Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) was a major Russian novelist, and when I saw Fathers and Sons as an audio book at the library, I grabbed it for my ‘Year of Russian Reading’. It was first published in 1862 and immediately provoked controversy by offending almost all classes of Russian society.
There is not a great deal of action in this most interesting book: it is mainly dialogue, mostly between two young friends dissecting what’s wrong with 19th century Russian society (not long before the Revolution). While studying at the University of Petersburg young Arkady Kirsanov meets Evgeny Bazarov (who is studying to be a doctor), and is so attracted by his intellect that he invites him home to Marino, the family estate in the provinces. What follows is a classic tale of a generation gap: Bazarov is a nihilist who acknowledges no authority, no ideals and no purpose to life. He likes arguing for the sake of it, and he doesn’t care who he offends – he doesn’t agree with old-fashioned ideas about being polite to one’s hosts! His radical attacks on convention appal Arkady’s father Nikolai and uncle Pavel, and while Nikolai seems to nurse his disquiet privately and is willing to overlook Bazarov’s views because he is so pleased to have Arkady at home, his brother Pavel is most indignant about Bazarov’s rudeness. This hostility culminates in the most dramatic scene in the book, which I’ll leave readers to discover for themselves.
To show the extent of Bazarov’s casual attitude to the feelings of others, Turgenev’s plot then takes them to visit the home of Anna Odintsova in a neighboring province. She is the nearest a woman can be to being an intellectual in a society that denies women education. The men’s friendship is tested on and off during the novel when they think they are in competition for the same woman but ultimately Arkady defers to his domineering friend and takes an interest in Anna’s sister Katya instead.
Anna enjoys sparring with Bazarov who lectures her loud and long about how nothing (including love) has any value. But Anna’s interest in Bazarov is intellectual not emotional. At 29, and a rich widow, she has liberal opinions but is very set in her ways and she fears the change that an emotional attachment would bring. Ironically it is Bazarov who eventually abandons his pride and admits his feelings for her. But, doomed to unhappiness because of his philosophy, Bazarov fails to arouse her affections and his temerity gets a frosty reception. The young men leave with emotions running high but nothing resolved.
Next the young men visit Bazarov’s family, where his own mother Irina can’t understand his blasé attitude to family life. She weeps copious tears because of his neglect of her and although she is proud of his achievements, when he leaves she grieves like a ‘mushroom in the soil that can’t fly after him’. By now Arkady is missing Katya and his relationship with Bazarov is a bit
hormonal testy - they almost have a punch-up. Things go from bad to worse when they return to Marino, and eventually Arkady sets off to woo Katya while Bazarov stays behind to foster further enmity from Uncle Pavel. Things do not end well for Bazarov…
Each character represents a type in Russian society. The younger generation symbolise reformers. Bazarov represents the young radical intelligentsia that would overthrow prevailing values and lead the revolution. He is brash and unkind, with a utilitarian attitude towards people, and one can only feel that Odintsova is better off without him, (especially since he ends up flirting with Nikolai’s concubine). Arcady is a dilettante, attracted to Bazarov because his ideas are new and different, but deep down he’s offended by his friend’s offhand behaviour. Arkady is an unreliable follower.
The older generation symbolise conservatism, resistance to change and barriers to change. Pavel represents the intransigent aristocracy, unwilling to listen to any ideas about reform,and easily provoked to violence when their interests are threatened. Nikolai, on the other hand is a bit more adaptable, but isn’t interested in any change that would compromise his own personal comfort. He represents those who just want a quiet life and will stand by and do nothing while progress passes them by. There are also sceptical peasants and servants who we (with the hindsight of history) know will soon have the upper hand over these aristocrats who have nothing better to do than talk…
The story is read with great flair by Anthony Heald.