1854). Another barb aimed at tyranny and serfdom. A deaf and dumb peasant is forced to drown the only thing in the world which brings him happiness, his dog Mumu. The owner of the serfs is modeled on Turgenev's mother, who was very despotic.

The Inn (1855) - A serf has set up an thriving inn, but - via various machinations that also involve an affair with the serf's wife - an unscrupulous merchant buys it from the serf's owner. The serf is evicted and stands with empty hands despite his many years of hard work.