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.