Monday, October 17, 2011

Turgenev vs. Tolstoy (or, the Dual That Never Happened)

Book Reviewed:  First Love, by Ivan Turgenev (Note: The copy I read does not include a translation credit, not even in the library records for the book.  I apologize for this oversight.)

When I find myself having conversations about Russian literature, I often meet people who claim they don't read much 19th-century Russian lit because the books are so long and complex.  To this, I always suggest that they go out and read some Ivan Turgenev.  Turgenev did not do big books.  Most of his work is made up of  stories, novellas, and short novels.  A couple of years ago, I read his most famous book, Fathers and Sons (which is incredible, by the way), and could not believe how much Turgenev managed to cram into those 200-some pages.  That particular novel manages to touch on some major themes about family and loyalty and lifestyle choices but does it with surprising brevity.  Obviously, this puts Turgenev in direct contrast to my favorite Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy is not a minimalist.  He's the literal God of his own work.  I have never known another writer so obsessed with controlling how his books are read.  I'm not even talking about the overtly philosophical sections his books often contain.  When I talk about his OCD over his own work, I mean to suggest that his worlds are so fully constructed that they allow very little readerly intervention.  In War and Peace, entire pages are devoted to describing a particular room.  His created worlds are so all-encompassing that they end up controlling the way you read the book.  This isn't to say that you can't analyze Tolstoy's novels while you read them.  In fact, that's about the only way you can approach them (although I will always argue that he's actually a lot of fun to read once you get used to his style).  But there's no negative space, not like the kind we often see in Dickens, another writer of big books (who always seems to know when to quit while he's ahead when it comes to description, I think). 

I think this is one of the reasons my brain starts to short out when I place Turgenev and Tolstoy next to each other in any given context.  They are just so different!  This extends to their personal lives, as well.  They were "friends" who constantly disagreed.  Tolstoy once even challenged Turgenev to a dual, only to end up taking it back.  It's hard to imagine that they ever managed to be in one room at the same time.  Where Tolstoy is all about control and filling all the imaginable spaces of his fiction, Turgenev relies an awful lot on the reader's ability to imagine the world the characters inhabit.

Last week, I read one of Turgenev's most famous novellas, First Love.  It's a fairly simple premise.  Vladimir Petrovich remembers his first love as a sixteen-year-old living in the countryside.  Stuck somewhere between childish emotions and adult desires, Vladimir ends up falling for the slightly older girl next door, Zinaida.  Zinaida is poor, tempestuous, and magnetic.  She has a variety of suitors constantly trying to get her attention.  Zinaida seems especially fond of Vladimir, although she ultimately sees him only as a child.  As the story continues, we get a revelation involving the actual love of Zinaida's life, then follow this revelation as it affects Vladimir over time.  It's a breezy read, but it has a lot going for it, especially in the final thirty pages, when things get particularly interesting.

Like he does in Fathers and Sons, Turgenev just barely sets his scenes, letting the character interactions take up all the figurative room.  And in First Love, he gives narrative control over to his protagonist, in whose first-person voice we see all the action.  It's as different from Tolstoy as you can get.

In the literary dual of Turgenev and Tolstoy, there is no clear winner.  Obviously, I am a Tolstoy fanatic.  But the things I hate about Tolstoy - his constant philosophizing, his obsession with specific family ideals - are the very things that Turgenev so artfully avoids.  If Tolstoy is the God who controls how his books are read, then he also acts as the ultimate judge of his worlds.  Turgenev never seems to judge his characters.  They just exist as they do on the page, which I appreciate.  Tolstoy is a better writer because of just how immersing his books are, but Turgenev gets points for allowing the reader to do his or her own thing with what the author chooses to give.

And in the end, it all comes down to what I love most about Russian novels.  In my praise for Tolstoy's Resurrection last winter, I mentioned that what made that book for me was its depiction of quiet, domestic moments.  Those small, seemingly unimportant scenes are what allow for the feelings of devastation Tolstoy's books always create in me.  Turgenev works in the exact same way.  He's an author who's at his best when he's concentrating on the little things people say, the small acts they commit for good or bad.  This is the genius of Russian literature, whether we're talking the hulking beasts of Tolstoy's oeuvre or the short one-offs of Turgenev: that they handle the big and small with equal attention, thereby creating reading experiences that never fail to absorb me. 

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