Saturday, May 26, 2018

Ivan Turgenev

After Knausgaard's recent essay in the New York Times -- a piece focused on Russian literature and society -- I was motivated to read one of authors to whom he repeatedly returns: Ivan Turgenev. 

Given my focus of late on short stories, I purchased First Loves, a collection focused -- as the title suggests -- on early love, on stories in which love overwhelms or awakens a younger character. I should say at the start that these stories are excellent: line by line, even in translation, Turgenev emerges as a master. His prose are clean, clear, and precise. For me, his writing is defined by an organic quality. There's something here -- something about Turgenev's rendering of Russia -- that feels like the soil. 

I mean this of course as a compliment: with the exception of Graham Swift's Waterland, I can't remember a book that was so biotic, that was so clearly defined by its earthly qualities. As critics have argued, Turgenev really does use the short story as the basis for a wider exploration: of class, of politics, of economics. At the root of all these stories is a subtle -- and sometimes no so subtle -- examination of Russian society before the collapse of serfdom. Even when his stories don't formally touch on this topic, they can't help but highlight the chasm -- for that's what it was -- between top and bottom, rich and poor. 

That, though, is not the reason I was so taken with Turgenev's collection. As with Swift, this was instead a function of Turgenev's successful rendering of emotion. Time and again, Turgenev wields a knowing pen, casting youthful love as an awakening, as an experience distinct from its later manifestations. When Turgenev's characters are frustrated, it's as if their entire world collapses. And it's little wonder: for this is how love feels to those involved, to those who have enjoyed it for the first time -- and have then lost it.

I'm finishing the final story in Turgenev's collection now -- and I can already tell: the master is at it again. This story, like the others in First Loves, is defined by its lucidity -- both of thought and of prose. I can't recommend the collection enough. 

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