Saturday, September 09, 2006

Ivan Turgenev: A Fire at Sea

One of the many hilarious parts (in an otherwise extremely dark novel) Dostoevsky's The Possessed is the satirical caricature of the character Karmazinov. Dostoevsky portrays him as a self-obsessed and pompous narcissist, given to naive and affected poetry and delusions of grandeur. Here's one example where the narrator discusses an article of his:

A year before, I had read an article of his in a review, written with an immense affectation of naive poetry, and psychology too. He described the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, of which he had been the witness, and how he had seen the drowning people saved, and the dead bodies brought ashore. All this rather long and verbose article was written solely with the object of self-display. One seemed to read between the lines: “Concentrate yourselves on me. Behold what I was like at those moments. What are the sea, the storm, the rocks, the splinters of wrecked ships to you? I have described all that sufficiently to you with my mighty pen. Why look at that drowned woman with the dead child in her dead arms? Look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear that sight and turned away from it. Here I stood with my back to it; here I was horrified and could not bring myself to look; I blinked my eyes—isn't that interesting?”

It is well known that Dostoevsky based this character on the real life model of Turgenev, with whom he had difficult relations. He also based the above description on a real life incident that happened to Turgenev. It happened when he was nineteen and going to the university of Berlin to continue his studies in philosophy. On the way the steamer caught fire and was completely destroyed. Most of the passengers escaped unhurt, among them Turgenev. But his behavior became a cause of lot of rumour mongering. Isaiah Berlin, in the introduction to the piece that Turgenev wrote about the incident when he was on his Death-bed, writes:
According to the stories that circulated in Moscow and St. Petersburg he had completely lost his head, loudly lamented his approaching end, tried to push his way into the lifeboat, brutally shoving aside women and children, and finally, in full sight of the entire company, seized a sailor by the arm and offered him ten thousand roubles in his mother's name if he would save him, saying that he was the only son of a rich widow and could not bear to die so young.

Berlin then describes how writers, journalists and the general Russian literati of the time contributed in keeping the rumour alive by embellishing their versions with more and more details as the fame of Turgenev grew higher and higher. At last when Turgenev was dying he tried to settle the account by giving his version of the events. The short article is quite good, very typical of Turgenev writing, naturalistic and observational, with fits of lyricism at regular intervals. He does mention the offering of roubles episode but in a very self-deprecatingly humorous way. Berlin writes:
At last the memory of a moment's weakness that must (if my hypothesis is correct) have preyed on him for more than forty years was exorcised, turned into literature, rendered innocuous and even delightful. He represents his own conduct as that of an innocent, confused, romantically inclined young man, niether a hero nor a coward, slightly cynical, slightly absurd, but above all amiable, sympathetic and human.

I have started to like Turgenev a lot. Specially after reading First Love, The Torrents of Spring and parts of Hunter's Sketches recently. Also about his life and the unhappy love affair that he was involved in. I had read Fathers and Sons long back and was disappointed to find the overheated style of Crime and Punishment missing in it... I thought all Russian novels were like Crime and Punishment! I want to read it again now.

6 comments:

Antonia said...

I have to admit I never have read Turgenjev....maybe I should for it sounds so nice what you write about him...and the beloved Isaiah Berlin. Like Berlin very much, his amazing ability to grasp the nature of a poet and his surrounding...his portraits are awesome...

Alok said...

Turgenev seems to be slightly lightweight and I think thats what I like about him. He is very simple and completely unjudgmental, full of generosity of spirit, a polar opposite of someone like Dostoevsky.

Berlin writes about him in an ecstatic manner, he repeatedly calls him a literary genius! I have been reading Berlin's essays too and I agree with you. He was a great essayist, his portraits specially those of Herzen and Turgenev are classics.

bhupinder singh said...

Sure you have read this one by Berlin already: 'The Hedgehog and the Fox' where he places Dostoevesky among the hedgehogs and Turgenev among the foxes.

Turgenev is certainly economical in his words, almost lyrical- almost the Flaubert of Russian literature but no less than Dostoevesky in terms of intensity that he brings to his characters (Rudin, Bazarov).

As you noted, he is also much more sympathetic, and less judgemental than Dostoevesky.

It is certainly not incorrect to call him a literary genius- even though Berlin considers him so :-)

Alok said...

I read that essay only recently, though I had heard of it many times.

Berlin's essay on Turgenev is also very good. He argues that he shouldn't just be considered a writer of fine prose but also as a writer of deep political commitments. The essay is subtitled "the predicament of a liberal" and he tries to explain why the liberal tradition didn't succeed in Russia.

Antonia said...

the hedgehog & fox one is a real beauty and also very significant of Berlin's own thinking...in the sense that he is a hedgehog, too, even tho a superficial reading would place him among the foxes...wish had the time to reread that one again....

Alok said...

I think my reading has been superficial so far :)

Let me read it once more...