"This book - a love story, a devastating and bitterly funny social satire, and , perhaps most movingly of all, a heartfelt celebration of the immense beauty of the Russian countryside - is a tragic masterpiece in which one of the world's finest novelists confronts the enduring question of the place of happiness in a political world."--BOOK JACKET.
Probably the biggest source of discomfort to those in power was the depiction of noblemen with outdated ideas, and their clinging to power and silly customs. They’d endured the emancipation of the serfs, but now exploited them in other ways, such as loaning them money and charging exorbitant interests, thereby keeping them under their thumbs. In one telling scene, the noblemen have no real understanding of the factory they own, but in the words of one character, “for getting concessions for railroads, founding banks, begging some tax-exemption for themselves, or anything of the sort, none are a match for the gentry.”
The would-be revolutionaries have the right intentions, but have difficulty truly connecting to the peasants they seek to uplift, and the peasants in turn don’t seem to have the intellectual capacity to understand them. In one scene the peasants simply get one of them drunk, as he (somewhat symbolically) has no taste for their alcohol, and no ability to hold it.
So you have the outmoded masters of Russia almost inevitably doomed, the peasants as an ignorant mass, and those who would seek change a bunch of disorganized intellectuals. It’s not a very sanguine picture, though Turgenev offers a ray of hope in the character of Solomin, who is not only smart at running a factory, but who is also steady and stable in his march towards progress, without undue revolutionary rhetoric.
There is a love story, but it’s somewhat simple and uninspiring. The more interesting character is Valentina Mihalovna, a beauty who takes enjoyment out of conquering men with her feminine charms, without the intention of loving them in return. Turgenev demonstrates his understanding of psychology in this and other characters, and does give us some nice imagery at times:
“They walked together to the house, pensive, blissful; the young grass caressed their feet, the young leaves stirred about them; patches of light and shade flittered swiftly over their garments; and they both smiled at the restless frolic of the light, and the merry bluster of the wind, and the fresh glitter of the leaves, and at their own youth and one another.”
I wish there had been more of that sort of thing, which you see in earlier works by Turgenev.
Just one other quote:
“It is a well-known fact, though by no means easy to understand, that Russians are the greatest liars on the face of the earth, and yet there is nothing they respect like truth – nothing attracts them so much.”
The book is divided into two parts and I find a marked difference in quality. The first half is somewhat rambling and almost a little directionless as Turgenev artificially forces in encounters he need not, just in order to broaden the novel's scope. It's not a bad first half by any means, it's just not great and doesn't feel too much like Turgenev.
The second part of the story is much better - this reads like proper Turgenev. The build up to the climax is excellent and the collapse of so much of what was constructed is especially pitiable. Turgenev's familiar themes resurface with as much force as they ever had in his previous novels.
So, the first part isn't brilliant, but the second half really raises this novel back up to Turgenev's usual, high standards.
But it's worth persevering with Part 1 to get to Part 2, and especially to the last 100 pages, as the "going to the people" movement of young 1860s upper-class intellectuals comes harshly up against reality. The narrative fully comes into focus as it hurries to its conclusion, with neither the radicals nor the established order coming off very well. I wouldn't recommend this as your first Turgenev novel, but Turgenev fans should stick with this one.
This is not that at all.
The upper class activists are here. Are they wealthy? Not seemingly, but they also seem to have money. They are not peasants. This book is more of a satire of these sort of people--from Petersburg, they want to improve the lives of peasants. And they run around passing out pamphlets and generally being ignored by the peasants they are "helping". Or they are being turned in by those peasants. The peasants can't read, and they are busy working or drinking. There is even a noble landowner doing the same thing--who is arrested.
Who is sympathetic to this cause but actually doing something? The factory manager. He has succeeded in starting a school at the factory, and has had some adults taught to read. He believes in small steps that are doable.
So this books is a satire, but it is also a romance. And not a great romance--not that I am a fan of romance. It is here that this book is sad and depressing--the missed and nearly missed pairi9ngs are depressing.
So--it's a fine book with a touch too much romance. Just not what I was expecting and hoping for. I'd prefer less nobles and more peasants.