Turgenev’s Rudin.

I just finished Turgenev’s first novel, Rudin (1856: Wikipedia, Russian text, Garnett translation), and I’m glad I read it, though I almost gave up on it. For the first two chapters there was absolutely nothing of interest (to me): rote nature descriptions (“It was a quiet summer morning. The sun stood already pretty high in the clear sky but the fields were still sparkling with dew…”), a collection of briefly sketched characters (a young widow, an old woman, a guy in a droshky, a young man with a radiant face and “something Asiatic” in his features, etc.), and a country estate (“a huge stone mansion, built after designs of Rastrelli in the taste of last century”). It was all very much like one of Turgenev’s early plays, and when the wonderfully named Afrikan Semyonovich Pigasov, a loquacious cynic, showed up and everybody started having one of those country-estate-play conversations (“‘So, according to you, African Semenitch,’ continued Darya Mihailovna, turning to Pigasov, ‘all young ladies are affected?'”) I was ready to bail. But at the start of the third chapter Dmitry Rudin enters, and the contraption immediately sputters into life. He quickly wins over the ladies and most of the men, though he offends Pigasov by demolishing his shallow arguments; I’ll quote a passage in extenso (in Garnett’s translation) so you can see his attractiveness:

‘Tell us something of your student life,’ said Alexandra Pavlovna.

Rudin complied. He was not altogether successful in narrative. There was a lack of colour in his descriptions. He did not know how to be humorous. However, from relating his own adventures abroad, Rudin soon passed to general themes, the special value of education and science, universities, and university life generally. He sketched in a large and comprehensive picture in broad and striking lines. All listened to him with profound attention. His eloquence was masterly and attractive, not altogether clear, but even this want of clearness added a special charm to his words.

The exuberance of his thought hindered Rudin from expressing himself definitely and exactly. Images followed upon images; comparisons started up one after another—now startlingly bold, now strikingly true. It was not the complacent effort of the practised speaker, but the very breath of inspiration that was felt in his impatient improvising. He did not seek out his words; they came obediently and spontaneously to his lips, and each word seemed to flow straight from his soul, and was burning with all the fire of conviction. Rudin was the master of almost the greatest secret—the music of eloquence. He knew how in striking one chord of the heart to set all the others vaguely quivering and resounding. Many of his listeners, perhaps, did not understand very precisely what his eloquence was about; but their bosoms heaved, it seemed as though veils were lifted before their eyes, something radiant, glorious, seemed shimmering in the distance.

All Rudin’s thoughts seemed centred on the future; this lent him something of the impetuous dash of youth… Standing at the window, not looking at any one in special, he spoke, and inspired by the general sympathy and attention, the presence of young women, the beauty of the night, carried along by the tide of his own emotions, he rose to the height of eloquence, of poetry…. The very sound of his voice, intense and soft, increased the fascination; it seemed as though some higher power were speaking through his lips, startling even to himself…. Rudin spoke of what lends eternal significance to the fleeting life of man.

‘I remember a Scandinavian legend,’ thus he concluded, ‘a king is sitting with his warriors round the fire in a long dark barn. It was night and winter. Suddenly a little bird flew in at the open door and flew out again at the other. The king spoke and said that this bird is like man in the world; it flew in from darkness and out again into darkness, and was not long in the warmth and light…. “King,” replies the oldest of the warriors, “even in the dark the bird is not lost, but finds her nest.” Even so our life is short and worthless; but all that is great is accomplished through men. The consciousness of being the instrument of these higher powers ought to outweigh all other joys for man; even in death he finds his life, his nest.’

Rudin stopped and dropped his eyes with a smile of involuntary embarrassment.

Turgenev said the character was based on the anarchist Bakunin; Herzen, who knew both men well, thought it was more a reflection of Turgenev himself. Be that as it may, Rudin is real and compelling in a way that none of the other characters are, barring perhaps Mikhailo Lezhnev, a college friend of Rudin’s who had become estranged from him but in the course of the novel comes to appreciate him anew. The plot is trivial and could be lifted from pretty much any random play or story of the time: Rudin enchants Darya Mikhailovna’s teenage daughter Natalya and thinks he’s in love with her, but when push comes to shove he can’t do anything about it. Discussion of the novel tends to rely heavily on the whole “superfluous man” thing, which to me is meaningless — it was a meme of the 1850s that has long since passed its sell-by date. Rudin isn’t superfluous, he’s just an intelligent fellow who can’t find a practical use for his intelligence, a phenomenon not unknown in our own day. I get the feeling that Turgenev wanted badly to bring this vivid character to life, perhaps tried making him the focus of a play but decided it should be a novel, except that he didn’t yet know how to write a novel. Never mind, it’s short and well worth reading, even if Fathers and Sons is still a long way off.

Comments

  1. Discussion of the novel tends to rely heavily on the whole “superfluous man” thing, which to me is meaningless — it was a meme of the 1850s that has long since passed its sell-by date. Rudin isn’t superfluous, he’s just an intelligent fellow who can’t find a practical use for his intelligence, a phenomenon not unknown in our own day

    I don’t know, it’s not just mere inability to use one’s talents to one’s satisfaction IMVHO – it’s also blame for this is placed quite squarely on the society / the societal injustice and oppression? But instead of tempering one’s ambition, such a character would take pride in professing that the stupid society doesn’t need him and therefore one is totally justified in wasting one’s time and potential. Something millennial about it. True, there may be no real-pistol duels nowadays, it’s computer game shooters instead, but the concept isn’t obsolete IMVHO.

  2. Evan Hess says:

    The parable of the bird in the barn rang a bell, and after wracking my mind, I remembered that it came from Bede, so I looked it up – it’s from Book 2, Chap. 13 of his Ecclesiastical History:

    ‘Talis,’ inquiens, ‘mihi uidetur, rex, uita hominum praesens in terris, ad conparationem eius, quod nobis incertum est, temporis, quale cum te residente ad caenam cum ducibus ac ministris tuis tempore brumali, accenso quidem foco in medio, et calido effecto caenaculo, furentibus autem foris per omnia turbinibus hiemalium pluuiarum uel niuium, adueniens unus passeium domum citissime peruolauerit; qui cum per unum ostium ingrediens, mox per aliud exierit. Ipso quidem tempore, quo intus est, hiemis tempestate non tangitur, sed tamen paruissimo spatio serenitatis ad momentum excurso, mox de hieme in hiemem regrediens, tuis oculis elabitur. Ita haec uita hominum ad modicum apparet; quid autem sequatur, quidue praecesserit, prorsus ignoramus. Unde si haec noua doctrina certius aliquid attulit, merito esse sequenda uidetur.’

    Translation by A. M. Sellar:

    “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your aldormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”

    I’m not an expert enough to know if the image is originally Bede’s.

  3. Ken Miner says:

    Discussion of the novel tends to rely heavily on the whole “superfluous man” thing, which to me is meaningless — it was a meme of the 1850s that has long since passed its sell-by date.

    Hat, could you say why you feel it is meaningless? I know very little about Russian literature and thought, beyond Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers and Alexander Herzen, whom I find extremely interesting, but I only have A Herzen Reader (when the translation of My Past and Thoughts by Constance Garnett comes back into print I am definitely going to buy it). But somewhere in my past I remember reading about a time in Russia when there were quite a lot of educated young people wandering around, who had no outlet, as it were, for their education.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    The sparrow, flying in at one door

    Door? Ostium brings to mind something smaller and rounder, like the wind-eyes of the time.

    If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

    A gut-punching argument from consequences. The mind boggles.

    when there were quite a lot of educated young people wandering around, who had no outlet, as it were, for their education

    Like the Tunisian Revolution?

  5. I don’t know, it’s not just mere inability to use one’s talents to one’s satisfaction IMVHO – it’s also blame for this is placed quite squarely on the society / the societal injustice and oppression?

    Yes, but Turgenev doesn’t place blame on societal injustice and oppression — there’s no indication that it is anything but a personal quality (weakness, in the terms of the story) of Rudin himself. Of course in the Belinsky-ridden literary/political atmosphere of the time, everything was looked at in social/political terms, which is precisely what I have against the time (and Belinsky). What I mean by calling the “superfluous man” thing meaningless isn’t that the phenomenon so designated didn’t exist but that the term brings with it a whole set of useless baggage that keeps us from seeing the work of art before us. I mean, I’ve seen Rudin lumped in with Onegin and Pechorin, which is ludicrous… but hey, they’re all “superfluous men”!

    The parable of the bird in the barn rang a bell, and after wracking my mind, I remembered that it came from Bede

    Yes, I should have mentioned that, but I didn’t get around to it.

    Hat, could you say why you feel it is meaningless?

    See above.

  6. Vladimir Diakoff says:

    @languagehat

    “Rudin isn’t superfluous, he’s just an intelligent fellow who can’t find a practical use for his intelligence”

    Isn’t this part of the definition of “лишний человек”?

  7. Yes, of course, but the problem is that “лишний человек” [superfluous man] is part of a universe of discourse which, as I say, lumps in Rudin with Onegin and Pechorin; it represents and induces lazy habits of thought. Compare the equally useless term “положительный герой” [positive hero].

  8. Ian Myles Slater says:

    Evan Hess notes that “I’m not an expert enough to know if the image is originally Bede’s.”

    Neither am I, and if pressed I would have ventured a guess that the image was Patristic. But I did a little searching in what I still have from my long-ago study of Old English.

    The famous (in some circles) story apparently is original with Bede (unless one postulates it was in a lost source for the history of the conversion).

    At any rate, it is so treated in the commentary of Charles Plummer to his edition of the Latin (“Venerabilis Baedae: Historiam Ecclesiasticum Gentis Anglorum…” 1896, volume 2, pages 99-100). Plummer constantly offers sources for Bede’s phrasing, so I doubt he would have omitted such information if it had been recognized by the late nineteenth-century.

    I consulted Plummer’s two volumes in PDF; his version of the Latin passage appears below the Old English translation as the first selection in Cassidy and Ringler’s edition of “Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader” (1971), which includes a plate of the “Flight of a Sparrow” passage in Old English. It too is silent on the matter of a source.

    I don’t have access to J.M. Wallace-Hadrill’s 1988 “Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: A Historical Commentary,” which accompanied the 1969 Colgrave and Mynors edition of the Latin, with a translation, in the Oxford Medieval Texts series. It may have more up-to-date information. However, the World’s Classics edition of Colgrave’s translation, revised and annotated by Judith McClure and Roger Collins (1994; Oxford World’s Classics re-issue, 1999), which definitely defers to Wallace-Hadrill’s corrections of the translation, notes only that the story of the King’s Council considering Christianity was once a favorite of historians looking for the “origins” of Parliament.

  9. Thanks very much for that diligent research!

  10. I could never stand Turgenev. Though forced to read in school Mumu and Fathers and Sons (and enjoying the latter) his endless descriptions of nature and sentimentality were never quite my cup of tea. Which is too bad. Russian forest is endlessly fascinating. It has (or at least had) lots of furry animals in it. Steppe as well. There are also hills and rivers. Roads suck. Winters are dreary, but summers are, by and large, pleasant. Spring is too wet. Fall is firmly taken by Pushkin as a favorite time of the year (Pushkin was kind of sicko, he loved autumn because it reminded him a woman with tuberculosis who is alive now and is dead tomorrow). They actually print landscape pictures in selected works of Russian literature for schools. I wish I liked it. Turgenev would be my favorite writer.

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