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You’ve written your best book, and the one that will secure your fame. But instead of respect it’s received with execration—even by those you had thought were friends. What do you do? Ivan Turgenev’s response to Countess Lambert has something to teach us all. Upon reading Fathers and Sons the Countess wrote fourteen chastising pages to the author. This was his reply. (Turgenev was living in Baden-Baden at the time.)

Baden-Baden, 9 May 1863

Dear Countess,

I arrived here a week ago and have only just managed to settle in, find myself a flat, etc. I was just about to write to you—although not fourteen pages but my normal four—when your long letter suddenly appeared, and naturally, despite your pitiless severity on me, I hastened to carry out my intention. I will say a few words, not in justification, but by way of explanation.

You censure me both as a man (in the sense of a political animal, citizen) and as a writer. I think that with the first you are quite correct, but not with the second. You are right in saying that I am not a political animal and in affirming that the government has nothing to fear from me; my convictions haven’t changed since my youth.

But I have never engaged in political activity, nor shall I ever do so. Such matters are alien to me and uninteresting and I concern myself with them only insofar as I need to as a writer who deals with contemporary life. But you are wrong to demand of me literature which I cannot produce, fruits which, as it were, do not grow on my tree. I have never written for the ordinary people. I write for that class to which I belong, from A Sportsman’s Sketches to Fathers and Sons.

I do not know whether I’ve been of any use, but I do know that I have been unwavering in my aims and in this respect do not deserve your reproach. You suggest that it is merely out of laziness that I do not write, as you say, simple and moral stories for the people, but how do you know that I haven’t tried twenty times to do something along these lines and have not done so because I am convinced that it is not in my province, that I do not know how to?

This is precisely where you can see the weak side of the most intelligent people who are not artists: having grown accustomed to arrange their lives according to their own free will, they just cannot understand that a writer often has no control over his own offspring and are ready to accuse him of laziness, epicureanism, etc. Believe me when I say that every person does only what is given him to do, and to coerce him is both useless and fruitless. That is why I shall never write stories for the ordinary people. For that one needs a quite different cast of mind and character.

I can place my hand on my heart and say that I don’t think I live abroad simply to enjoy staying in hotels and so on. Circumstances have up until now determined that I spend only five months a year in Russia, and it’s now even less. I trust you will believe me when I say that I would particularly like to be in Russia now and to see at first hand what is happening there, for it is something I really feel for.

I still haven’t found a husband for my daughter; she’ll be writing to you herself. I am sorry that I didn’t thank you for the marvellous album which you sent for her, which arrived safe and sound and now graces her table. I would be very pleased if you were advised to go abroad; I would then have une chance to see you.

Look after your health and write me albeit indignant letters. You know that I love you sincerely and value your friendship. I firmly press your husband’s hand.

Yours, Iv. Turgenev.

Perhaps a footnote is appropriate here. Turgenev asserts an aversion to politics, defending himself on the grounds that it is futile for men who are not political animals to pretend they are. Yet his 1862 Fathers and Sons prophetically points towards Russia’s grim future down to the present day. The character of Bazarov notoriously prefigures cold revolutionary passion. He represents a nihilist prototype of the Bolshevik “New Man”—stripped of religion, blind to ordinary human failings, contemptuous of the arts, dedicated to science and materialism, obsessively hostile to Czarism, and determined to “make a clean sweep”.

It might be going too far to see in Bazarov the fearful lineaments of Comrade Pavlik, the Soviet boy hero who denounced his own father to the NKVD. But the heartlessness of this “son” to his own conventionally sentimental parents eerily prefigures a world in which only political values count—apart from survival. (See the recent book by Catriona Kelly, Comrade Pavlik: the Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero.) How then can Fathers and Sons be described as unpolitical? Turgenev also said rather alarmingly that aside from his attitude toward the arts, Bazarov’s character stood for much that he himself believed.

Nonetheless, as he claims, Turgenev is unpolitical. He belongs to no party. Despite his apparent sympathies he is not arguing for a cause. While he severely criticises the idle and directionless gentry to which he himself belongs, he has a detached and unsentimental view of the peasantry; and while agreeing that the abolition of serfdom was necessary (it took place in 1861; Fathers and Sons appeared in 1862) he was not optimistic about the future rise of millions of gross and brutish Furtsevas and Khrushchevs to supreme power. Turgenev is unpolitical also in his detachment. His aesthetic stance is strictly sub specie aeternitatis— it fatalistically embraces nature’s eternal indifference to man. In René Wellek’s words:

As early as A Sportsman’s Sketches he had said: “From the depths of the age-old forests, from the everlasting bosom of waters the same voice is heard: ‘You are no concern of mine’ says nature to man.” In the remarkable scene with Arkady on the haystack—the two friends almost come to blows—Bazarov had pronounced his disgust with “man’s pettiness and insignificance beside the eternity where he has not been and will not be.” There is no personal immortality, no God who cares for man; nature is indifferent, fate is blind and cruel, love is an affliction, even a disease beyond reason—this seems the message Turgenev wants to convey.

Posted in Artists And Politics.