Monday, November 03, 2008

Turgenev : Gentry and Superfluousness

The Russian literary concept of the superfluous man is not new. Turgenev's diary of the superfluous man is well known and in the same tradition, a few writers have tried to elaborate on the same with varying results. However, it is within the ambit of the Russian conception that the superfluous man achieves his full trajectory, needless to say, it is superfluous anyway. I have just finished reading Turgenev's Home of the Gentry, in which, as happens in some of his better known works, the protagonist returns to the country and falls into the pattern of ideas and longing, memory and desire, politics and inaction, love and regret and usually some kind of a failure.

In brief, Lavretsky, our protagonist has returned to his country seat to resume his duties of the landed gentry. However, since he is the quintessential superfluous man, he has decided to plough the land. Herein, Lavretsky is not too dissimilar to us, for in deciding to return to his roots, he follows the well known arc of most of Turgenev's heroes. The difference is in age, in aspect and attire alone and not much in action itself. The main difference from a Bazarov or a Nezhdanov is that Lavretsky has moved away totally from action, from thoughts of any nihilistic nature and has decided to devote himself to solitude. He has somewhat recovered from a painful marriage only to find himself falling in love again with a relative of extreme sensitivity.

Lavretsky decides once again to find happiness only to realize after failing again that it is not possible either to find it or remain happy. In the meanwhile, we have the country seat wherein Lavretsky has a verbal duel with an old friend. This kind of scene is the essence of the Russian literary novel and we have the forerunners of all kinds of storms that were to fall on the Russian scene enacted in Lavretsky's country abode. The difference again is in the manner and convictions of Lavretsky, who in his ploughing of the land maxim, has moved towards the later theories of Bazarov and Nezhdanov, towards the Russianness of Russia, towards Rus, towards some kind of slavophilia and away from Europe. However, Turgenev is no Dostoevsky and his opinions are never extreme or morbid. In his finality, Lavretsky is trying to achieve within his personal space a kind of meaning, to his life and the lives of others around him.

Home of the gentry is not Turgenev's best novel but to understand his entire oeuvre, it is still an essential read. We have all of his usual stylistics, the great descriptions of the countryside, the almost peaceful and sombre paintings of home and hearth and the surrounding anarchy, the passion and the flux of the peasantry. It has his usual motifs without the elan of his later works but the signs are there for further greatness to come. The ideal superfluous man finds full expression here with all his mental passions, his verbal gimmickry, his play and pain and solitude, idealism and love, failure and inaction. We have to look no further to see how Turgenev finds the roots of this superfluous man deep in native soil and find all his rolling angst within.

Alok at Dispatches has in the past devoted a few posts to the concept of the superfluous man and I attach the links. Suffice it to say that with Turgenev, the Russian novel becomes truly great and without his warm passion and steady outlook, it would amount to mere Literature.

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