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Customer Review

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Generational transitions..., 5 May 2011
This review is from: Fathers and Sons (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
If one visits George Sand's home at Nohant, in the Berry region of France, one will find a dining room table set, with place names of the famous people who visited her house, including Flaubert and Chopin. Another place name reads: Ivan Turgenev. "Father and Sons" is Turgenev's most famous novel, an authentic and realistic account of upper class 19th Century Russian provincial life. Although he considered himself a progressive, his works were praised by the "old Believers," and criticized by his fellow liberals. He eventually abandoned the land he knew so well, and sought solace in Germany and France.

This novel is set in the early 1860's. The Napoleonic invasion is a receding collective memory; the serfs are about to be formally freed, at about the same time as the slaves would be freed in the United States. The dominant theme is reflected in the title: it is a transition from one generation to the next. Barzarov and Arcady are friends who have recently graduated from university, and are returning to their parent's estates in the countryside. Barzarov is the dominant one, assured in his world view as a "Nihilist," a fancy word for the inarticulate grunts of many a high school senior: the world is a rotten place, everything must be torn down, and then we can start over, but I don't have a clue as to what I would replace it with. Both sets of parents deeply love their children, and are accommodating to their views. It is Arcady's uncle, Peter, that objects, on a personal as well as on a philosophical basis, to the young "upstart," Barzarov.

An equally important theme is love. Turgenev provides a realistic portrait of what would be, to a modern reader, the rather amazing courtship rituals of upper-class Russian provincials. This would often involve visiting respective homes for extended periods of time, with concerns about dinner and entertainment, and long strolls in the garden. Madame Anna Odintzov, a young widow at 29, has her own estate. Barzarov, like many a man, wonders if she is "hot," a term that might reverberate even today. Anna also has a younger sister Katya, who plays the piano, and plays also into the free-floating testosterones. Love is both requited and unrequited.

Missing from the novel, certainly in terms of characterization, are the serfs. They serve only as background, with their most notable feature seeming to be the question of if they doff their hats when their "betters," the landed gentry pass. Thus, although Turgenev's world view appears to be tolerant and liberal, even to the advocacy of marrying outside the gentry's class (!), his principal progressive concerns appear to be better estate management, importing German scientific ideas and interspersing French phrases in the dialogue.

Like most good novelists whose work reflects their personal experiences, it is interesting to note that the duel scene must have been inspired by the fact that Tolstoy once challenged him to a one. Yes, Tolstoy the pacifist. And although Turgenev never married, he did have a daughter by a woman "outside his class," a serf, Pauline Verdot. Turgenev also has some observations that still have much validity: "Just look at what I am doing: just because there's room in the valise here am I stuffing it with hay: it's the same with our life's valise: we pack it full of anything that comes to hand, just to avoid leaving an empty space."

In a one word association game, if you'd response "ponderous" to the phrase "Russian novel," then try "Father and Sons." Lively, direct, and it covers a lot of ground in some 200 pages. 5-stars.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on February 11, 2011)
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Jun 2015 01:27:14 BDT
Mikkel says:
That's an outstandingly snobbish introduction you concocted there, kudos.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jun 2015 19:47:49 BDT
I thought it was "honest working class"....
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Location: Albuquerque, NM, USA

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