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Thursday, September 20, 2012

On the Eve (Накану́не) by Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev














On the Eve (Накану́не)
 by Ivan Turgenev
published in 1860

  A common progression for classic 18th and19th century Novelists is a prior career writing literature besides Novels.  For example, Sir Walter Scott was well known for his verse.  Numerous Authors wrote plays before they wrote Novels.  Ivan Turgenev is another good example.  Turgenev was writing plays in the 1840s, short stories in the 1850s and Novels in the 1860s.

 If you look at his popularity among an English language Audience, it is clear that interest in Turgenev did not really pick up until the 20th century began.  If you look at what was happening in terms of criticism of Turgenev, it's easy to point to the publication of the 13 volume complete works of Ivan Turgenev in English, with a foreward by Henry James- published between 1903 and 1904. (1)  Henry James was ringing the bell for critical recognition of Turgenev as a "classic" Novelist as early as the 1890s.

 I think, obviously, you have to read an Ivan Turgenev Novel from the perspective of "Modern" rather then Victorian literature. The hero/anti-hero Insarov is a Bulgarian patriot who is obsessed with liberating Bulgaria from the Turks. He falls in love with Elena, who is a female protagonist who ranks with the subject of Madame Bovary for early-modernist portrayals of young women.

  Turgenev left Russia after the publication of his main work, Fathers and Sons in 1862.  Eventually he made his way to Paris, where Henry James describes meeting him for the first time:

       I  found reason to meet him, in Paris, where he was then living, in 1875. I shall never forget the impression he made upon me at that first interview. I found him adorable; I could scarcely believe that he would prove--that any man could prove--on nearer acquaintance so delightful as that. Nearer acquaintance only confirmed my hope, and he remained the most approachable, the most practicable, the least unsafe man of genius it has been my fortune to meet. He was so simple, so natural, so modest, so destitute of personal pretension and of what is called the consciousness of powers, that one almost doubted at moments whether he were a man of genius after all. Everything good and fruitful lay near to him; he was interested in everything; and he was absolutely without that eagerness of self-reference which sometimes accompanies great, and even small, reputations. He had not a particle of vanity; nothing whatever of the air of having a part to play or a reputation to keep up. His humour exercised itself as freely upon himself as upon other subjects, and he told stories at his own expense with a sweetness of hilarity which made his peculiarities really sacred in the eyes of a friend. I remember vividly the smile and tone of voice with which he once repeated to me a figurative epithet which Gustave Flaubert (of whom he was extremely fond) had applied to him--an epithet intended to characterise a certain expansive softness, a comprehensive indecision, which pervaded his nature, just as it pervades so many of the characters he has painted. (Ivan Turgenev by Henry James)

   Considering the role that Henry James played in terms both of criticism and original works in the history of Modern Literature, that is a significant endorsement that was being pitched to the Audience for literature in the early 20th century

.   It was also a push that distinctly came from the United States and France rather then England. Turgenev died in 1883- so the increase in Audience size for Turgenev in the 20th century was already happening before his death.

   It's almost more appropriate to read Turgenev with other books published in the first decade of the 20th century to get a good idea of how the largest Audience perceived his work.  The transition from Victorian to Modern was ongoing between 1850 to the 20th century, so you get works of both types during this period- Dickens was active up until his death in 1870.

  Understanding the birth of "Modernism" is just about the most important event for an Artist or critic to understand.  How Modernism impacted the Audience, how it impacted different Artistic disciplines, how it impacted specific Artists  who were the first to be called Modernists in their respective Artistic discipline.

 In Literature, a lot of that definition happened retrospectively.  When a specific Artist draws retrospective interest for previously published works of Art, that is an example of a Critical Audience leading the general Audience for that Artist.  

 This is the reverse of the normal process of Artist/Audience reception, where the most valuable criterion for a work of Art is its recentness and critical attention is determined by the size of the Audience for a specific Artist.



FOOTNOTE

(1) Encyclopedia of Literary Translation Into English, Volume 2: M-Z,  Oliver Classe, editor. Published by Fitzroy Dearborn of London, pg. 1431.

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