A House of Gentlefolk – Ivan Turgenev

house-of-gentlefolk

I know I keep putting off the review of Fathers and Sons by the same author, but I have to re-read the book lest I misinform you whilst relying on my reading of the book two years prior. In recompense, here is a recommendation for Ivan Turgenev’s second novel known by a number of slightly different titles, including A Nest of NoblesHome of the Gentry and  A House of Gentlefolk (who knows how they gleaned so many from Дворянское гнездо?)

Let me warn you. This won’t be the typical A.! review. I am tired and barely have the time to put my thoughts and the necessary background research together. Besides, it is always difficult for me to rate these kinds of intellectual classics as I believe there is much I miss in interpretation. That said, here goes my haphazard attempt…

First, Turgenev is an amazing author who never disappoints. His portrayal of life with its sharpness of observation and lyrical quality is rarely rivalled. A House of Gentlefolk is a beautifully written, extremely lyrical work, that is, at the same time, unforgettable and heartbreaking. Moreover, the novel is not too long, and most chapters are quite short but each stands out as a jewel and many passages are quite memorable.

Any of you who’ve read nineteenth-century Russian literature, know that it has to be a novel about ideas. And your reading will be enhanced perhaps by some background in the dynamic cultural revolution of the period so as to understand the duality of the protagonist’s identity: a member of both the upper class and the intellectual caste. He is a “superfluous man,” and his conflicted ideological stance relates directly to issues that were intensely debated in the 1840s.

Turgenev has masterly tackled a complex issue and left us this work as testament. He reveals the depths of his characters’ motivations, drawing detailed sketches of their thoughts, backgrounds and philosophical musings.

On one level, it is about the homecoming of Lavretsky, who broken and disillusioned by a failed marriage and cheating wife, returns to his estate and finds love again – only to lose it. The sense of loss and of unfulfilled promise, beautifully captured by Turgenev, reflects his underlying theme that humanity is not destined to experience happiness except as something ephemeral and inevitably doomed. On another level, Turgenev is presenting the homecoming of a whole generation of young Russians who have fallen under the spell of European ideas that have uprooted them from Russia, their home, but have proved ultimately superfluous. In tragic bewilderment, they attempt to find reconciliation with their land.

It’s interesting how Turgenev is derided by most as the epitome of the Westernised-Russian, but A House of Gentlefolk demonstrates that this label is a simplification and misunderstanding of Turgenev’s beliefs and principles, as it is very clear in the novel that he loves Russia and its countryside, but sees a dangerous polarisation between feudalism and modernisation. (How’s that for a long sentence?) He effectively portrays the Russian upper class worship of western society as a patchy, pretentious, bastardised translation of foreign ideas, which results in a system of education for the nobility that ultimately encourages an emotional detachment from Russia. I should note that this novel was published about 60 years before Russian society’s violent explosion of ideas, values and class differences, and in many ways it is a presage for the revolution.

Although I’ve mentioned a background knowledge of the situation in Russia in the mid-1800s would be helpful, I believe that even those without this knowledge will enjoy the work immensely. If nothing else, at least Turgenev elegant portrayal of the Russian countryside is unrivalled… even Tolstoy cannot match Turgenev’s affecting depictions of the land itself.

I promise you will love this novel where its intense romantic and spiritual conflicts unfold in the dreamlike setting of a nineteenth-century Russian estate.

Till Next Post!

PS: This was originally written on 1 June 2010.

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