"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 3, 2013

Best Stories of Ivan Turgenev (3): Late Stories of Dreams and the Unconscious

Stories of dreams and the unconscious (1864-1883). In this period Turgenev mainly wrote in a reflective and nostalgic vein, but the regret for lost love which was such a shattering experience in the novellas from his middle period, is absent. Instead, we find a realistic recognition of the apparent annihilation of human happiness and endeavor in the face of death - as Turgenev formulated it in One the Eve: "Death is like a fisherman who has caught a fish in his net and leaves it for a time in the water: the fish still swims about, but the net surrounds it, and the fisherman will take it when he wishes." Besides that, we also find the exploration of themes concerning life after death, the reason why some of these late stories have been labeled as "supernatural." But I think that is going too far: Turgenev was always a realist, and in matters of belief a true agnostic.

Phantoms (1864) - A fantasy, in which Alice, a winged phantom-woman, gradually casts her spell over the narrator, luring him to fly with her night after night over the vast expanse of the earth. A prose poem which offers a creative vision of nature and the supernatural set against the mighty screen of the night earth.

Enough! (1865) - Like Phantoms again a sort of prose poem. Not Turgenev's own cri de coeur issuing from his realization that human existence is futile and meaningless - for see the subtitle "a fragment from the note-book of a dead artist," which distances this situation in an artistic way. Turgenev knew such despair but he also knew how to transcend it through the power of art, which helped him transform existence into more a bearable shape. In other words, it is not a veiled autobiographical statement, but an exhortation to maintain aesthetic and psychological control of existence and not submit to experience solely on its terms.

The Dog (1866) - A discussion about the possibility of the supernatural leads to the conclusion that such a belief is not compatible with common sense. One of the discussants tells the story of how years ago he often heard a ghostly dog under his bed and was advised by a "seer" to buy a real dog; this dog next saved his life when he was attacked by a mad dog (and made his marriage to an unsuitable lady impossible, another life saving event!). But the story is clearly told tongue-in-cheek, more as a joke than something to believe in, so we remain in the territory of common sense.

Lieutenant Yergunov's Story (1868) A cunningly painted strange atmosphere infuses this story about a chance meeting between a Lieutenant in the marines and a damsel in distress. He visits her house, she lives alone with an aunt, she says, but the reader also notices several mysterious goings on. The Lieutenant is a rather naive figure and anyway too infatuated with the young woman to notice anything out of the ordinary, even when in the absence of his beloved Emilia a girl with an "Oriental appearance" emerges who claims to be the "younger sister or niece" and takes him to a secret chamber filled with the scent of musk. Yergunov believes he is going to have a little adventure, but reality is more severe: he is drugged and almost killed and his leather belt in which he kept more than 1,900 rubles of government money is stolen. When he awakes from coma in the hospital, the criminals have flown... and it takes him 10 years to repay the stolen money. But a letter from Emilia shows him that she may have really cared about him...

The Brigadier (1868). The narrator has traveled to the estate of a friend in the countryside, and during that friend's absence makes the acquaintance of two odd characters, Cucumber and the Brigadier. He is interested in the life story of the old Brigadier and slowly pieces it together: the Brigadier is a ruined nobleman who spent all his money on a young widow of a rather cruel character he fell in love with (but who refused to marry him), while also being cheated out of his money by her family. When she killed a page boy, he even took the blame on himself. Now old and destitute, he still loves her and sees her in his dreams - he also takes care of her grave - and finally, he is buried, as it were, in a little mound at her feet. A life has sped by in an infatuation with a person who was not worth it, but was it useless?

An Unhappy Girl (1869). Via a friend, Fustov, the narrator meets a rather coarse Czech teacher, Mr Ratsch, and is invited to his house, where he is introduced to the stepdaughter Suzanne. She is a proud young woman with Mediterranean looks and an exquisite and cultured character, very different from the vulgar plebeians among whom she lives. Her life therefore is a continuous strife with her environment. Mr Ratsch reveals himself as swinish and malignant, eventually driving Suzanne to her death. Just before that time, the narrator learns all about her unhappy life from a manuscript she entrusts to him. Now nothing remains but to join the funeral. A dramatic but beautiful story.

A Strange Story (1870).  An illiterate young artisan makes images of the dead appear before the narrator, who dismisses them as illusions born of the powers of suggestion. But when the artisan later becomes an itinerant, self-flagellant religious fanatic, attended by the so far seemingly rational daughter of a high official, the narrator is truly baffled. He tries to explain her choice of life but is unable to do so. Therefore he ends up labeling her life of servitude and deprivation merely as "strange." Where lies the truth? Turgenev leaves this consciously ambiguous: is the artisan a divinely inspired visionary, a charlatan or a madman? Is the young woman a nobly self-sacrificing worshiper, a fool or a madwoman? Is the narrator innocent and confused, or ignorant and shallow?

A King Lear of the Steppes (1870). A story about - as the title says - ingratitude, here from the side of the two daughters of Harlov, a landowner who is a huge man, like a force of nature, but also very vulnerable. In the past, he has saved the life of the mother of the narrator by stopping the horses of her carriage before they ran into a ravine. Everything about him is huge: his appetite, his voice, his hands - but he can only barely read and write. After Harlov has a dream in which he believes his own death is foretold, he divides everything he owns between his daughters Anna and Evlampia and starts living as a guest in his own house. Like King Lear, he now has to bear one vengeful insult upon another. In the end he rises up in rage and with his bare hands rips his house apart, himself dying in the debris. It is possible that Turgenev compared himself to King Lear after the criticism he received in Russia upon the publication of his fifth novel, Smoke. A King Lear of the Steppes belongs with Clara Militch to the best late stories of Turgenev.

Knock, Knock, Knock (1871) A brilliant psychological study of "a man fated," a Byronic type of hero, a self-centered lieutenant who is melancholy impersonated. He has left a young woman of low status in the lurch and believes she has committed suicide because of his cruelty, seeing her ghostly presence in several supernatural events. In the end, which is set in a landscape dominated by an immense fog, he kills himself... but indeed, there are perfect realistic explanations for the so-called supernatural events and the woman has died because of the cholera.

Punin and Baburin (1874). The narrator makes the acquaintance of Baburin, the strong democrat and Punin, the unworldly lover of poetry, when his grandmother hires the first one as a clerk on her estate. Later, when he is a student in Moscow he meets both men again, as well as Musa, an orphan girl in the charge of Baburin. Although she loves a friend of the narrator, after being left in the lurch by that lover, the fierce Musa is "tamed" into marriage with her much older benefactor and even comes to share his cause.

The grandmother in the first part of the story is in fact modeled on Turgenev's mother, who ruled her estate with an iron, even cruel, hand. When a serf forgets to greet the grandmother in the story, he is summarily sent into exile in Siberia, and when Baburin advocates the cause of the unhappy serf, he is immediately dismissed. This is the despotism that made a liberal of Turgenev, who in his A Sportman's Sketches pleaded the cause of the liberation of the serfs.

The Watch (1876) A somewhat caricatural story about the vicissitudes of a watch, given as a present to the narrator when a boy of sixteen. But when his somewhat older nephew, whom he admires, scoffs at it, he gives it away. Several times, the watch is fetched back and done away with again, and finally it links to the love story of the nephew with a poor but strong girl living in the neighborhood. Through it all, we have the consciousness of both teenagers that they are pitted against the hypocrisy of the older generation.

The Dream (1876). The narrator is a young man who lives only with his mother - his father has died many years ago. He meets a mysterious man who could be his father, an unusual looking man with a scar in his face and accompanied by an exotic servant, who inexplicably appears and disappears. In fact, he has seen the same man in a dream. The man upsets his mother who then confesses that she indeed knows him: in the past, he was in love with her and has taken her by force - he therefore is the real father of the narrator. Next, the narrator discovers the man in question dead on the beach, but when he brings his mother there, the body has disappeared... A dark tale, which could very well literally be what the title says: the narrator's personal nightmare.

The Song of Triumphant Love (1881) A romantic story "from an old Italian manuscript," that - as manuscripts often do - suddenly breaks off at a dramatic moment. A 16th c. tale about two friends, the painter Fabio and the musician Muzzio, who love the same woman, Valeria. She marries Fabio; Muzzio sets out on long travels in the East. When he returns, Fabio invites him to live in their garden pavilion, but the presence of his former rival destroys the happiness of his marriage. Muzzio has taken on the mysteriousness of the East, and hypnotizes Valeria with strange music. He is a malevolent type who gratifies his emotional and physical desires at will and even seems to elude the grasp of death itself. Is love triumphant as an emotion one can not escape, as sexual lust, or as procreation - after Muzzio has been almost killed by Fabio in a fit of jealousy and left the house, Valeria notices she is pregnant... Dedicated to Flaubert, who was a friend of Turgenev.

Old Portraits (1881) In this story Turgenev paints a warm and sympathetic portrait of the old-fashioned landowner Alexey Sergeitch Teliegin and his wife Malania Pavlovna - the kind of people who by the time Turgenev wrote the story only existed on, as the story is called, "old portraits." They belong more to the 18th than to the 19th century and have countless idiosyncrasies. Another motif often found in Turgenev's late stories is that Alexey Sergeitch can feel that his death is approaching. There is no plot to speak of, the story consists of the double portrait of the eccentric pair and concludes with a rather dramatic anecdote about Ivan, a house serf of the Teliegins.

Clara Militch (1883) - A most beautiful story that combines the lyrical love story with the supernatural in describing a love beyond the grave - although as is usual in Turgenev, a realistic explanation is also possible. An emotionally unstable singer/actress falls in love with a young man, who reacts with misunderstanding. When she commits suicide, he starts loving her, and then increasingly feels her presence around him. See my post for a more detailed discussion.
Best Stories of Ivan Turgenev (1): Early Stories;   
Best Stories of Ivan Turgenev (2): Lyrical Stories. 
The titles of the stories link to the public domain Elizabeth Garnett translations at eBooks@Adelaide. Some stories are also available in other translations in for example Penguin or Oxford Classics, but the number of modern Turgenev translations is rather small, and without the public domain we would never be able to get a good impression of his work.