Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev

The Russian novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818-1883) was a founder of the Russian realistic novel. He ranks as one of the greatest stylists in the Russian language.

The life of Ivan Turgenev is woven like a bright thread throughout Russian history of the 19th century, during the time the nation's artistic and intellectual life experienced a golden age. He knew, was related to, or fought with almost every figure of any consequence in his homeland. He was also the first Russian author to establish a European reputation, and during his long years abroad he was friends with Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and many other writers. Turgenev's generous enthusiasm for the work of other men made him a perfect mediator between East and West.

Parentage and Early Life

Turgenev's biography is as much the story of his encounters with strong-willed women as it is of his meetings with famous men. The first of these women was his mother, Varvara Petrovna. She was a Lutovin, an obscure family that had recently achieved enormous wealth. She was her uncle's only heir, and she ruled with an iron hand over her vast estates and 5, 000 serfs. Three years after coming into her inheritance she married Sergey Nikolayevich Turgenev, a retired colonel of cuirassiers. The Turgenevs were old stock, dating back to a Tatar prince of the 15th century. Turgenev's father, however, was forced to marry Varvara Petrovna in order to shore up his family's sagging fortunes. It was an unhappy marriage, the handsome father constantly embroiled with mistresses, and the mother running her family as despotically as she did her estates.

Turgenev was born, the second of three sons, at the family seat of Spasskoye in Orel Province on Nov. 9, 1818. He first visited Europe when he was 4 years old, when the whole family made the grand tour. His father narrowly saved Turgenev's life in Bern, where Turgenev almost fell into the bear pit. He was educated by private tutors at Spasskoye until he was 9 years old. Only French was spoken at home, so he learned Russian mainly from family servants. In 1827 he attended various preparatory schools in Moscow, entering the university there in 1833. Already he was rebelling against his aristocratic background: about the only thing known of this period is that his fellow students, struck by his democratic leanings, called him "the American."

In 1834 Turgenev transferred to the University of St. Petersburg when the family moved to the capital. The father died the same autumn. At this time Turgenev was planning to become a university professor, but he was writing poetry in his spare time. His first work, a Gothic melodrama in verse, was severely criticized by his favorite professor, P. A. Pletnyov. However, in 1838 Pletnyov published Turgenev's first poetry in Contemporary.

His Youth

Meanwhile, having finished his courses at St. Petersburg, Turgenev resolved upon further study at the University of Berlin. On the boat journey in the spring of 1837, his steamer caught fire off Travemünde. Accounts of this incident vary, but all agree that Turgenev behaved badly. Some versions say he screamed in French, "Save me, I am my widowed mother's only son!" The event rankled in his mind until his death.

In Berlin, Turgenev studied Latin, Greek, and philosophy, immersing himself in the works of G. W. F. Hegel. In July 1840 Turgenev met Mikhail Bakunin, and for a whole year they lived together, arguing philosophy day and night. In 1841 Turgenev returned to Russia. The following year was an important one. While carrying on a high-flown platonic romance with one of Bakunin's sisters, Tatyana, Turgenev entered into an earthier alliance with Avdotya Ivanov, one of his mother's seamstresses which resulted in the birth of a daughter, known in later life as Paulinette. Turgenev also did all the work for his master of arts degree except the dissertation. For various reasons he abandoned his plans for an academic career and entered the Ministry of Interior Affairs. He left the civil service—to the mutual satisfaction of both parties—after 18 months. His mother was infuriated and cut off his funds, thus forcing him to lead a rather precarious existence, complicated by the fact that everyone thought he was rich.

Turgenev met the critic Vissarion Belinsky, with whom he remained very close until the latter's death. Belinsky was instrumental in turning the young man away from vaporous poetry to a greater realism and a more natural tone. Parasha (1843) showed Turgenev to be an imitative poet in these early years (especially of Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov), and Turgenev later dismissed his verse as having been written before he found his true vocation.

In 1843 Turgenev met the woman with whom he struggled for the rest of his life. Pauline Viardot-Garcia belonged to a talented Spanish family of gypsies. When Turgenev first saw her, she was well on her way to becoming the reigning mezzo-soprano in European opera. She was considered by many unattractive, but her voice was remarkable, and she was a great actress. Turgenev saw her during a tour in St. Petersburg and fell immediately in love. A curious relationship began that ended only with Turgenev's death in her arms. She was married to Louis Viardot, a man 20 years her senior, a director of the Italian Opera in Paris, but her marriage was no complication because her husband was extremely permissive. The problem lay in Pauline herself, who, unlike many other women, was not especially attracted to Turgenev. She had many affairs with other men, never entering into an exclusive alliance with Turgenev, even though he devoted much of his life and fortune to her, and even though she, as well as her husband and children, lived with Turgenev for years.

From 1845 to 1847 Turgenev spent most of his time in Russia, plunging now into his nation's literary life, coming into contact with all its leading literary figures. In 1847 he went abroad, resolved to fight serfdom with his pen. That year he wrote the first of his Hunter's Sketches, "Khor and Kalinich." He also visited Salzbrunn to comfort the dying Belinsky, but he spent most of his time at Courtavenel, the Viardot summer home where he did most of his work at this time.

In 1850 Turgenev returned to Russia, where his mother lay dying. Her death made him master of 11 estates, including Spasskoye, some 30, 000 acres, with thousands of serfs. He did his best to lighten the load of these peasants, and he freed the household workers among them. In that year he wrote A Month in the Country, of all his stage pieces the one that has remained in the repertoire. A Provincial Lady was written in 1851. While Turgenev always claimed he had no dramatic talent (and he stopped writing plays in 1852), the lyrical tone of his plays has a close affinity to that of Chekhov's masterpieces, and his dramas are just as difficult to classify.

First Years of Fame

More of the Hunter's Sketches appeared at frequent intervals during these years. In many of them the serfs seemed nobler than their masters, and both master and serf seemed stunted by the institution of serfdom. The sketches angered the government. The stage for some action against Turgenev was set. In November 1852 he wrote a laudatory article on the recently dead author Nikolai Gogol. This article was not passed by the St. Petersburg censors; Turgenev then took it to Moscow, where it was published. Its publication was regarded as a "treasonable act"; he was arrested, and after a month in prison, he was put under house arrest at Spasskoye for almost 2 years. The greatest irony was that after his arrest the collected Hunter's Sketches were published in book form. The volume created a revulsion against serfdom much greater than the separate sketches had. During his month in prison Turgenev wrote "Mumu, " a piece called by Thomas Carlyle "the most pathetic story in the world."

In 1854 Turgenev was back in St. Petersburg. He had long felt the need to experiment with a longer form and after several false starts wrote his first novel, Rudin, in 7 months in 1855 (published 1856). It was a portrait of the talky, idealistic generation of the 1840s, and many readers felt its hero was modeled on Bakunin. Turgenev met Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy that same year; he was destined to quarrel with both. In 1856, on one of his frequent trips abroad, Turgenev met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American novelist; the effect of Hunter's Sketches on the abolition of serfdom in Russia had often been compared to the effect of her Uncle Tom's Cabin on the abolition of slavery in the United States.

In 1857 Turgenev wrote "Assya, " and he also began work on A Nest of Gentlefolk. The following year on a trip to England, he met Benjamin Disraeli, William Makepeace Thackeray, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Carlyle, and other authors. In 1859 Turgenev returned to Russia, where his A Nest of Gentlefolk had brought him great acclaim. In the spring of that year he dusted off a manuscript given him earlier by a young soldier, Vassily Karatayev, who had felt he would not survive the Crimean War (he had died soon afterward of typhus). The manuscript was an autobiographical tale, and it served as the core for Turgenev's next major work, On the Eve. When this novel was published in 1860, it created a stir: the old and rich attacked it, and the young and radical defended it. A two-edged review of this novel by N. A. Dobrolyubov in Nikolai Nekrasov's journal, Contemporary, caused Turgenev to break with that review and its increasingly radical orientation. The unhappiness this rupture with his old friend Nekrasov brought was compounded by a violent break with Tolstoy, who went as far as to threaten Turgenev with a duel. Turgenev declined, but the two were never truly close again.

In 1860 Turgenev also endured further unhappiness caused by a literary friend. Ivan Goncharov, who had been working on his novel The Precipice (1869) for many years, often discussing it with Turgenev, accused him of stealing ideas from it for On the Eve. An informal court was set up, with three authors acting as judges. They cleared Turgenev, but he was infuriated and was never again close to Goncharov (whose paranoia later became clinical).

Part of Turgenev's pain was eased by hard work on his new novel, which, when it appeared as Fathers and Sons (1862), marked a watershed in the literary, intellectual, and political life of Russia. This novel ranks as his masterpiece. Everyone was forced to take sides on the issue of Bazarov, the book's hero, and his nihilist philosophy. Bazarov became the archetype for the generation of the 1860s; he was a socialist in politics and a scientific materialist in philosophy. Conservatives accused Turgenev of prostrating himself before the younger generation, while radicals charged him with a cruel satire of their ideals. Some felt that Bazarov was a parody of the radical critic Dobrolyubov, who had died tragically young.

In 1863 Turgenev bought a villa in Baden-Baden, Germany, where he lived on a grand scale with the ever present Viardots. In 1866 Turgenev published Smoke, a novel that offended all Slavophiles and all conservative religious opinion in Russia. Many accused him of selling out to the West, of having lost contact with his homeland. The following year he was visited by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who attacked him as a slanderer of the motherland.

Last Phase

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Viardots fled to England, where Turgenev followed. A few months later he settled in France, first in Paris and then at his summer home on the Seine at Bougival near Paris. In these years he regularly attended dinners with Zola, Alphonse Daudet, and Maupassant. Flaubert was a particular favorite of Turgenev's. During these years Turgenev wrote several of his best-known short stories: "First Love" (1870), "A Lear of the Steppe" (1870), and "The Torrents of Spring" (1871).

In 1877 Turgenev published the novel on which he had labored for the past 6 years: Virgin Soil. It is his longest work and another of his generational studies. The story this time is of the young people of the 1870s. Fed up with the talk and empty idealism of their fathers, these young people have decided on action. The book was a best seller in Europe, but it was condemned by all factions in Russia. Turgenev was greatly disillusioned by the failure of this novel in Russia, and some of the pessimism thus generated crept into the short pieces he wrote in 1878 called Senilia (later entitled Poems in Prose).

A new misfortune occurred the winter of the following year. Turgenev had to go to Russia, after his wealthy older brother's death, to fight for a fair share of the inheritance. But this unpleasantness soon became a blessing. Turgenev's return to his native land, where he thought he was in disgrace and discredited, turned into a triumphal procession. He made up his old literary feuds, and he was even reconciled with his uncle, Nikolai, who, as his estate manager, had almost ruined him. Turgenev was feted day and night.

While Turgenev's life had always, since 1843, been bound up with Pauline Viardot-Garcia, their relationship was not a simple one in which he gave only unalloyed worship to the diva. The two had many fights but always reconciled, even long after Pauline had lost her voice and was more or less dependent upon Turgenev. He had other mistresses and even contemplated marriage with other women. He was a man of large and impressive physique— he was known in France as "that Russian giant"—and had a handsome face and great charm. During the tumult of his acclaim in 1879 he found time to pay court to an actress, the young and beautiful Maria Savina. In June, Turgenev received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.

In 1880 Turgenev returned to Russia for the unveiling of the Pushkin Memorial in Moscow. In the same year he wrote one of his most beautiful stories, "The Song of Triumphant Love." The following year he published most of the Poems in Prose and wrote the ghostly love story "Clara Milich." The prose poems that he felt to be too intimate were not published by his wish until 1930.

All his life Turgenev had been a hypochondriac; in 1882 real symptoms appeared. He was afflicted with cancer of the spine and died on Sept. 3, 1883. A huge ceremony was held at the Gare du Nord in Paris when his body was shipped back to Russia, and his interment in St. Petersburg was an occasion for national mourning.

Further Reading on Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev

David Magarshack, Turgenev: A Life (1954), is more compact than Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Turgenev: The Man, His Art and His Age (1926; rev. ed. 1959), which is overwritten and contains much that is sheer speculation. The memoirs of a woman raised by Turgenev's mother, full of racy anecdotes, were translated into English: Varvara Zhitova, The Turgenev Family (1947). An excellent study of Turgenev's literary development is Richard Freeborn, Turgenev: The Novelist's Novelist (1960). For background see Charles Moser's excellent scholarly study Antinihilism in the Russian Novel of the 1860s (1964); its chronological scope extends beyond its title.

Additional Biography Sources

Pritchett, V. S. (Victor Sawdon), The gentle barbarian: the life and work of Turgenev, New York: Ecco Press, 1986, 1977.

Schapiro, Leonard Bertram, Turgenev, his life and times, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982, 1978.

Troyat, Henri, Turgenev, New York: Dutton, 1988.

Waddington, Patrick, Turgenev and England, New York: New York University Press, 1981.

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm, Turgenev, the man, his art, and his age, New York: Octagon Books, 1977, 1959.