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.”

11 thoughts on “Book Notes: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862)”

  1. “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.”

    Profound point; I’ll read the book (if I can stand to look at this abyss). I didn’t do this to my kids, thank God, but I suffered it.

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    1. There are these really cute, super-sweet parents in the novel but as you keep reading, they become this suffocating, sticky presence that sucks all air out of the room. They clearly mean well and their love is genuine but it’s mortal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am reminded of a college production I once saw of Much Ado About Nothing. They had a number of female roles played by men and vice versa, which is fine as an acting experiment. In the program, though, the director explained that the problems the characters encounter come about because of their rigid views on gender. This struck me as strange because, for all of his subversiveness, Shakespeare had little interest in challenging the gender norms of his day. Furthermore, this play does not even have any cross-dressing to allow us to consider the implications of gender. One thinks of Merchant of Venice’s Portia going into court as a male lawyer. I am frightened to think that maybe the director was not an idiot but a secret hero trying to make sure that Shakespeare could be performed at all.

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  3. What was the status of Shakespeare under the Soviet Union? I know Pushkin loved Shakespeare and there were Yiddish productions that continued past the Revolution.

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  4. For half of Fathers and Sons, I thought Arkady was the one who was going to die – he seemed so passive, so worshipful of his friend that I didn’t quite see how he’d build a space to exist by himself. But in the end he finds himself a nice girl to worship instead and life goes on, whereas Yevgeny never manages to find room between being utterly worshipped and defensive sarcasm – I agree with you that there’s nothing political in his nihilism, it’s an impossibility to separate. Sometimes I found it hard to remember that the characters were in their mid-twenties rather than their mid-teens.

    I’m not quite sure I fully see the difference in the blueprints of their fathers that well, however. I can see how Arkady’s father has a life of his own whereas Yevgeny’s parents seem caught in some folie a deux saccharinely suffocating worship of their son (more suffocating when they try not to suffocate him, too).

    Interesting how much of love here starts with ease of communication – the stereotypically emancipated lady (I forgot her name) becomes entirely uninteresting for either of the two friends because she’s projecting such awkwardness around her even while she’s affecting a lack of inhibition.

    Also, I wasn’t expecting the book to be so funny. There’s this post-duel moment when Yevgeny and Pavel are on the ground in a wood at dawn, waiting for the idiot valet to get a hold of a cart to carry the wounded Pavel away*, and they both understand each other perfectly, and it’s a horrible thing to be so understood by a man who is not your friend in the slightest….

    Spoilers: he bungles it.

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    1. Absolutely, 100% it’s a typical teenage crisis.

      It’s interesting that at my book club where everybody else is American nobody understood or agreed with my reading that these parents are cloying and suffocating. It’s OK, everybody can have their own reading but it’s curious how people unanimously agreed that these are wonderful parents mistreated by their bad sons.

      I think you need to be from Eastern Europe to get why these parents are off-putting.

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      1. Well, they seem sweethearts at first, but when Yevgeny the Nihilist finally runs into his family onscreen and we all get to see him bending himself into a pretzel to make them feel better about the discomfort his separate existence as a human being is causing to them and their worship of him as the second Messiah, and all this after (as Romanian would put it) he’s been peeing in a parabola on everybody’s feelings large and small up to this point, I don’t see how people can miss the power imbalance…

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  5. “In order for a book to get on the “good” list, somebody needed to create an argument for why it advanced Communist goals. ”

    How ironical were these arguments? Not talking about the ones written in the ’20s when the true believers still lived, but later. Some of the Romanian ones from the 70s and later were works of art. They’d generally be published as a postscript to the book, to let you know why the thing you just read was ideologically conforming, and I’ll never be able to forget the one for Marguerite Yourcenar’s “L’oeuvre au noir” where the critic goes “and on top of everything I wrote until now, she has such a typically feminine attention to kitchen detail”. Marguerite motherfucking Yourcenar, for 1 banquet, 1 mention of ….I forget what bit of food one of the characters brings to his starving mistress during a siege, and a mention of Zeno going vegan.

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