#205. A BUNCH OF RUSSIANS. A Hero of Our Time, by Lermontov, has been called the first Russian psychological novel; its protagonist, Pechorin, has been called an example of the Byronic Hero, of the anti-hero, an exemplar of his period and place; but it would be a shame to read the book as a document of any type, historical or psychological. It is a vividly told tale, its landscapes are worthy of Hardy, and its five distinct sections, with their involuted time scheme, are like nothing so much as a piece of sculpture, at the end of which its main character has been revealed in the round: complex, troubling, even mysterious. Despite its compactness—my copy in translation runs, with introduction, to 185 pages—it has a bundle of lively and convincing supporting characters, a finely realized setting in the Caucasus, and, in its longest chapter, “Princess Mary,” a staggering denouement, in which a duel between two men ruins, scattershot, a half dozen lives. The portrait of Pechorin, as much a puzzlement and provocation to himself as to us, has a stubborn grip—it will stay with you well after the book is closed.
In Torrents of Spring, Turgenev’s prose purls along with splendid fluency and proportion; like Lermontov, he’s a dab hand at landscape, and the characters are sketched in with speed and a just sufficiency of color. As with Hero of Our Time, there’s a duel, the effects of which are shot through with irony, and come to roost at a more leisurely pace. Its shape, Turgenev was quick to admit, is far from perfect; the autobiographical immediacy of it dragged him along almost against his will, and when the (memorably repulsive) Ippolit Polozov and his wife show up, the mood lurches towards the dark; it’s as if Laclos had grabbed the reins and taken over. The wife, Maria Nikolaevna, is thought to be based on Turgenev’s abusive mother, and she’s more than the story can handle: it’s like using a tactical nuclear device to kill a deer. But the story pulls us on, for all that we may wish to look away, and the denouement, with the characters still so strangely bound to each other, evokes the entangled pathos of our own fierce romantic joys and betrayals.
The famous first chapters of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground are always treated as a searing self-revelation and an exposition of his “deepest beliefs.”
One critic called them “his most utterly naked pages, “ and an exposure of “the inmost recesses, unmeant for display, of his heart.” I’m not sure it’s anything of the sort. A reader of the Russian language once said to me that translation tends to disguise the humor, sometimes Dickensian, often absurdist, of Dostoyevsky’s prose, and reading these pages I felt myself caught up in a disturbing, way-out-on-the-edge comedy, of a man whose thoughts are an obsessive maelstrom of self-contradiction and self-correction—a constant psychic version of spell-check, stop-and-go done at ninety miles an hour. The result is arresting, unique, unutterably strange and undeniably, terribly funny. It’s horrific and torturous, and it goes on way too long—anything more than three pages would be too long—but his logorrhea is, of course, the point. In the second part of the story, as the narrator interacts with other people, we see the snowballing results of this, all the while noting how his disasters are both causes and effects, and we feel the tragic end of it; it’s affecting, but in some ways more conventional. It finishes with the perfect non-ending: after the narrator says he’s done, we read, “This is not the end, however, of the ‘Notes’ of this paradoxical character. He could not help going on. But to us too it seems a good place to stop.” And from there we hear not only Dostoyevsky’s narrator but see a long bleak glimpse forward to many Russians, many Germans, Kafka certainly, and, of course, Beckett: “’Shall we go?’ ‘Yes, let’s go.’ They do not move.’” Dostoyevsky’s unnamed narrator may be isolated but he is not alone.
In his long story The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy demonstrates that haunting penetration that makes us feel at times he simply knows more about the human race than most of us. It follows, first, the agonized polite responses to the death of a respected and even liked local official: he captures the pronounced weirdness of death visits, when everyone should be thinking of one thing only and is likely occupied by everything else—several characters, while consoling Ivan Ilych’s widow, are also trying to fit in a round of cards later in the evening. No one is quite touched to the core; even the widow does some bargaining over the price of a burial plot. The focus then shifts to the illness and dying of Ivan Ilych himself—the man who has been a consistent social success, by the most fine and respected means., and for whom wholeness, joy, have always been expected, rarely felt. The progress of the illness is inexorable; Ivan Ilych’s reactions are a back-and-forth of hope, fear, irascibility and despair. The story keeps us inside Ivan Ilych’s mind and soul until the unavoidable end, without rush or detour, and very few works of literature have looked so directly and unsparingly at the topic. Turgenev once shrewdly characterized Tolstoy as a mixture of “poet, Calvinist, fanatic, aristocrat,” though in this story the fanatic at least is somewhat in abeyance. As the climax approaches the Calvinist does put his toe out and trips Tolstoy up a bit as he heads for the finish line; but it doesn’t ameliorate the mounting effect of the dying process. Early on Tolstoy says “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” This sounds at first like one of those chesty statements novelists are prone to, but Tolstoy, in the end, succeeds in convincing us of that Ivan Ilych’s life and death, down to his final thought, have indeed been simple, ordinary and—in the fullest sense of that complex word—terrible.
There are any number of translations of all of these stories. The translation by Vladimir and Dmitri Nabokov of Hero of Our Time is still in print from Anchor Books; it’s good and has a terrific introduction. Some translations of the Turgenev call it Spring Torrents rather than Torrents of Spring. Constance Garnett, the doyenne of Russian translation, did Spring Torrents; I also very much liked Leonard Schapiro’s version, for Penguin Books. With Notes from Underground translators have finally left off the definite article, as in Notes from the Underground, which would place D’s narrator on London transport—probably on the endless looping of the Circle Line. Jesse Coulson’s translation for Penguin Books seemed fine and natural to me. The Death of Ivan Ilych I read in Aymer Maude’s version, in a Signet paperback.