Friday, August 15, 2008

Ivan Turgenev: Virgin Soil

Virgin Soil was the last and the longest novel that Turgenev wrote. The characters, the political and philosophical ideas, the writing style, the tone, all would be familiar to those who have read his earlier works like Fathers and Sons or Rudin. Like so many heroes in his novels, the protagonist of Virgin Soil Nezhdanov is also a "superfluous man" - an educated and over-sensitive young man, a misfit and an outsider, full of self-doubts and hesitations and torn between two poles of aestheticism and political commitment.

In one of his many melancholic and self-critical confessions in the book Nezhdanov says:

How I loathe this irritability, sensitiveness, impressionable- ness, fastidiousness, inherited from my aristocratic father! What right had he to bring me into this world, endowed with qualities quite unsuited to the sphere in which I must live? To create a bird and throw it in the water? An aesthetic amidst filth! A democrat, a lover of the people, yet the very smell of their filthy vodka makes me feel sick!

It is as if he is "possessed" by the idea of populist socialism, the idea that educated people must go to the russian peasantry and incite them to revolt against the Czarist authority. And yet he feels torn about his political commitment. Everything feels vague to him and he can't decide whether he really believes in "the cause." He despises himself for writing poetry which is what comes most naturally to him. There is a wonderful portrait of Marianna, the girl who falls in love with him and shares his political beliefs but more out of her contempt for the rich aristocratic way of life and conventions of society. Turgenev in a real life supported feminist ideas passionately and it shows in the way he creates these female characters. (He was also a good friend of George Sand, the great nineteenth century feminist novelist, alongwith Flaubert.)

Kubla has already written about this book comparing it with Dostoevsky's The Possessed which is very instructive because it dramatizes similar events but the tone and the style of the two books couldn't be more different. It is also interesting to note that Turgenev wrote this book before revolutionaries were apprehended for inciting revolts among workers and peasants in real-life. It was almost like a case of life imitating art. Dostoevsky's novel in contrast was written after the Nechaev affair. He distorts many of the revolutionaries characters, heaping contempt on them and ridiculing their political ideas. Turgenev on the other hand is much more sympathetic and generous even if he is equally pessimistic about their political beliefs.

Like his Fathers and Sons, Virgin Soil was also hugely controversial when it was published. Turgenev faced angry and impatient criticisms from both the left, who felt that he deliberated portrayed Nezhdanov as weak-willed and confused, and the slavophile, Conservative right for obvious reasons since it is obvious from the book that the prevailing status-quo disgusted Turgenev as much as the younger revolutionaries. The epigraph to the book puts the criticisms of the radicals rather succinctly:

"To turn over virgin soil it is necessary to use a deep plough going well into the earth, not a surface plough gliding lightly over the top."--From a Farmer's Notebook.

The reactions to his book in Russia contributed a lot to the bitterness of last few years of Turgenev's life in which he grew more and more pessimistic about Russia's future. Isaiah Berlin's brilliant essay on Turgenev links the reactions to his works to tragic current of russian history itself in which liberal and inclusive political beliefs were crushed and defeated by the extremes.

Some more information in this introduction[pdf] to the nyrb edition of the book


Kubla Khan said...

As discussed previously, this novel, as you mention was quite prophetic in foreseeing events which later culminated in the "Trial of the fifty". i have not found much written about this trial though the other revolutionary figures then, like Vera Zasulich was to become quite famous.

Zasulich knew Nechaev and eventually was arrested for shooting Trepov, the governor of Petersburg. i am sure you know all this but interestingly, Zasulich was against the Bolshevik revolution and later retired from politics.

There is a biography of Zasulich though i have not read it. Camus wrote disparagingly about these figures in his Rebel though i don't remember much now.

you have captured the salient features in your post and i liked the beginning. thanks for the mention.

and btw, don't forget to read Senselessness, if it is the only novel you read for the rest of the year! Bolano's 2666 and his Romantic dogs are on their way as you know.

I also understand you are going back to India? yes, just finished reading Arundhati Rai's essays called The algebra of infinite justice. i have not read her before.i picked it up thinking it might be like Mishra's. i was disappointed.
Her approach to geopolitics is naive, it is like an aged school mistress admonishing her pupils! She writes as if she were talking, very puerile and almost pleading. she lacks the steady studied tone of an essay writer and to issues like the dam project in India, she talks of conspiracies within conspiracies. She is occasionally eloquent but often boring. I think the essays lack the authority of a political kind and eventually succumb to adolescent coffee bar idealistic chatter. what do you think?

Alok said...

Many of these early revolutionaries were opposed to anything like Bolshevism. They were actually called populists and believed in "natural" or grassroots socialism of the peasantry. Herzen was the most influential figure for them. Lenin in turn wrote very critically about these populists. His idol was Chernyshevsky, not Herzen.

I have ordered Senselessness and Pedro Paramo both. I should be getting them soon. Will definitely read it...

I agree with what you say about Roy. In one of her other essays she talks about the rise of intellectualism and "the expert culture," bunch of academic experts telling common people what is good for them and what they should do... this she says is extremely anti-democratic. I have to agree she has a point there. She also says that one should be free to react emotionally to these issues.. I read her Gods of Small Things when it won the booker in 98and liked it immesely though i am sure i will find it disappointing if i read it now... it is worth taking a look though. still remember the opening paragraphs vividly with ripe mangoes and bursting jackfruits.. and summer in aymenem being a "hot and brooding month"... another indian essayist i will recommend is Ashish Nandy. I have only read a few of his essays but he is very good, specially on religion secularism, things we were talking about a few days back... Yes, I will be returning back to india soon, sometime around end of oct. looking forward to it.