Even in his most obvious politically oriented novels, Ivan Turgenev's novels have a constant theme of love running through them and even the most dedicated of his nihilist revolutionaries has one or another kind of heartache. But I want to refer not to his great novels but to his longish short stories, a medium that Turgenev exploits brilliantly, tailor made as it seems for the subtle evocation of mood and character, humour and comedy, romance and tragedy, themes that are so evident in his stories.
I am referring first to his story called Asya, the idea of which was conceived whilst Turgenev was adrift in a boat on the Rhine. Asya has often been unfavourably compared to his masterpiece First Love but in no way is Asya inferior.
Asya lives on a hilltop with his brother Gagin in a small town on the Rhine. One day they meet the narrator of the story N, and being Russians they drift into small talk.This leads to further meetings and soon the narrator thinks that he is in love with Asya. But Asya is a free spirit, her own emotions and feelings are hidden from her, for she does not know what feelings really are, what love is. Strange is Asya but stranger still the heart that beats inside her, a heart that makes her restless, agitated, happy and sad, almost simultaneously. In Asya, a kind of dual nature alternates rapidly, making her seem passionate and unfriendly and unpredictable.
The hero is young, Asya younger and soon we know that she was conceived illegitimately, Gagin only sharing a father with her. The moment of truth, when Asya wants to hear the word Love from the narrator's mouth and the narrator's disbelief at his lack of understanding, of what he wants and what love means leads to unhappiness in the end. Everything could be linked to her birth, this matter is not far from her mind and as sometimes happens in these stories, the heroine must lose herself in a higher evocation, in a higher calling to redeem herself in her own eyes and lift her falling esteem. This is either in joining a monastic order or in marrying an older richer person. What the hero must decide in practical life is actually quite different from the idealistic dreams of love or any other higher lofty idealism and this is made evident crushingly, in spite of the beautiful and serene scenic surroundings.
Contrast this with First Love, which is a tale written with superb restraint and a wonderful recalling of all that is so reminiscent of love , be it first or second. The emotion of love, evoked in our young narrator on seeing Zenochka is brilliantly described. There is no other greater master than Turgenev when it comes to evoking a mood, a sketch, however ephemeral or transitory it might be, whether it is a lake, a meadow or an inconstant wisp of cloud. The ecstasy of going through the emotion itself, the blush of first love, the hesitant stuttering doubts, the yes and the no, the torment of meetings, the nights, the separations and the usual accompaniments of love are all described vividly by Turgenev. However, Zenochka too sacrifices herself for another ideal and our hero, an adolescent lover is left baffled and scarred by her nature and behaviour. Zenochka has died, the hero is older and everybody can seemingly get on with life.
The greatness of this story is that even though at its heart it is a love story, I have always ( having read this story a few times) reflected on its real theme. Zenochka's unhappiness is the direct result of her poverty and her exploitation at the hands of the hero's father is the culminating crescendo of this story. But in Turgenev's hands, it does not seem so, for his vision is so supreme and his generosity so large that even his social protest lacks the ordinariness of simple rebellion and rises towards an aesthetic of expression. That there is a insurmountable distance between the likes of Zenochka and the hero is made clearer more through the process of portrayal than through any rhetorical device and as for the hero, his love is the pure symptom of adolescence and thus untainted.
The best aspect of the story is in the cast that Turgenev has assembled, the suitors or "lovers" of Zenochka, who, irrespective of time or season, revel in gay abandon as their mistress, at her whim or fancy summons them and then kills them for their sport. The character of Zenochka and her sublime inner beauty, the freshness of spirit and the radiance of her spontaneous actions is in marked contrast to either the later Turgenev heroine who is more confident, bold, always poor but generally a revolutionary, but calm and staid. Zenochka is so different to Lisa ( House of the Gentry) and markedly so from the Dostoevskyian heroine, who is always epileptic, usually tubercular, poor, illegitimate and is either about to die or will die later, betrayed or betraying.
Turgenev's love stories are about the reality of being actually unhappy and the small amounts of happiness that we encounter sometimes in our lives, whatever the time, climate or period.