Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev, may be the first modern Russian novel (the other contender being Gogol's Dead Souls, also on my list for 2011). Published in 1862, Turgenev's work focuses on the conflict between the liberalism of the 1830s/1840s and the nihilism of the next generation. In Russian, the title is Fathers and Children, but was translated as Fathers and Sons because the translators thought it sounded more lyrical and titular.

     The book follows two young men and their fathers, contrasting the ideals of the younger generation with those of their elders, but also contrasting one father/son relationship with the other. Intergenerational conflict was nothing new even then, as the two aging fathers drily observe that they once rolled their eyes at their own parents' backward ideas as well. However, the marked contrast between the attitudes of the two young men demonstrates that one doesn't have to reject relationships with friends and family who hold different philosophical ideals than one does. Bazarov drives his family and friends away because he finds their liberal bourgeois ideas inferior to nihilism. Arkady, on the other hand, treats his father and uncle with respect and affection, enjoying their companionship despite their philosophical differences. In the end, Arkady embraces life while Bazarov indifferently wastes away, although, because it wasn't clear to me to what extent Arkady modified his nihilistic beliefs, I can't say how much of his eventual fulfillment was due to his relationships and how much was due to his (possible) rejection of nihilism.

     Turgenev definitely has a different style of writing than either Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, the other two Russians I have read this year.  Dostoevsky was a Slavophile and Turgenev was a Westernizer, so the two disagreed through most of their lifetimes but eventually reached reconciliation after Dostoevsky's Pushkin speech. Dosteovsky's style is much more psychological, while Turgenev is more socially oriented.

     More fun facts: Turgenev and Tolstoy were close friends, and Turgenev also influenced writers of the next generation such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad. He is ranked among the top nineteenth century Russian prose writers, along with Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov and Dostoevsky. Fathers and Sons was an interesting book, touching on important themes such as transgression and redemption through love. Although Turgenev was a Westernizer, advocating social reform, the abolition of serfdom and the integration of Enlightenment ideals into Russian culture, in this work he appears nearly Slavophilic in his portrayal of Arkady's fulfillment through returning to his father's way of life. I say nearly Slavophilic because he doesn't depict religion as an important element at all, whereas for Slavophiles it is a central part of the equation.

Just because you're a nihilist, doesn't mean you have to be a jerk: Arkady
Or wait, maybe it does: Bazarov
Uncle, your cravat is stylish but your ideals are not: Pavel
Dad, seriously, you're embarrassing me in front of my friends: Nikolai
Eventually overcame class differences: Nikolai and Fenichka
Kind old fossils who deserved a better son: Vasily Bazarov and Arina Bazarova
Who invited him? Sitnikov
There was a lot of: discussing, disagreeing, traveling, condescending
This book makes you want to: take time to discuss things with friends. These guys were quite productive in their philosophical explorations. It probably helped that they didn't have cell phones, tvs or the internet to distract them.
This book makes you glad you don't have to: Stringently live according to your class' particular responsibility, travel long distances on a dirt road in a wagon with no shocks.

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