Some Recent Biographies
Turgenev: The Man--His Art—and His Age. By Avrahlr Yarmolinsky. (Hodder and Stoughton. 20s.) ADMIRERS of Turgenev will be grateful to Mr. Yarmolinsky for this book, although it is in certain respects unsatisfactory- It is jerkily written and affords little sense of continuity. The author's researches, we are told, carried him from New lot* to:London, Berlin, Leningrad, and Moscow, but the sources of his information, much of which his not hitherto been published, are not revealed in any- detail. However, if the hook is not wholly satisfying, it is of absorbing interest, and the facts connected with the novelist's career, together
with frequent analyses of his tempemment and character, are clearly and coldly set out. Mr. Yarmolinsky is not too kind a critic, but the diligence he has displayed in the pursuit of his task is the real measure of his enthusiasm for his subject.
Ivan Turgenev was born on October 28th, 1818. During his early years he was dominated by his mother, whose tragedy it was to be passionate without being lovable, a woman with immense vigour of personality and strong sadistic tendencies. " In her meagre person she combined a grande dame ' and a barbaric matriarch." She beat her serfs and she beat her sons, including Ivan, for whom she developed an almost morbid maternal passion. Subsequently, " unequal to the task of combating her severities and vagaries, he simply withdrew, an attitude which sorely vexed her." She deluged him in Berlin with letters, nervous, exaggerated, and passionate, to which he made no reply ; for he was, in truth, " too much oppressed by her domineering complacency to appreciate that shrewd, graceful apprehension of experience which she bequeathed to him."
At the age of fourteen Turgenev passed through what Mr. Yarmolinsky describes as an obscure crisis. He became seriously ill, and from being, in his own words, small, morose and fond of mathematics, emerged from the sick-bed tall, weak-willed, fond of verses, literature, and inclined to dreaminess.
The characteristics which were to shape his whole life now began to reveal themselves. An almost feminine self- consciousness and power of self-analysis developed into the tremendous capacity for detached psychological obser- vation which was to achieve for him an immortal fame. Turgenev determined to write " objectively " and he succeeded. He interposes neither faith (which he never possessed) nor opinions, nor his own personality, between the characters, which stand out so starkly against the vast background of Russia, and the reader. Sex played an important part in his life. He believed that any permanent relation with a woman was fatal to an artist, and demanded variety, not satisfaction—every woman to be approached as a potential mistress. He found he could work best when " the page was warmed by the glow of a casual affair," but in fact he withdrew from almost every love affair upon which he embarked, sometimes with little credit to himself, and always after a characteristic display of irresolution. In the cir- cumstances he was probably best placed on a paw of Mme. Viardot's famous bearskin. He took up this position in 1844, and there he remained. It carried him to Paris and to Baden, and for the future he divided his time between Western Europe and Spasskoye, with singularly felicitous results.
At thirty he was scribbling away at A Sportsman's Sketches, and by 1856 his tales were gathered into three volumes, which met with " a cool reception." He suffered from ill-health, and abandoned himself to an orgy of despair and self-misery. He went to Rome in the winter of 1857, and there wrote a short story—Asya—which must have afforded him the encouragement of which at this critical period he stood in sore need. It is a perfect specimen of his work. The earnest, well-intentioned irresolute young man ; the girl chaste, ardent, bewildered ; the dawn of passion, exquisitely described; the inevitable crash. " Here the hunter is tracking down no less a quarry than youth itself."
Thereafter all went forward quickly and smoothly. Four months at Spasskoye produced The House of Gentlefolk, which laid the foundations of his fame as a novelist, and which contains passages of the most delicate and poignant beauty, such as the love-scene between Liza and Lavretsky, and the latter's subsequent encounter with the old musician Lemm. It is interesting to observe, with Mr. Yarmolinsky, Turgenev's homage to the romantic Germany of his youth through the character of Lemm, his harsh treatment of Paris, and his determination to separate his own personality from that of his beloved Lavretsky.
With Fathers and Children it is impossible to deal here. Did Turgenev realize as, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he wrote the final sentences, that the reverberations of this book would echo through the twentieth century ? That fifty years hence the sombre challenging figure of Bazarov, his master-creation, would hold men's minds as it does ?
In an age of realism, aspiring authors would do well to ponder his advice : " Be truthful, especially about your own sensations : deepen and extend your experience through study : be free to doubt everything, even the worth of your own nation ; above all, do not let yourself be caught in the trap of any dogmatism."
Neither the artist nor the politician can afford to ignore Turgenev. And for a study of his life and work Mr. Yarmo- linsky's biography is clearly essential.