Saturday, 1 January 2011
Fathers and Sons
Fathers and Sons is considered a classic of Russian literature. Although I had never heard of him before Ivan Turgenev is up there with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as one of the most talented and influential writers of his generation.
Fathers and sons is basically a story about two generations in conflict. Russia has a history strewn with political, social and often bloody upheaval and this book focusses on a particular period in Russian history when reforms were on the rise changing the traditional relationship between peasants and wealthy landowners. A new generation of free thinkers were emerging from universities with new ideals and radical ideas for changing social norms. This creates a great deal of tension between the old school 'Aristocrats' and new school 'Nihilists' who maintain that nothing in society has any worth or value.
Arguably the main character is Yevgeny Vasil'evich Bazarov; a young nihilist student who comes to stay with a friend's family in the countryside. Before I came across Bazarov I thought I knew what cynicism was, I've been called cynical myself quite a few times, but it seems I didn't have a clue of how far someone can take it.
Bazarov thinks everything is rubbish. When I say “everything” this is no exaggeration. Love? Nonsense. Romance? A joke. Tradition? Forget it. Marriage? Waste of time. A good example is that Bazarov's ambition in life is to become a country doctor and yet he tells anyone who will listen that he doesn't believe in medicine. He holds everyone and everything in contempt, that is until he meets Anna Sergeevna Odintsova and, rather inconveniently, falls completely in love with her.
There are quite a few other characters but for the most part they are eclipsed by Bazarov's enormous ego, easily the size of any farmhouse. However for all of his somewhat hypocritical bluster Bazarov is not a fool nor a bad person, just young, misguided and suffering with a severe case of 'angry young man' syndrome. When he offends an aristocrat he is staying with Bazarov is challenged to a duel which he wins by shooting his opponent in the leg (albeit by good fortune rather than deliberately aiming) he could have killed the aristocrat with his second shot but instead chose to provide medical assistance and help him back to his house.
The book is well put together and most certainly an interesting read not just because of the colourful, believable characters but also because of the many glimpses of Russian culture, attitudes and habits the reader sees. I can honestly say I doubt I've ever learned so much from reading a work of fiction. Sadly it is not all positive; at times the story dragged on. More than once I put the book down feeling tired after reading 30 pages to suddenly discover, to my great consternation, that I had in reality only read 10 pages. For the most part not a great deal happens except conversations between characters. There are one or two moments in the book where I found I was so excited I couldn't put it down but this was rare.
Overall it was a valuable book to read and I enjoyed it. It was an excellent introduction to Russian fiction and I hope to read more of the same.