On Love: Turgenev Style

The statue of Mumu in front of her eponymous café in St. Petersburg. Photo by Grant Schutz [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia.

First Love and Other Stories (Worlds Classics)First Love and Other Stories by Ivan Turgenev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is something about Turgenev's work that distinguishes him from other famous Russian authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. His tone is masculine yet romantic in a forlorn way - maybe he had his unrequited love, married opera singer Pauline Viardot, in mind. It seems to convey a darker, Russian version of saudade

Hemingway said that for him, writing fiction was like boxing with Turgenev, Maupassant, and Stendhal. There are certainly some similarities in Hemingway's work.

I am just getting in to War and Peace and I would compare Tolstoy to Virginia Woolf. That's how different the two famous Russian authors convey their stories. Both great authors, but very different in style.

I enjoyed Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album (A Sportsman's Sketches), but I only knew of this book because Hemingway mentioned it in one of his non-fiction collections I have read.

First Love and other stories is very different from either Sketches or Fathers and Sons. I have  not read Torrents of Spring yet. (Hemingway's first novella had the same name.)  I discovered this book because either Harold Bloom or Italo Calvino (I cannot remember which one) said that 'King Lear of the Steppes' was one of the greatest short stories (or is it long-form?) of all time.

Each of the stories are brilliant. Each has a sense of gloom about them. Not in the annoying way, but in that untranslatable saudade way. Not gloom, but so close to life. Something akin to that feeling that you have when you remember a past hurt.

You wouldn't go back to it - indeed, you had forgotten all about it until one day it just appears in front of you while you are watering the garden or doing the laundry. But there it is, and you feel sad for a moment, and then laugh, and then move on. 

But you remember the hurt, it just doesn't hurt so much anymore. (Unless of course you are on a complete downer, so don't do that.)

There is something about Turgenev that makes his long-form hard to read. I didn't find this with Fathers and Sons so much, but I found the same thing with Sketches. When I reflect on the stories, every one of them was enjoyable, but all of them require a bit of effort.

I don't know how to explain that effort, but I had the same experience with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. When I look at the book now, it is tiny, but it took a while to get through, even though I thought it was brilliant and I have since watched the movie starring Dirk Bogarde a few times. This then sent me off to read Bogarde's work (which I find easy and enjoyable to read).

Turgenev requires effort. In the way that going for a run requires effort. Once you have the miles in your legs, it is splendid. If you haven't run for years, it is almost impossible. I find that Turgenev requires a clear head and a commitment to read, but it is worth every effort.

Just don't turn to Turgenev when you are looking for a light read. It's a bit like going for a sprint when you haven't run for years. Same difference.