Already a huge 19th century Russian literature fan, I am finding myself more and more attracted to the writings of Ivan Turgenev. Turgenev (1818-1883) is among the pantheon of great Russian writers of the 19th century (along with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogal and Pushkin). While Turgenev often touches on many of the same themes that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy expound upon, he does so with much less explicit focus on morality and religious aspects. His best known work, considered a classic in the Western Canon is Fathers and Sons.
In 2010, Folio Society (FS) produced a pretty edition of Turgenev’s First Love, which was reviewed on Books and Vines in August 2011. Having very much enjoyed First Love, I was glad when FS announced in 2011 that it would produce a new edition of On the Eve. Having now received and read it, I am happy to have this edition in my library. I am hoping this recent FS focus on Turgenev continues, perhaps leading to a Limited Edition of one of Turgenev’s major works in 2012.
FS’s On the Eve is handsomely produced, packaged in a similar style as with First Love. The cloth binding has a visually appealing blocked design imprinted on it. The illustrations very nicely reflect the period and mood of the story. In producing books like On the Eve, FS is doing a commendable service in providing literature lovers reasonably priced, nicely produced classics.
On the surface of On the Eve, Turgenev gives us a classic, and tragic, love story. Dig deeper and there is much more. There is contemplative observations of mid-nineteenth century Russian middle-class life; generational conflicts around societal norms and expectations; and an exploration, perhaps a yearning, for a future where strength of leadership could overcome Russian weaknesses. Turgenev masterfully weaves this depth into the background and soul of the story, veiled behind the masterful character study of a young Russian girl named Elena, her parents, and her suitors. As you will see from the many quotes below, the writing is superb.
‘On the Eve’ of the Crimean War, Elena is pursued by Shubin, a free spirited, somewhat whimsical sculptor, and by Berzeniev, a serious, philosophical student. Shubin and Berzeniev are friends, who often talk of love and beauty.
If you don’t respond to beauty, if you don’t love it wherever you meet it, beauty will elude you even in your art.
Nature…awakens the need for love, but is not capable of satisfying it. It drives urgently into other, living arms, but we don’t realise this, and expect something from nature herself…how lovely this sunshine is, and that sky too, everything, everything around us is lovely, and yet you’re grieving. But if at this moment you were holding the hand of a woman you loved…it wouldn’t be grief and anxiety that nature stirred up in you…no, you’d find Nature itself would exult and sing, it would echo your own rhapsodies — because you would have given to Nature, dumb Nature, a tongue.
Elena is independent, lonely and somewhat introspective, yearning for something more. Her childhood came and went, not nourishing her, leaving her struggling with a purpose in the world.
And so the years slipped by — quickly and imperceptibly, like water under the snow. Elena’s childhood flowed away, outwardly in idleness, inwardly in conflict and turmoil..she struggled like a bird in a cage, though there was no cage.
She is somewhat distant from her long suffering mother Anna and from her cold, stern and old-fashioned father Stahov (a retired guards lieutenant who spends most of his time with a mistress). Berzeniev introduces his friend Insarov to Elena. Insarov is a dedicated Bulgarian revolutionary, who lives for Slavic freedom. He tells Elena, “our time doesn’t belong to us“. When she asks who it does belong to, he responds “To all who need us.” In Insarov’s case, it is Bulgaria who needs him. Yet, Elena finds herself falling in love with him. She chides herself for doing so:
To be good is not enough; to do good…yes, that us the real purpose of life. But how is one to do good? Oh, if I only could control myself!
Elena and Insarov are deeply in love as Insarov prepares to leave Russia. He falls extremely ill, during which time Elena is not able to see him. Finally, when he is mostly recovered, Elena is able to see and talk with him.
She sat down and nestled up to him and gazed at him with the laughing, tender, caressing look which shines only in the eyes of a woman in love.
Insarov and Elena secretly marry as he is about to head back to Bulgaria to help with the fight for independence. Elena’s father is livid, and in one outburst one can easily see a larger message about Russia itself:
We haven’t got anyone among us, no real people, wherever you look. It’s all either minnows and mice and little Hamlets feeding on themselves in ignorance and dark obscurity, or braggarts throwing their weight about…if we’d had some proper people among us, she wouldn’t have slipped out of our hands like a fish into water…When is our time coming? When are we going to produce some real people?
Insanov and Elena head to Bulgaria, but first take a short trip to Venice. Many great authors and artists have famously pined away on the attractions of Venice. Turgenev’s heartfelt paean to Venice belongs with the best of them.
No one who has not seen Venice in April knows the full, the indescribable charm of that magical city…just as the spring stirs us and fills us with longing, so does the loveliness of Venice; she provokes and tantalises the innocent heart with a sense of some imminent joy, a joy which is both simple and yet mysterious. Everything about her is light and lucid, yet over everything hangs a drowsy haze of tranquil sensuousness; everything is silent, yet everything is welcoming; everything about her is feminine…not for nothing is she called ‘Venice the Beautiful’. To the visitor, soured and broken by life, Venice has nothing to offer; to him she will be bitter as the recollection of early unrealised dreams are bitter. But for him who still has strength and confidence within him, she will be sweet; let him bring his happiness to her and expose it to her enchanted skies, and, however radiant his happiness may be, she will enrich it with her own unfading light
As an aside, as someone who loves to travel, I find myself in complete agreement with Turgenev when he says:
There is somehow a peculiar delight in strolling alone with a loved companion in a strange city, among strange people; then everything has charm and significance, and one wishes everyone peace, goodwill and the same happiness that one is enjoying one’s self.
About to leave Venice, Insanov’s illness returns. As he lay on his deathbed, Elena ponders eternal questions with a skeptical mind:
Why must we die, why must we suffer separation and illness and tears? And if we must, then why all this beauty, why this sweet feeling of hope, why this reassuring sense of some lasting refuge, of some safe stronghold, of some immortal guardianship? What then is the meaning of that smiling, beneficent sky, of this earth, so happy and at its ease? Can all of this be only what we feel within us — whereas outside, in reality, there is only an eternal icy stillness? Can it be that we are quite alone…? Then why this thirst for prayer, why does prayer give us joy?
Turgenev further reflects on death, and its inevitability for all of us, when he says:
All of us are transgressors, even as we are alive, and there is no thinker so exalted, no human benefactor so great that, by virtue of what he has done for mankind, he may presume that he has the right to live…
Sometimes a man will wake up with an involuntary shudder and ask himself: ‘Can I indeed by thirty…or forty…or fifty years old? How is it possible that life has passed so quickly? How is it possible that death has come so near?’ But death is like a fisherman who, having caught a fish in his net, leaves it in the water for a time; the fish continues to swim about, but all the while the net is around it, and the fisherman will snatch it out in his own good time.
Elena’s mother begs for Elena’s return, but she goes to Bulgaria anyway, and is never heard of again.
About the Edition
- Introduced by Hisham Matar
- Frontispiece and 7 colour illustrations by Lauren Nassef
- Translated by Gilbert Gardiner, first published by Penguin Books in 1950
- Bound in cloth, printed and blocked with a design by Lauren Nassef
- Set in Goudy
- Printed on Abbey Move paper at Grafos S.A., Barcelona
- Size: 11″ × 7¼”, approx. 192 pages
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