Fathers and Sons

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Some weeks ago, I read an article in a newspaper that contained this striking sentence:

For the first time in history, teenagers can say to their parents, “You’re, like, so lame,” and deep down, the parents may wonder whether their kids are right ….

The author of that sentence can surely never have read Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

Fathers and Sons is one of those books that is admired as much for its prophetic as for its literary qualities. The shadow of 1917 hangs heavy over the book. One character, a young doctor named Basarov, expresss the radical rejection of all convention and morality – and the brutal indifference to human life and happiness – that would soon submerge all Russia. Basarov’s eventual fate – a pointless and easily avoidable accidental death – likewise foreshadows the horror ahead. Fathers and Sons was published a half century before the October revolution, in 1862. That half century of prevision has caused Russian critics to dub Basarov, “the first Bolshevik.”

I first read Fathers and Sons as a college student. I had been working my way through Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The personality of Turgenev loomed large in their lives. Dostoyevsky in particular was bitterly jealous of his Turgenev’s wealth and affable personality, and launched a series of literary attacks upon him. Yet all acknowledged him as the first and pathfinding voice of the great age of the Russian novel. So I turned to his masterwork with eagerness … only to be shocked and bored.

Where was the epic clash of generations promised by the title? The story opens with a long dreary carriage ride through the flatlands of southern Russia. Two young men are returning home from their studies in Petersburg. One is the Basarov mentioned above. The other is a younger and less intelligent fellow-student, Kirsanov, who hero worships Basarov and mimics his ideas. They are met by Kirsanov’s doting father, a landowner of the provinces, who welcomes Basarov as his son’s guest.

They return to the Kirsanov estate, and potter about for some weeks of minor incidents. There are some short passages of argument between the two young radicals and the elder Kirsanov and his brother. Then the two young men go off to a nearby town ….

And that’s where I left off back in 1980 or whenever it was. There seemed no plot or point to the thing. This was the novel that had Russians arguing with each other for the next half century?

To appreciate the book, I needed a better understanding than I then possessed of the way in which 19th century Russians read and received literature.

Imagine this:

You are one of a tiny minority of educated people in a vast rural society that stretches over unimaginable distances, most of them unserviced even by railway. You are aware that your society is brutal and backward, and desperately in need of reform. Yet you are also aware that you know almost nothing about the desires, beliefs and daily habits of the subordinated 90% of the population. They are separated from you by a gulf radically different from that which separates the upper and lower classes of western Europe: They live on the land, in self-governing villages suspicious of all outsiders, subject to their own mysterious rules, customs and beliefs, restricting communication with outsiders to the absolute minimum.

You want to understand more. But you live in a repressive police state, and discussion is strictly policed. Yet there are areas of liberty. Discussion of literature and the arts enjoys more lattitude than discussion of politics and public policy. Well-born and well-connected personages enjoy more latitude than the poor and obscure.

That special latitude for the well-born is premised on another important fact about the society in which you live: It is deeply aristocratic and class-bound, and absolutely takes for granted that some human beings matter more than others. Indeed, it has trouble recognizing that the privileged few share anything but the most basic humanity with the unprivileged many. The few are always in the foreground of consciousness of their fellows; the many are grouped together in undifferentiated masses in the background.

These facts and habits of mind are the mental background against which the great Russian novels of society emerge. Almost the only way that elite Russians could think about their society was by seizing on artistic inventions of characters, generalizing those characters as types, and then using those types as tools to think with about the world around them.

A Basarov to them was not just a character in a novel. He was a representation of a certain tendency in society that elite Russians saw taking form around them – and that could be conceived and depicted in almost no other way than through the medium of narrative fiction.

Which is why this listlessly under-plotted book could have hit its readers like a bomb. Or rather, like a flare, illuminating what would otherwise have been shapeless in the dark.

Basarov is a threat of what might be – whose dark clarity contrasts painfully with the pitiful earnest fumbling uselessness of the elders of the Kirsanov family, the novel’s “fathers”: two brothers, cultured and liberal, who have freed their serfs and seek to live in Russia as if they were English gentleman farmers, collecting rents, playing the cello, dressing for dinner. Basarov ridicules the absurdity of this way of life, and indeed it does seem to be heading to disaster. The freed serfs cheat, steal, and destroy. The brothers’ patrimony threatens to dwindle away. Their culture seems doomed to be extinguished by the encroaching ignorance around them.

But it’s not as if Basarov has anything to offer. His nihilism is an absurdity too, ultimately exposed as such when he falls in love – and discovers he has no way even to think about the relations between men and women that is not coldly sexual. This way of thinking obviously cannot lead to much happiness. He is rebuffed; his only hope of happiness lost.

He dies stupidly, in a way that Turgenev’s readers would have been likely to describe as “typically Russian.” Basarov dissects a body infected with typhus and nicks himself. The local doctor’s office has no antibacterial agents, and he himself did not bother to bring any along before setting down to carve. He catches the disease he sought to analyze.

It’s a story to prey on the imagination – and has preyed on Russia’s for a century and a half, with abundant and powerful reason.

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