I have just finished reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (published in 1862). I first read the novel some thirty years ago (I really have no idea when, but it must have been somewhere between 1974 and 1984). I was not very impressed by it, and filed it away in my mind in the bin labeled “overrated.” Then, for reasons completely obscure to me, I re-read it sometime in the past ten years. This time I was very moved. Bazarov, the main character, is a self-proclaimed “nihilist.” But, in fact, the novel shows that he is a very intelligent, very energetic, very talented young man from a lower middle class background (in so much as that terminology makes any sense in the Russian context). Through education, Bazarov has acquired what is a perhaps exalted sense of his talents, but his self-conceit (the novel’s term) is justified by the strong impact he has on others. He is a force. But he is a baffled force because Russia offers no outlet for his talents. Turgenev portrays a paralysed society, one that is in the process of dismantling its feudal past. The novel is set in 1859, even though it was written in the wake of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs. It clearly presents Russia as incapable of making the transition to modernity, to a rent/wage system of labor, even as Turgenev holds no truck with serfdom. What moved me was the portrait of a well-meaning (even if boorish) young man frustrated (in the deepest sense of that term) by his dysfunctional society.
So I decided to teach the novel. My recent re-reading is for my class–and I will be interested to see how they respond to it because, perhaps in the effort to see it through their eyes, I have found the novel less satisfying this time around.
Paralysis certainly seems to describe the US today. Yes, it is true we live in turbulent times. But all the sound and fury really seems to signify nothing since our dysfunctional neoliberal order only becomes more entrenched, more immune to any reform or revision. Our public discourse barely attends to our society’s ills: homelessness, racism, declining wages, ecological disaster (the list could go on). And the openings for the talented young are being eroded away. No jobs for our PhDs, for our lawyers, for our idealistic young. Politics is no place for someone with a conscience, and neither is business. Where does one get a purchase on this disaster we are inhabiting? This semester, in both my classes, my students exhibit a world-weary cynicism that alarms me. They expect nothing from our politics and our society; they view it as rotten to the core, and take attaining their own separate peace, their own precarious niche within it, as the only path forward available to them.
Reading the novel this time, I found it meandering. True, I now find E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End too formulaic in its presentation of the alternative paths open to England in 1910. Turgenev, like Forster, is writing a “condition of the nation” novel that ponders its future in relation to question of who shall inherit it. (Hence the generational focus of the title.) Unlike Forster, Turgenev offers a much more muddled portrait of the issues. His characters are harder to allegorize as representatives of concrete alternatives, and his interest in thwarted love affairs undercuts the analysis of larger social questions. In short, Turgenev can seem as baffled as his characters, lacking himself a clear vision of the social scene he is trying to portray. Since, like Chekhov, he mostly presents characters who are unable to act, and unlike Joyce in Dubliners, he suppresses any contempt for his paralysed protagonists, the result is a wide-ranging sympathy that seems ineffectual both as a narrative stance and as a political one. His novel, I think, is not angry enough, is not shot through with indignation. Even Bazarov tends to me more angry with himself, with his failures to be as tough in reality as he is in imagination, than he is with his society.
Joyce seems cruel because he blames the victims in Dubliners, never really zooming out to consider the social conditions that feed their paralysis, their despair, their pathetic stratagems for getting through the day. What Turgenev gives us instead is a kind of melancholic despair; he can see the social mess clearly, but sees no way to amend it, and is not inclined to blame anyone for it. Most everyone in the novel is well-meaning even if ineffectual. His satire is reserved for social climbers. And he quite frankly–in a remarkable passage–admits that the peasants are completely incomprehensible. They exist in a separate universe, their motives and psychology an utter mystery to their betters–and to the novelist himself. That gulf is unbridgeable in either direction–and seemingly insures that no progress, no planned change, can ever be achieved.
The parallels to our own time are real enough. There is certainly a gulf between Trump voters and the social worlds that I inhabit. The economic powers that be have managed to date to reap the whirlwind of racism, xenophobia, and class resentment, have managed to keep the essential structures that underwrite their power in place. I dislike apocalyptic scenarios, the ones that rely on a day of reckoning to give the “establishment” (as we used to call it) its comeuppance. Climate disaster is only the latest in a long list of such apocalypses that radicals look toward. Yet it is impossible to read Turgenev and Chekhov, to inhabit their tales of social paralysis, without thinking of how that paralysis led to 1917.