Turgenev’s Smoke.

Context is all. I recently complained about Dostoevsky’s Игрок [The Gambler], but now that I’ve finished Turgenev’s fifth novel Дым [Smoke], published in the same year (1867) and also set in Baden, I have a far greater respect for the former. I feel that Dostoevsky found a new dimension for literature, and once you’ve gotten accustomed to it everything else seems flat. Fine, the characters are cardboard and the plot is kind of silly, but Dostoevsky’s language and way of telling a story are intoxicating, and The Gambler is inferior only when compared to greater Dostoevsky novels. When compared to Turgenev — a fine novelist! — it shines.

I’m going to quote in extenso from The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, because Richard Freeborn’s chapter on the 1855-80 period is excellent and his description of the novel is thorough and satisfying from a certain point of view, a point of view which is alien to me:

Smoke is the only one of Turgenev’s novels not to have a Russian setting. It is set in Baden-Baden in the summer of 1862 and tells of a couple of weeks which the hero, Litvinov, spends there, during which time he meets Russians of both left-wing and right-wing persuasion while also encountering a former love of his, Irina. This “second love” forces him into a betrayal of his fiancee. Finally he returns to Russia heartbroken and embittered: “suddenly everything seemed to him to resemble smoke – everything, his own life, Russian life, everything human, especially everything Russian.” Indeed, if on the emotional level Litvinov’s involvements seem shallow — for as a hero he is deliberately made to appear ordinary and intermediary in his role — then on the level of ideological polemic Smoke is the most caustic and pessimistic of all Turgenev’s works, and as a condemnation of all things Russian it is one of the most explicit such statements in Russian literature, comparable to Peter Chaadaev’s first “Philosophical Letter.” Turgenev uses his novel in many respects as a pamphlet with the object of attacking the extremes of left-wing and right-wing opinion and expressing his own views through the figure of Potugin. Left-wing opinion, with its idolatrous attitude toward the peasant commune as a nucleus of socialism, and right-wing pleas for as little change as possible are both dismissed as dotty, while Potugin’s analysis of the Russian need to be led and Russia’s love-hate relationship with the west arouses Turgenev’s evident approval. His political gradualism expressed itself through Potugin’s insistence on the need to respect European civilization and ensure that whatever was done in Russia should have an educative, European character.

Largely due to the weakness of its central figure, Smoke has neither the strength nor cohesion of Fathers and Sons, but in its evocation of the small-town world of Baden-Baden, its venomously satirical character-vignettes and, above all, its depiction of the passion of “second love” as dark and soul-destroying it illustrates very fully the somber aspect of Turgenev’s talent. Angered, frustrated and isolated, he chose — as Dostoevsky taunted during a bitter quarrel of 1867 between them — to look at Russia through his telescope. Turgenev’s vision was acute in its perception of the self-deluding tendencies at work among the intelligentsia. His readiness, though, to criticize Russia from afar was offensive not only to Dostoevsky, it smacked of sour grapes to the public at large. In any case, advocacy of European superiority was hardly calculated to bring him widespread popularity at a time when educated Russian opinion was becoming attracted to essentially native, populist solutions to the national problem. Turgenev, so clearsighted in his realism as fictional chronicler of the evolving intelligentsia scene, had neither the stomach nor the gift for polemic, save in short needle-sharp thrusts, and polemic had become the very climate in which Russian literature existed by the end of the 1860s.

Note that the ideological/polemical aspect of the novel overshadows everything else in this account, and this is a fair reflection of its reception at the time (and in general of how literature in general was viewed): its mockery of Slavophiles, establishment conservatives, and foolish left-wingers ensured that almost everyone disliked it (the radical Pisarev was a surprising exception). But it has literally nothing to do with how I evaluate this, or any, novel. I don’t give a damn what Turgenev thought about Slavophiles, left-wingers, or the relation of Russia to the West. I don’t give a damn what his characters think about those things either; I care what they say about them only to the extent that it reveals their souls and illuminates the plot. In this case it does neither — the characters (other than the protagonist and the women) exist only to have opinions for the author to mock. Now, those opinions by no means dominate the novel; if they had, I would have stopped reading well before the end. They’re like raisins stuck into a muffin: I’m not crazy about raisins in muffins, but if it’s a good muffin I don’t mind that much. In this case, every time I got to a passage where people were arguing about politics I rolled my eyes a bit and read on to get to the real stuff; it was sort of like the hunting scenes in Trollope.

No, the problem is that the muffin was stale and odd-tasting. Smoke, as I understand it (removing the political raisins), is a bitter account of how a woman bored with her marriage causes chaos for those around her; it’s not a bad theme, but Turgenev had already done it to perfection in Месяц в деревне [A Month in the Country], and here it feels sour and pointless (one can’t help wondering if Turgenev’s passion for the married French opera star Pauline Viardot was at work here: passionately in love with her, he “left Russia to follow Pauline and eventually installed himself in the Viardot household, treated her four children as his own, and adored her until he died”). And the happy ending (having ditched his loving fiancée, Litvinov wins her back after a few years of bitter rustication on his country estate) feels absurd and tacked-on. Furthermore, the carefully worked-out backstories, recounted in stolid flashbacks (accompanied by idiotic remarks like “As the reader will remember from Chapter 1…”), seem pointless after an immersion in Dostoevsky’s intense focus on the situations and feelings of the moment. No, it’s not a good novel, not because of its opinions but because the rest of the novel seems to have been a pretext to feed those opinions to the public. Or maybe not. I don’t care either way; I’m just looking forward to my next Dostoevsky novel.

I’ll mention a few interesting bits. I enjoyed this description of language change (the translation is Garnett’s):

Take our language even as an instance [of successful adaptation of western imports]. Peter the Great deluged it with thousands of foreign words, Dutch, French, and German; those words expressed ideas with which the Russian people had to be familiarised; without scruple or ceremony Peter poured them wholesale by bucketsful into us. At first, of course, the result was something of a monstrous product; but later there began precisely that process of digestion to which I have alluded. The ideas had been introduced and assimilated; the foreign forms evaporated gradually, and the language found substitutes for them from within itself; and now your humble servant, the most mediocre stylist, will undertake to translate any page you like out of Hegel—yes, indeed, out of Hegel—without making use of a single word not Slavonic.

Возьмите пример хоть с нашего языка. Петр Великий наводнил его тысячами чужеземных слов, голландских, французских, немецких: слова эти выражали понятия, с которыми нужно было познакомить русский народ; не мудрствуя и не церемонясь, Петр вливал эти слова целиком, ушатами, бочками в нашу утробу. Сперва — точно, вышло нечто чудовищное, а потом — началось именно то перевариванье, о котором я вам докладывал. Понятия привились и усвоились; чужие формы постепенно испарились, язык в собственных недрах нашел чем их заменить — и теперь ваш покорный слуга, стилист весьма посредственный, берется перевести любую страницу из Гегеля… да-с, да-с, из Гегеля… не употребив ни одного неславянского слова.

This was a clever way to sneak a subversive concept in:

One foreign diplomatist, hearing she was a Moscow girl, said to the Tsar: ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘décidément c’est Moscou qui est le centre de votre empire!’ and another diplomatist added: ‘C’est une vraie révolution, Sire—révélation or révolution … something of that sort.

Один иностранный дипломат, узнав, что она москвичка, сказал государю: “Sire, — сказал он, — decidement c’est Moscou qui est le centre de votre empire!” — а другой дипломат прибавил: “C’est une vraie revolution, sire”, — revelation или revolution… что-то в этом роде.

There’s an unexpected reference to an American accent here:

Mais que doit-elle donc faire?’ inquired the countess.

Elle doâ rester immobile et se dresser sur sa quiou,’ replied Mr. Fox, with a strong American accent […]

— Мais que doit-elle donc faire? — спросила графиня.
— Еlle doâ rester immobile et se dresser sur sa quiou, отвечал с сильным американским акцентом г-н Фокс […]

And the general saying “il lui a fait rendre gorge” (‘he made him cough it up’ — there’s a lot of French in the novel) reminded me of this 2013 LH post.

Incidentally, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Smoke, which Dostoevsky read and despised when it came out, had any influence on The Gambler, but apparently not — at least, Joseph Frank doesn’t mention any in his literary biography. The two authors did, however, have a serious quarrel in Baden about Turgenev’s worship of everything European and contempt for everything Russian (exacerbated by Dostoevsky’s owing him money), and apparently neither of them had any desire to see the other again.

Addendum. I thank Alex K. for linking in his comment to Himadri’s post about the novel; it takes a much more appreciative view of this “sad and gentle love story” than I do, and is well worth reading for comparison.

I couldn’t help but be amused by this passage:

But what surprises nowadays is that a novel so seemingly inoffensive as this should, at the time, have caused such a political storm. Fathers and Sons had done the same, of course, but there, many of the themes had been explicitly political. How is it, one wonders, that a book so apparently innocuous, written by a writer who insistently aligned himself with moderation in all things – moderation not out of indecisiveness or pusillanimity, but because he felt it his moral duty to avoid extremes of all sorts – should have caused such controversy? Perhaps my inability to answer that question indicates my inability to understand adequately the Russian mind of the nineteenth century […]

Yes, it certainly does; Turgenev is by no means moderate, let alone inoffensive — he was trying to give offense, and he succeeded. It can only seem otherwise if you approach the novel from precisely the bien-pensant Western worldview he was propagandizing for.


  1. I read Smoke a few years ago and thought it was a rather fine work. I understand your preference for Dostoevsky but I don’t find Smoke inferior to any of D’s novels. It’s just different..

  2. A nice post, but I wouldn’t have guessed you thought the novel “fine” based on either that or the earlier ones you link to; you describe the plot and the reactions to it, but you don’t seem to give any evaluation. Mind you, I’m not saying it’s not a fine novel — it merely disappointed me by contrast to the Dostoevsky I’d just read. I’m in thrall to Dostoevsky at the moment. If I’d read it just after some minor writer, I’m sure I’d have liked it a lot more. Context is all.

  3. it was sort of like the hunting scenes in Trollope

    That made me laugh. I came to dread the chapters filled with horsey patter and discussions of where the foxes hung out and who was the best rider. But you can’t skip them altogether because plot points are mixed in — two people have an argument, or a political debate, or decide that some non-hunting fellow is not to be countenanced.

    I found that the hunting chapters were often where I stopped reading and put the book down for the evening. Trouble is, when you pick it up it again, you’re right back in all that damn equininity.

  4. Exactly! When I read the novels to my wife, she begged me to at least shorten those scenes, so I would glance ahead and skip the descriptions that didn’t contain any plot points.

  5. There are links to other posts at the beginning, such as this – an assessment I mostly agree with.

  6. Right; see my Addendum. (I confess I’ve gotten pretty bored with sad and gentle love stories after reading a few decades worth of them.)

  7. Random aside—I was under the impression that The Gambler is set in Wiesbaden, not Baden. (Was told this when I went to a wedding in Wiesbaden, so could be entirely apocryphal.)

  8. Perhaps our perspectives are not as distant from each other as may appear. I too found Turgenev’s polemics and the satiric digs in “Smoke” gratuitous – in the sense that they were not integrated with the central action of the novel. But the central action of the novel I found more convincing than you did. I often get the impression with Turgenev that he was happiest writing sad love stories, and that, with certain notable exceptions (“Fathers and Sons”, say, in which the clash of political and cultural values is central), the politics are intrusive. But I rather like sad love stories (yes, I know, I’m a sentimentalist at heart!), and, while this particular novel may not be among his finest works, Turgenev, on the whole, did sad love stories rather well.

    As a novelist, yes, I do think Dostoyevsky was the greater: Dostoyevsky is possibly amongst my three or four favourite novelists. (I hesitate to say “favourite” since I love Dickens and Tolstoy just as much). But in recent years, I have also come very much to appreciate the quieter and more lyrical voice of Turgenev.

    In matters of politics, despite my fascination with Dostoyevsky as a novelist, I find much of his politics problematic. Well, let’s not beat about the bush: I find his reactionary nationalism, more than tinged with religious mysticism, frankly repulsive. Turgenev’s centrism I feel far closer to. You’re right in that Turgenev wasn’t “moderate”: he held to his centrist views passionately. But his rejection both of the extremes of the Right and the Left put him in a position where I like to think I stand.

    If we can consider “Smoke” without the politics (and I think that’s easily done, since we are agreed, I think, that the political aspects are largely extraneous to the central action), I find a rather touching love story. The central character needs to be weak, since the whole novel turns on his having his head turned by a sophisticated married lady, to the extent that he foolishly turns away from his fiancée. I don’t agree that this is a re-run of “A Month in the Country”: there, the married lady is married to a decent man; she feels a genuine passion for her son’s tutor, and is stricken by guilt. In many ways, this play seemed to me like Racine’s “Phèdre”, though set in modern times. The married lady in “Smoke”, on the other hand, is simply bored, and no more; and the object of her love behaves very differently from the young tutor in “A Month in the Country”. These differences are significant, I think. Yes, Turgenev did return to similar themes, but so did many writers: but there are, it seems to me, significant differences between “A Month in the Country” and “Smoke”.

    But we do agree, I think, that the political aspects of “Smoke” are simply tagged on. (And on top of that, satire and caricature weren’t Turgenev’s strong points.) And while I am, I think, more sympathetic to Turgenev’s politics than you, “Smoke” would have been a far finer work as a novella, with those passages taken out.

  9. Turgenev, on the whole, did sad love stories rather well.

    Yes, he was very good at that, and I’m happy to admit that if I’d read Smoke at a different time I might well have liked it better (though I’m pretty sure I would still have considered it a minor novel).

    In matters of politics, despite my fascination with Dostoyevsky as a novelist, I find much of his politics problematic. Well, let’s not beat about the bush: I find his reactionary nationalism, more than tinged with religious mysticism, frankly repulsive.

    Absolutely, and the worst aspect of it was his virulent anti-Semitism. Fortunately, I was inoculated against identifying the artist with the art early on by my love for Ezra Pound, and I subscribe to Auden’s “Time that with this strange excuse/ Pardoned Kipling and his views,/ And will pardon Paul Claudel,/ Pardons him for writing well.” If we head down the road of rejecting authors with bad views and/or immoral lives, we will wind up reading nothing but inoffensive pap.

    I don’t agree that this is a re-run of “A Month in the Country”:

    You’re quite right, of course, and your analysis is convincing. I was shooting from the hip, as I so often do. If I considered everything carefully and weighed my words accordingly, I’d never post! Better to blurt it out and be corrected.

  10. I was under the impression that The Gambler is set in Wiesbaden, not Baden. (Was told this when I went to a wedding in Wiesbaden, so could be entirely apocryphal.)

    Well, it’s set in “Roulettenburg”; the question is which city or cities that nom de roulette represents. John Freedman discusses this in his post on the Dostoevsky plaque in Wiesbaden:

    In actual fact, Dostoevsky’s “Roulettenburg” was most likely a composite portrait of several casino cities that he knew – Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, and Homburg (today known as Bad-Homburg). We know his first trip to Wiesbaden took place on June 12, 1862. Return trips were made in late summer 1863, the second half of 1865, and again in 1871.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    It’s Bad Homburg without a hyphen. I have no idea why (apart from why not). The official name is Bad Homburg vor der Höhe

  12. Stu Clayton says

    Groan warning (I’ve told this story before): There used to be an up-market bathroom fittings store in Cologne on a main thoroughfare (die Ringe). Unfortunately the owners must have been innocent of English, since they named it Bad Design. It has now moved to an out-of-the-way corner of a dorp to the south.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Actually you don’t expect a city named “Bad something” to have a hyphen., no more than “(Royal) Lemington Spa”. Names like Baden-Baden are coming from another direction. “Baden” is mit Sicherheit not the verb baden, nor a noun like Bad.

  14. Then there’s Thomas Pynchon’s spa town, Bad Karma.

  15. “Time that with this strange excuse/ Pardoned Kipling and his views,/ And will pardon Paul Claudel,/ Pardons him for writing well.”

    Auden removed these couplets from the final version, though; the original was written before Claudel sucked up to Petain, though certainly Claudel was no Nazi, being what Arendt calls a social rather than a political Antisemite. WP compares him to Eliot, which seems plausible.

  16. Auden removed much of his best poetry. I fart in the general direction of authors who get squeamish about their earlier work. (Marianne Moore, I’m looking at you.)

  17. David Marjanović says

    I can’t explain the form Baden either, but the one in Austria once was Aquae Sextiae, so it’s rather obviously related to bathing. What would be interesting to know is how Bad was declined before the bizarre fashion to form plurals in -̈er got seriously out of hand. (In the oldest OHG it was limited to the 9 or so descendants of PIE *s-stems.)

  18. Stu Clayton says

    before the bizarre fashion to form plurals in -̈er got seriously out of hand

    I was just reading the WiPe article on Bessel, and came to a screeching halt at Sternörter.

    # Die so berechneten wahren Sternörter für das Jahr 1755 gab er unter dem Titel Fundamenta Astronomiae 1818 heraus. #

  19. Stuart Clayton says

    David: re my “Baden” is mit Sicherheit not the verb baden, nor a noun like Bad.

    What I meant by that is that the reduplikation Baden-Baden seems to exclude interpreting the “Baden” component as derived from the verb baden. Otherwise Baden-Baden would be equivalent to “loo-loo” or “bathe-bathe”, which doesn’t make sense.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Worte : Wörter
    Orte : Örter

    I’ve seen Örter in a Bible from 1912, and nowhere else so far, I think.

    Wikipedia says the duplication is like in “New York, New York”.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    Ah, Baden in Baden. A spa in spa space.

    Örter I can live without.

  22. SFReader says

    Baden in Baden-Baden

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    Those poets who emended the text of their earlier work after second thoughts and/or bad PR included none other than E. Pound. For example, the original version of “Salutation the Third” (the one with the memorable opening “Let us deride the smugness of ‘The Times’ / GUFFAW”) as published in I believe the debut issue of Blast in 1914 had a few not-entirely-complimentary lines about “the Jews” which were altered as early as 1926 (according to one plausible scholarly source I googled up), when the poem was republished in the first edition of the Personae anthology. And 1926 was a bit early for Pound to have made any sort of definitive and final break from anti-Semitic rhetoric and indeed a bit early for him to have felt under irresistible social/cultural/economic pressure to do so.

  24. Well, I don’t mind a change like that, and in general I don’t jib at emendations made to improve a poem’s impact. What I mind is poets deciding that their earlier work is ideologically incorrect (Auden) or whatever the hell made Moore eliminate most of her early stuff. If you want to fiddle a bit, make an improvement here and there, fine; if you want to pretend your early self didn’t exist and want the world to know only the latest and greatest you, screw you, you’re acting like the Stalinists who airbrushed people out of photos.

  25. And yet I have just asked to have my photo removed from my (already embarrassing) Wikipedia page. It’s one thing what’s done to you or your work, another what you yourself do.

  26. Trond Engen says

    I fart in the general direction of authors who get squeamish about their earlier work. (Marianne Moore, I’m looking at you.)

    That should keep Ms. Moore in the safe zone.

Speak Your Mind