Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)
As a group, the exemplars of the world’s greatest literature are The Great Russians – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, and, since 1960, Pasternak, among others, and, of course, not to be overlooked, the iconic Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). Turgenev reveals Russia as it was from the 1830’s through the 1870’s, the era immediately preceding the collapse of the Russian monarchy. The author of numerous short stories (including the masterpiece novella, First Love), he wrote six novels, including the much-heralded Fathers and Sons (originally titled Fathers and Children), which opens in 1859, two years before the Civil War began in the U.S. and the Tsar simultaneously emancipated the Russian serfs (slaves), an era with eerie foreboding of the Communist Revolution that would erupt a half century later. Tugenev makes us wrestle with life’s eternal Russians much as do his literary giant Russian peers, and he tackles the erupting social issues: man’s freedoms, the absence of women’s rights, slavery in myriad forms, private property rights, giving us, on balance, a novel of then new ideas, a stimulus for change.
His characters are always believable and his plots arresting, and Fathers and Sons is no exception, but, in this reader’s view, F&S doesn’t rise to the level of his priceless jewel, his novella, First Love, where he rendered our simplest feelings immemorial, touching our hearts in one moment and choking the breath from our chests in the next. Yet, he cannot be forgotten. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and Pushkin have nothing on Turgenev. To me, among the Russians, only Russia’s greatest poet of the 20th Century and the author of the masterpiece that chronicled Russia’s Communist era, Dr Zhivago, rises above Turgenev.