I have never been a big fan of Russian literature. Granted, I’ve never read Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn. Either of them might turn out to be quite good when I finally get around to their books. As for now, though, I’ve been turned off Russian lit by books like Anna Karenina and Dr. Zhivago. The Russian fiction I’ve read has been dry, scattered, and a thin excuse for writing philosophical debate. I’m glad to say Turgenev offered something outside this narrow world. While the book was still dry in places and had a section in the middle devoted primarily to philosophical debate, it actually had an interesting and follow-able plot. The characters felt real. The book moved. This was a huge relief to me.
Plot outline: Arkady just graduated from college and comes home to his father and uncle’s farm. He brings along a friend, Bazarov, to stay with him for awhile. Like many new graduates in their early 20s, Arkady and Bazarov are arrogant and think they know everything there is to know about the world. Bazarov claims to be a nihilist, and has pulled Arkady along this life. While Arkady is less adamant and still adheres to some social traditions, Bazarov takes advantage of the fact that he’s living in someone else’s home to treat everyone with the indifference he claims to have for everything, which naturally causes problems with the adults. Conflicts break out, and the two graduates leave the house. They travel to several different settings, including the home of a fashionable and rich woman named Anna, and later to Bazarov’s parent’s home. Their friendship, relationships with others, and philosophical standpoints are all tested during this time.
Okay, so this doesn’t sound like the most exciting book in the world, and it’s not. It was easy to read (except for getting used to the multiple variations for each Russian name), but didn’t really pick up until the second half of the book, when tension begins to spring up between the two graduates, and between them and other characters. There is romance, dueling, typhus, infidelity, and class conflict. By the end, I just hated Bazarov, and was glad for what happened to him and to Arkady. I won’t say anything more than that, though.
The book seems to me to be about two things. First, the conflict between generations, as detailed by the title, Fathers and Sons. Arkady and Bazarov come home from school with the nihilist philosophy in their heads, and think they are better and smarter than everyone else for it. Each of the three male middle-aged characters (Arkady’s dad and uncle, Bazarov’s dad) have a different way of reacting to this arrogance. Arkady’s dad is saddened and tries to comply with his son’s new lifestyle by giving up his books by older philosophers and reading newer books of Arkady’s recommendation. The uncle maintains that because he’s older and has more experience, he is inherently right, while the kids are wrong. Bazarov’s dad has my favorite reaction, and probably the one that is most reasonable and wise. He says:
Of course, gentlemen, you’re better informed. How can we keep up with you? After all, you’re here to take over from us. Even in my time a humoralist like Hoffman or a Brown with his vitalism seemed very comic, although in their time they’d been famous. Somebody new has taken over from Rademacher in your view, you worship him, but in twenty years, no doubt, they’ll be laughing at him as well.
That seems to capture the cycle pretty well. The younger generation laughs at the older one, only to be laughed at by the next generation in turn.
The second point of the book, to me, dealt with nihilism and its practical application – whether or not a practical application is possible. Bazarov is painted as completely indifferent to everything. He respects nothing and no one. He has a great disdain towards aristocracy, faith, art, music, or anything else he terms “useless.” He speaks plainly, and expects others to do so, too. With a larger-than-life persona, he captivates many people (his own age) and brings them along for the ride. However, all his talk and supposed action brings no protection when the greatest “bit of nonsense” comes along. He can’t help but fall in love with Anna, no matter how hard he tries to be indifferent. He thinks love is “an overblown emotion” and tries to cut it out of himself, but finds he is powerless against the emotions he claims do not really exist. While the text is ambiguous on this point, I think this helplessness leads to his…conclusion. And in the end, I’m convinced that it’s not possible to live as a nihilist. A fine theory, but I don’t think it’s possible to divorce oneself from the world altogether, nor is it terribly admirable. Though Bazarov is considered the “hero” of the book, by the end, it’s shown he’s completely ridiculous. You see him through the eyes of people he believes look up to him, and discover they see him as the village idiot. I loved the confirmation of his ignorance. The irony was charming.
So it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure I’ll read anything else by Turgenev, but it’s a million times better than the majority of Russian lit that I’ve read. I’ll keep trying new Russian authors, slowly, and hope one day I’ll find something I really love.