Turgenev as Victorian.

Yesterday I read Turgenev’s last work of fiction, Клара Милич (Clara Militch); I wasn’t going to bother posting about it because it struck me as basically a bunch of silly hugger-mugger: virginal young Yakov Aratov lives with his elderly maiden aunt and rarely goes out, but his only friend, the boisterous Kupfer, drags him out to meet the strangely alluring title character, “a girl of nineteen, tall, rather broad-shouldered, but well-built” with “a dark face, of a half-Jewish half-gipsy type,” who sings and reads Pushkin — not all that well, but passionately — and after she poisons herself onstage he becomes obsessed with her, finally having nightly visions of her and dying; on his deathbed “in his clenched right hand they found a small tress of a woman’s dark hair.” Oooh! Mystery!

But then I looked up what the ever-quotable Prince Mirsky (see, e.g., this post) had to say about it, and was so pleased that I thought I’d write a post after all. He calls it the most important of the late “fantastic” stories, but says “the mysterious element is somewhat difficult to appreciate quite whole-heartedly today. It has all the inevitable flatness of Victorian spiritualism.” And on the next page he sums up Turgenev thus:

Turgénev was the first Russian writer to charm the Western reader. There are still retarded Victorians who consider him the only Russian writer who is not disgusting. But for most lovers of Russian he has been replaced by spicier food. Turgénev was very nineteenth century, perhaps the most representative man of its latter part, whether in Russia or west of it. He was a Victorian, a man of compromise, more Victorian than any one of his Russian contemporaries. This made him so acceptable to Europe, and this has now made him lose so much of his reputation there. Turgénev struck the West at first as something new, something typically Russian. But it is hardly necessary to insist today [mid-1920s] on the fact that he is not in any sense representative of Russia as a whole. He was representative only of his class—the idealistically educated middle gentry, tending already to become a non-class intelligentsia—and of his generation, which failed to gain real touch with Russian realities, which failed to find itself a place in life and which, ineffective in the sphere of action, produced one of the most beautiful literary growths of the nineteenth century. In his day Turgenev was regarded as a leader of opinion on social problems; now this seems strange and unintelligible.

All true. (Mind you, if you like ghost stories and that sort of thing, you may well like Clara Milich; by all means give it a try.)

Comments

  1. David L says:

    I remember (well, very faintly) reading Fathers and Sons in my twenties, after I had tried Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I can’t recall a whole lot about it but there was a sense it could easily have taken place on an English or French country estate, whereas Crime and Punishment seemed to belong to another universe altogether.

  2. Turgenev is in the odd position of having started his career with a bang — the Sportsman’s Sketches — and then, after a couple of brilliant novels and plays, slowly degenerating for the remainder of his life. I suppose it’s partly due to his spending so much time abroad.

  3. John Cowan says:

    Travel is so narrowing?

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    It certainly can be. There’s a distinct aid worker/missionary/expat tendency to react to culture shock by creating a nice safe space full of people like yourself to retreat into, that you can make forays out of to do your day job. To be fair, this is to a certain degree inevitable, and maybe even sensible; but I’ve often been taken aback by the sheer incuriosity of expats of all kinds about the people they work among. Outright racist attitudes are sadly not uncommon, even among aid workers and missionaries. It’s natural, heaven knows: we’re fragile creatures psychologically, whether we acknowledge it or not. Doesn’t make it good, of course.

    As Malinowski said: you have to get off that veranda.

    I can easily imagine that Turgenev ended up with a double whammy: not only deracinated from a culture he was maybe not so intimately attached to in the first place, but also not really able to reach out to the culture he was living in either. Not a great position for a novelist …

  5. I mean, he was spending all his time hankering after Pauline Viardot, a married woman, and following her all over Europe; it’s kind of amazing he got anything written, actually.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    I can well see that it might not have helped (though for Dostoevsky, of course, that would have been an inspiration, not a cause of literary constipation …)

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    I like the image of Turgenev having left the civilized comfort of Russia as some sort of do-gooder NGO type willing live amongst the benighted savages in the Dark Continent of Western Europe.

  8. I’ve often been taken aback by the sheer incuriosity of expats of all kinds about the people they work among.

    Very true of the sort of expats who wash up in Vienna and Geneva, but, to be fair, they usually come for the job, not the location. And that sort of extensive but shallow travel can have the nasty side effect of reinforcing stereotyping along the lines of a 1980s stand up routine. I hear a lot of expats fall into “Malays are like this, and Chinese are like that” generalisations.

  9. Trond Engen says:

    Anecdotal counterpoint: I have an Afghan-born colleague who was employed at the World Bank in Kabul as a young engineer in the mid-noughties, He recently told at length about how he had been impressed with the intellectual curiosity of the international staff that were stationed there — or even just flown in for a special task. “They listened to everybody until they understood our society and our history better than us, Then they left for Congo or somewhere and did the same there.”

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I read First Love (I think it was) in the 1970s and I liked it a lot, finding it much easier to read than the work of other masters of Russian literature.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Trond:

    Good on the World Bank!

  12. I liked it a lot, finding it much easier to read than the work of other masters of Russian literature.

    Yes, Turgenev is a good gateway drug for Russian lit.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    The business of comparing writers from around the world who were contemporaries sometimes gives me a similar sense of dislocation to that induced by looking at the latitude of different places across the world (Britain, Kamchatka …)

    I’ve never quite got over the realisation that the two Charleseses, Dickens and Baudelaire, were pretty much contemporaries.

  14. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong about being 19th century or Victorian, especially if Victorian means a man of compromise rather than a prude. (Wasnt’s Pale Porpoise an even greater Victorian?) This little story reads like another take on the same inescapable object of desire, Pauline. (Turgenev’s mother used to call her a Gypsy.) What if Pauline had been a provincial Russian girl and died young? Perhaps a belated attempt at exorcism.

    It’s interesting how much Bunin’s eternal beloved resembled Turgenev’s vision of Pauline, as if both had emerged from Gautier’s Carmen.

  15. This little story reads like another take on the same inescapable object of desire, Pauline. (Turgenev’s mother used to call her a Gypsy.) What if Pauline had been a provincial Russian girl and died young? Perhaps a belated attempt at exorcism.

    A very interesting take on it!

  16. Sashura says:

    / it is hardly necessary to insist today [mid-1920s] on the fact that he is not in any sense representative of Russia as a whole. He was representative only of his class /
    this is a typically dismissive attitude of the 1920s and doesn’t stand today. Only a week ago a prominent British writer admitted that Turgenev’s First Love was an inspiration for his latest hit novel.
    Victorian or not, he was and arguably still is one of the best Russian stylists. His concise writing, frugal, yet sharp characterisation is simply inimitable, comparable perhaps only to Chekhov.
    And he played a pivotal role in promoting Russian literature in the West. Not least by lecturing, and mentioning – attention! – the honoraires, the fees, Russian writers were getting at the time. I often think it was that that made Western public pay attention. If it’s worth that much many, there must be something in it.

  17. Sashura says:

    If you are interested in more of ‘phantastic’ Turgenev, I’d recommend his short story ‘The Nymphs’ – ‘The Great Pan is Dead! The Great Pan has risen!’ With a blistering attack on the Church. Hehe, it was written in 1878, about twenty years before Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection’.

  18. Only a week ago a prominent British writer admitted that Turgenev’s First Love was an inspiration for his latest hit novel.

    Yes, the Brits still love him.

  19. AJP Crown says:

    Who was that, please, Sash (the prominent…)?

  20. Sashura says:

    hang on, Crown! Will go downstairs and check with M.

  21. Sashura says:

    David Alan Nicholls, him

  22. Prominent in the UK, maybe; I’ve never heard of him.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    Nor me. Not that that means much.

  24. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Nor me. Not that that means anything — I’m not much up with what the youf of today (people under 60) are reading.

  25. John Cowan says:

    Let me once again express my undying love for Prince Mirsky for putting an acute accent on every occurrence of every Russian name to show where the stress is. Because of vowel reduction effects, if you get the stress wrong you can (as I suppose) just barely be understood, and even if the name you are saying can be glorked from context, it’s embarrassing to have to guess. It’s a bit better in English because stress is less unpredictable.

  26. AJP Crown says:

    Prominent for Sashura and that’s good enough. David Eddyshaw, Sashura used to live in Whales. I expect you have much to talk about.

  27. An elite group, those who’ve lived in Whales: Jonah, Gepetto, the sailor from the first of the Just So Stories, Rydia from Final Fantasy IV….

  28. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I haven’t even heard of his books, which is more to the point – not that I ever read prominent books, but you generally come across the titles.

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    the sailor from the first of the Just So Stories

    Nice, but nubbly.

  30. At least he has a Wiki page and a Galaxy Book of the Year award for 2010 (sounds a bit pretentious, if you ask me. Before, I thought it’s Americans who are a bit afflicted with megalomania for having World Series). Anyway, the wiki page says that “Nicholls says that a turning point in his career came when a friend gave him a copy of PJ Kavanagh’s memoir The Perfect Stranger, which tells the author’s own tale of maturation, finding love, and discovering his path in life.” A bit like the First Love. The reference goes to a Guardian piece.

    Victorian or not, First Love, Sportsman’s Sketches, and Fathers and Sons are worth reading.

  31. Victorian or not, First Love, Sportsman’s Sketches, and Fathers and Sons are worth reading.

    Oh, absolutely — Turgenev is wonderful! He just declined somewhat as the decades wore on, and was unable to modernize himself: the narration in Clara Milich is straight out of the 1840s.

  32. Sashura says:

    Whales, I think Münchhausen served time inside one. According to one account he survived eating the whale’s caviar, not very Whalsh. And Pinocchio of course!

    Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow was on The Sunday Times bestseller list last year. May be not prominent, just protruding a bit.

  33. Sashura says:

    /He was a Victorian, a man of compromise/
    I am not sure I understand why ‘compromise’ is put here as a definitive feature of being Victorian. I’ve had a somewhat different idea of Victorianism.

    Mirsky writes of Turgenev’s ‘late fantastic’ (fantasy) stories as though Turgenev was experimenting with new approaches later in his life. But he wrote The Ghosts (Призраки), a fantasy novella, as early as mid 1850s, roughly at the same time as The Sportsman’s Sketches. Dostoyevsky published it in 1864. It sent cold shivers down my spine when I first read it.

  34. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Because of vowel reduction effects, if you get the stress wrong you can (as I suppose) just barely be understood, and even if the name you are saying can be glorked from context, it’s embarrassing to have to guess. It’s a bit better in English because stress is less unpredictable.

    Yes, English isn’t as bad as Russian in that respect, but it’s on its way! Something I found odd when I was trying to learn Russian was that several books mention that stress is very important in Russian and must be got right, that its location is unpredictable and can be different in related words, and that unstressed syllables get heavily reduced; but all of them forget to mention that all of that is true to some degree of English. If they said this it would make Russian pronunciation seem less weird to an English speaker, but just as weird to a speaker of languages such as Spanish, Italian or, above all, Hungarian. I think it’s the reducing of unstressed syllables that makes Portuguese Portuguese sound like Russian — that never happens in Spanish. I met two Russians in Lisbon who told me that when they are chatting on the street people often think they are speaking Portuguese, so it’s not just me who thinks Portuguese Portuguese sounds like Russian.

  35. We discussed the sound of European Portuguese back in 2013; Chris said:

    I am constantly mixing up Portuguese with the sound of Slavic languages, and have been for more than a decade. Since I speak several Slavic languages, it drives me nuts that I can’t place the language until I finally realize it’s Portuguese.

  36. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    We discussed the sound of European Portuguese back in 2013

    Thanks for drawing attention to that: it’s a very interesting discussion. It must have been just before I became a hatter.

  37. AJP Crown says:

    I thought Brazilian Portuguese sounded like Russian. That was in the 1980s, so I thought it first.

  38. At https://klimbim2014.wordpress.com/2017/03/24/pauline-viardot-%D0%BF%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%B4%D0%BE/ you’ll find an impressively colorized photograph of Pauline Viardot as muse. On the site those characters with percent signs are Cyrillic, so I’d guess that the colorizer too is a Turgenophile.

  39. More about the colorizer:

    https://www.rferl.org/a/facebook-suspends-russian-colorist-for-war-imagery/30641859.html

    SOMEBODY gets suspended from Facebook!

  40. Good lord, that’s stupid.

  41. I suppose if I posted “Good lord, that’s stupid” on FB, I’d get suspended too.

  42. Bathrobe says:

    This doesn’t belong at this thread; it belongs at another thread that I have no hope of finding. I found this in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a construction that, if I remember rightly, Hat once said was obsolete:

    “The man’s name was Rutherfurd (“Rusty”) Trawler. In 1908 he’d lost both his parents, his father the victim of an anarchist and his mother of shock, which double misfortune had made Rusty an orphan, a millionaire, and a celebrity, all at the age of five.”

    Or perhaps it’s not really a counterexample at all because the relative clause doesn’t refer to a single noun but to the preceding sentence (two circumstances) as a whole.

  43. I would point out that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published in 1958, and Capote was born in 1924; it’s hardly relevant to current English.

  44. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I thought Brazilian Portuguese sounded like Russian. That was in the 1980s, so I thought it first.

    I found Brazilian Portuguese less impenetrable than Portuguese Portuguese when went to Iguazú in 2012. I went on several tours, in most or all of which I was the only non-Brazilian. Each guide gave a longish description of each place, and then a shorter one in English for me. One of them told me that he had had the impression that I understood the Portuguese version before he switched to English. I confirmed that that was true: I could get the general gist of it, though far from a full understanding. That wouldn’t have been the case in Portugal. There was another guide who spoke English fluently, but made it sound like Portuguese.

  45. ktschwarz says:

    which double misfortune had made Rusty an orphan”

    That’s a “relative-determinative which”, discussed at Language Hat (2018) and Language Log (2008). It’s not quite as obsolete as you think, even outside legalese: since that post, I’ve been noticing examples in blog comments (including here), Amazon reviews, and recent books (but never in speech). Maybe I’ll post the collection someday. There were at least a couple from marie-lucie, who I don’t think would mind being called old-fashioned.

  46. ktschwarz says:

    the relative clause doesn’t refer to a single noun but to the preceding sentence (two circumstances) as a whole.

    … and that makes it a “summative”, often prescriptively condemned, and defended at Language Log: see this post by Zwicky, or search there for “summative”. So “which double misfortune” is both summative and relative-determinative, and yes, I’ve got at least one of those in my collection too.

  47. It’s not quite as obsolete as you think

    Yeah, if I said “obsolete” I was exaggerating (as I often do) — it’s just a bit fusty these days. I’m certainly capable of using it myself.

  48. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I strongly suspect that the Hattery is the wrong flowerbox for that sort of collecting.

    Don’t for instance take anything I write here as evidence for the state of the language, I have moods where I dig deep into the box marked “obsolescent but fun” and ones where I try to commit as many solecisms as possible in a short comment just because. Irregardlessly that I probably commit lots unwittingly because I’m not a native speaker of any kind of English.

  49. Bathrobe says:

    I strongly suspect that the Hattery is the wrong flowerbox for that sort of collecting.

    Hat is well known for being interested in all manner of issue pertaining to language, delving into every kind of nook and cranny that might show the richness, variety, exuberance, fickleness, orneriness, beauty, and just about any other adjective you that might apply to language in all its guises. Apart from misguided attempts to impose dreary, arbitrary conformity, or crank theories or racism/sexism etc., I don’t think there is anything that is excluded from this flowerbox.

  50. Lars Mathiesen says:

    This was in reference to ktschwarz’ collection of occurrences of “relative-determinative which” containing data from here — I think this place is too playful (and diverse) to be trusted to provide genuine evidence of any syntactic feature in native speaker usage. But maybe it was quoted material.

  51. Bathrobe says:

    Oh, I understand your drift. I think ktschwarz mentioned that she was collecting from various sources.

    m-l is (was) a sober commentator. Not everyone is playing with words here, although LH is certainly the kind of place to indulge in that. Playing with words is not confined to LH, but I would admit that you are likely find slightly more ‘literate’ (or whatever word you might want to use) users of language here.

  52. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: “I think it’s the reducing of unstressed syllables that makes Portuguese Portuguese sound like Russian — that never happens in Spanish.”

    They get reduced to zero sometimes (“psoa”). Also, the vowel in que, de and me and lots of other words gets close to [ɨ], resembling an unstressed Russian ы. There is also the “s chiado” – the sh- and zh-like sounds often heard at the end of plural nouns resembling Russian verb endings (2nd person singular present). A Russian ear may hear a familiar -жуж- in “beijos loucos.” There’s also the dark word-final l and the l in louco isn’t particularly “light” either.

    Russian has unpredictable stress position. Portuguese has barely predictable open/closed vowels. (I’ve been learning it for more than a year.)

  53. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I once had lunch in a restaurant at Gatwick Airport, and spent the entire meal trying to decide what language the waiters were speaking to one another: Russian or Portuguese. There are probably many more Portuguese than Russian waiters in London, but maybe there are some Russians. I was pretty sure it was Russian when I thought I heard a хорошо. However, by the end of the meal I knew that it was Portuguese. I could have asked them, of course, but I thought that would be cheating.

    Any suggestions of a Portuguese word or expression that could sound like хорошо?

  54. PlasticPaddy says:

    @acb
    The word raro would be pronounced Kharo by at least some Brazilians, so that could be the onset.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Other Brazilians go all the way to [h]: Rio de Janeiro [ˌhiud͡ʒaˈneiru]. It was quite a confusing experience to hear French spoken with such an accent.

    The change to [x] or [h] concerns rr as well, unsurprisingly.

    Portugal is mostly still at [ʀ].

  56. John Cowan says:

    Yes, English isn’t as bad as Russian in that respect

    In one way it’s worse: at least all unstressed syllables in Russian get vowel reductions, versus only some of them in English, the so-called “secondarily stressed” syllables that are unstressed but also unreduced. So whereás a síngle áccent mark is enóugh to disambíguate Rússian stress, you réally need two áccènt marks to dìsàmbígùàte Énglish. (Note that I write áccènt because I am an American; a more RP-style pronunciation would call for áccent.)

  57. No, there’s secondary stress in Russian as well: антикоммунизм [àntikəmunízm] ‘anticommunism,’ ультракороткий [ùl′trəkarótki] ‘ultrashort,’ морозоустойчивый [maròzəustóichivyi] ‘frostproof,’ партбилет [pàrtbilét] ‘party card.’

  58. True, but with a bit of cheating. All these examples are of compound words or words with heavy and not quite completely nativized prefixes. A reasonably long word like переговорщиками /peregovorshschikami/ (instrumental case of negotiators) doesn’t acquire a secondary stress, at least not the way I hear it in my head.

  59. PlasticPaddy says:

    @do
    Does u in uchitel’nitsa count as a prefix? For me the word has secondary stress on the u.

  60. Does u in uchitel’nitsa count as a prefix?

    No, why? And I don’t hear any stress on it. Do you hear it in мучитель?

  61. True, but with a bit of cheating.

    It’s cheating to list only words that actually have secondary stress and not those that don’t? An odd attitude.

  62. An odd attitude.

    Uh. If there is an obvious morphological reason for the stress… The question was whether it’s predictable or not.

  63. PlasticPaddy says:

    @do
    Maybe this is an effect of imposing L1 English patterns on Russian but I perceive a difference between the first a in razgovorivat’ and katat’cja which I interpret as 1st syllable secondary stress for the 1st word. But maybe this is just syllabification (or do Russians see the syllables as ra-zgo-vo-ri-vat’ ?).

  64. I think, you might be right. When learning, you want to emphasize the morphological details and say raz- in razgovarivat’ a bit louder.

  65. John Cowan says:

    I should also have mentioned that Russian /a/ and /o/ are different in pretonic syllables than in other unstressed syllables, but this is fully predictable.

    In addition, the excess of stress marks in dìsàmbígùàte pretty much shows that it is a loanword. Indeed, the last mark is present even though there is no noun/adjective dìsàmbígùate (unlike, say, dìscórporáte ‘cease to have a body’ vs. dìscórporate ‘(something) lacking a body’).

  66. David Eddyshaw says:

    When learning, you want to emphasize the morphological details

    The amó amás amát phenomenon, which has annoyed generations of Latin teachers.

  67. @David Marjanović: “Other Brazilians go all the way to [h]: Rio de Janeiro [ˌhiud͡ʒaˈneiru].”

    Some Brazilians use the same initial sound in Rio and help when inserting English h-words into Portuguese speech. It’s not necessarily an [h]. “Uma interpretação muito interessante do Relp(e)!.”

  68. David Marjanović says:

    As expected. If you’re used to [x] but not to [h], you’re likely to use [x] to approximate [h].

Trackbacks

  1. […] Languagehat reads Turgenev’s last story, “After Death (Clara Militch)” (После смерти [Клара Милич], 1883). Clara Militch has “a dark face, of a half-Jewish half-gipsy type.” The contrast between “Russian” and “non-Russian” characters has been a big deal for many writers in many periods, of course, but there’s something striking about how it gets prominent for lots of dissimilar writers in the 1870s and 1880s (like Nekrasov, Turgenev, and Pisemskii, and maybe Leskov and Dostoevskii, though at least Leskov was continuing a preexisting interest in the theme). There seems to suddenly be an extra charge, with male characters erotically fascinated by both ethnic sameness and ethnic difference, and also disgusted by ethnic difference. […]

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