Book Notes: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862)

The way that censorship worked in the USSR – and many people don’t know this – wasn’t that there was a list of books you weren’t allowed to read.

No, not at all.

What existed, instead, was a list of books you were allowed to read. Everything that didn’t make it on the list, you weren’t supposed to know it even existed. It didn’t get published, mentioned or alluded to.

In order for a book to get on the “good” list, somebody needed to create an argument for why it advanced Communist goals. If nobody bothered to create such an argument for a work of art from 100, 200, 800, whatever, years ago, it was erased from textbooks, archives, everywhere. A bunch of desperate literary critics broke their brains throughout the 1930s, inventing Communist readings for Cervantes, Rabelais, Goethe, Bocaccio, just so that they wouldn’t be erased from collective memory. It’s a crazy thing to do but it’s also quite heroic because these few terrified literary critics were the reason that we knew who Cervantes was in the USSR.

And if you think you are immune to this kind of totalitarian madness, I’m sorry you’ve been in a coma and only woke up two minutes ago. I’m sitting here, hoping I won’t have to do what those Stalinist literary critics did and try to save Cervantes by arguing he was ideologically sound.

Turgenev is a 19th-century Russian writer, and he was not only allowed in the USSR but he was obligatory reading that all Soviet children were tortured with. It was easy to sell him as proto-Communist because his famous novel Fathers and Sons* was published a year after slavery (known as ‘serfdom’) was abolished in the Russian Empire and set on the eve of the abolition. In reality, it’s clear from the novel that Turgenev wasn’t into the abolition because he despised the serfs and considered them barely human. But we were forced to look for some sort of a revolutionary conscience in the novel, so we twisted ourselves into knots trying to find it.

In reality, the novel is exactly what the title says. It’s about parents and children and the kind of suffocating, smothering, all-consuming parental love that squeezes life from the children without wanting to. As I read it today, I didn’t see a shade of anything political in the novel. Instead, Fathers and Sons gives a very good blueprint of the differences between a loving parent who lets the child develop into a separate human being and recreate life and a loving parent who doesn’t leave any space for that and pushes the child to embrace death.

It’s a very good novel by an utterly apolitical author and I can’t wait to discuss it in my book club.

* It’s a really bad translation, actually. The title should be translated as “Parents and Children.”