This is only the second of Turgenev's books I've read to date, and it was much
more comprehensible than the first,
Fathers and Sons, about
the Nihilism movement in Russia. Russian political philosophies can be quite complicated and challenging. This book contains two short stories, both dealing
with social issues, but more general, and not specific to Russia. They are easy to read and both quite fascinating and entertaining. Both are stories of
romance, and First Love is said to be autobiographical.
The Diary of a Superfluous Man comes first and it is the shorter of the two, 40 pages as compared with 50 for First Love in this Dover edition. It is about Tchulkaturin, a man of thirty who is on the verge of death. He looks back on his life, and determines that the best way to describe himself is superfluous. He decides to write a diary as he lies in bed waiting to die. His old nurse, Terentyevna takes care of him.
He tells a bit about his early childhood. His mother was kind but cold, and his father was a compulsive gambler, which, along with drunkenness and violence seem to be particularly common maladies of nineteenth-century Russian life. His father drove the family into poverty, leaving them with only one small estate.
(It is his father that is loved in both stories, though neither fathers are good examples of humanity. In Turgenev's own childhood, too, his mother was cold and cruel, often beating him.)
After the preliminaries, the rest of the story focuses on a business visit to the town of "O___" (fictional towns are often unnamed in novels of this century, and not only in Russian literature). There he meets an important man of the town, Kirilla Matveitch Ozhogin with a lovely young daughter, Elizaveta Kirillovna, "Liza," with whom he falls madly in love. At first they are friends, but one day as a group of people go for a walk, he and Liza go off together. She suddenly begins to cry, and from that point on, she barely speaks to Tchulkaturin. She seems no longer a child now, and he believes she is in love with him. But his hopes are dashed when a charming prince arrive in the village, and spends much time in the Ozhogin household. It is obvious that Liza and the prince have fallen in love.
At a dance, Tchulkaturin insults the prince, who then challenges him to a duel (another Russian malady!). Tchulkaturin (who has never fought a duel), accidentally shoots and grazes the prince's forehead, and the duel is cancelled. Now everyone in the village hates him.
It is assumed that the prince will ask for Liza's hand in marriage, but instead he states he has no intention of marrying, and leaves the village quickly. Tchulkaturin is immediately back in good favor for recognizing that the prince was a scoundrel; everyone except for Liza, who now hates him.
In First Love, three older men meet and agree to tell of their first loves. The first said he married his, the second said it was his nurse, at age six, but the third, Vladimir Petrovitch, requests the opportunity to write out his story, because it is long and out of the ordinary. When they meet again, he reads what he has written.
Vladimir Petrovitch, of Moscow, recalls the summer when he was sixteen years old, preparing to enter the university. The family had taken a country house near the Neskutchny gardens. He was an only child, and had little to do with his cold mother. His father had moments of warmth and kindness. Vladimir Petrovitch spent his time alone and wandering about.
Soon after, a widowed Princess Zasyekin and her daughter arrive next door. They are extremely poor, and the princess is fat and slovenly. The daughter, Zinaïda Alexandrovna, however is 21, beautiful and slyly flirtatious. They make the acquaintance of Vladimir's family. His mother is repelled by the princess, who is vulgar, but Vladimir falls instantly in love with the daughter. Being just sixteen, he really doesn't understand what she is about. She has an entourage of suitors, none of whom she cares for, but invites them all to hang around her and play silly games. Vladimir becomes one of them. The others try to warn Vladimir to not take her seriously.
His feelings intensify throughout the story, longing for her love, while she continues to lead him on. She does, however, fall for someone, and Vladimir is shocked when he finds out who it is.
These two stories are easy to read and entertaining, while giving one a taste of that typical Russian flavor, which is unique in literature; (and I've read quite a few Russian novels). Turgenev was quite prolific, and Project Gutenberg offers numerous English translations of his writings as free eBooks, so I will no doubt explore this famous author more in the future.
Below: Images of the beautiful Neskuchny Gardens in Moscow.
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