Turgenev: The End History and the Last Serf: or, A Satirical Sketch of Sherwood Anderson

Illustration for the short story "Lgov" by Ivan Turgenev (from the collection A Sportsman's Sketches) by Pyotr Sokolov, circa 1890s [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

Sketches from a Hunter's Album (A Sportsman's Sketches)Sketches from a Hunter's Album by Ivan Turgenev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Turgenev was born into two aristocratic Russian families. His mother had inherited some wealth before marrying, which offset his otherwise titled but broke father. As a young man he lived on the family estate, and this collection of short stories, published in book form in 1852, encompasses his experience with people and places as he hunts throughout Russia during the twilight years of serfdom.

I have read many instances of people claiming that these works are his masterpiece, and that the sketches brought to light the plight of the peasants, ultimately leading to the end of serfdom in 1861. Whether the works had such significance I will leave to the experts, but when I teach social movements as a process of institutional evolution, a key text (such as Martin Luther King's speech during the American civil rights movement) usually motivates the masses towards some form of social change, which concludes with a change in institutions.

Clearly, Sketches played a part in motivating social change, and I use this book as an example of the impetus for the social movement that led to the emancipation of serfs. I also understand that Turgenev adopts the "Russian realist" style in that the narrator is "uncommitted" to the other characters in the work, and this is true of the Sketches in general.

This translation is by Constance Garnett, and I must say that it reads well. Having read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons a few years ago, I recognise the clarity of the prose that I also found in my first reading of Chekhov. My limited reading of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, however, suggests that these two authors have become somewhat dated, at least in translation. Hemingway said as much about Tolstoy's War and Peace in "Old Newsman Writes" (see By-Line, p. 188). Which leads me to all sorts of interesting comparisons I have mentioned previously in my review on Chekhov's comic stories.

Harold Bloom and Italo Calvino saw the relationship in style between Turgenev, Chekhov, Maupassant, and Hemingway. Having now read each of these authors, I feel that way about their prose technique. But while reading a little about Turgenev, I discovered that Sherwood Anderson "echoed" Turgenev (according to Ridout), and that Turgenev had also written a short work entitled The Torrents of Spring. Now I see the greater part of the humour in Hemingway's novella The Torrents of Spring, which was written as a parody of Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. I immediately purchased a copy of Turgenev's Torrents to see what else I can learn about this interesting clash of egos.

Given that Sketches is now 166 years old, and has well and truly stood the test of time, I can see how it is a classic of the highest order. That other brilliant Russian author, Nabokov, rated the great Russian authors with Tolstoy first, Pushkin and Chekhov second, and Turgenev third (ahead of Gogol and Dostoevsky). According to Nabokov, of the Russian authors, Pushkin loses the most in translation.

What I find most interesting is not so much the actual reading of the book, which of course is worth every moment, but how Turgenev and this particular work fit into my bumbling reading scheme. I met a man just recently who had an achievement style he coined "Managing by bumbling along". It seemed to work for him, and, in my reading, at least, it seems to be working out quite well. While there does seem to be a logic that a smarter reader might follow, I do enjoy the various surprises I discover while reading back and forth between the classics, the early twentieth century authors, and the present.

Turgenev gives an eye-opening account of life during the end of Russian serfdom. One imagines it was eons ago, but one only has to consider that the transportation of convicts was still in full-swing in 1850s Australia to understand that this period in history was far removed from life in the Anglo democracies today. Without Turgenev's work, we would lack many primary sources into the life of the Russian peasant. That one can read and still enjoy reading such works today is remarkable.

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