While I also love the fiction of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, having read this I was not surprised to learn from the editor of this edition that it was Turgenev who proved to be the most popular Russian novelist in Europe during the shared lifetimes of these three giant authors. And that, throughout the 1850s and 60s, Turgenev was likewise the most famous and loved in Russia. Interestingly, he was also the most controversial and passionate debate both for and against Turgenev and this novel even up to the 1950s.
Turgenev's greater popularity, compared with his two most famous counterparts, arguably rests on his deeper humanity and, thereby, psychological and emotional complexity that he breathes into his principal characters from their first introduction. With Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, it seems too often that their own characters' complexity originates always from experiences of trauma, crisis and conflict in their lives, compared with Turgenev's characters who have an inherent, natuarl complexity and intelligence.
Of the characters here, there is much to enjoy, be engaged as well as challenged by. Bazarov and Arkady, university students, take a holiday together, visiting Arkady's landlord and liberal-minded, caring father (Nikolai) and uncle (Pavel), formerly a distinguished army captain, at Nikolia's farm and home, with whom Pavel also lives. The conflict between `fathers and sons' is played out primarily in this holiday, arising because of Bazarov's deep-seated nihilism and his insistent, relentlessly stern fatalism that he preaches.
The story is worth reading just two characters alone: Bazarov himself, who is vividly infuriating and an anti-hero one will never forget on reading. He is supremely arrogant and contemptuous of others; recognising no rules of conduct or recognition of anything of value, save that which he himself defines and determines; is rude to his charming and much devoted friend, Arkady, who is himself in such awe of Bazarov and he can't help but give allegiance to him and his negative vision and attitude towards society, history, life in general (and particular). Even though this allegiance, along with Bazarov's comments, confound and upset Arkady's father - and infuriate Pavel - ironically it is Bazarov's nihilistic own rejection of Arkady's friendship that brings Arkady to his senses, thereby explicitly reaffirming his humanism, empathy and love he always felt for both his father and uncle.
While Nikolai and Arkady are also very well drawn, besides Bazarov, the other character who is memorable, amusing - with a caustic sense of humour and irony -superbly realised, and great fun to read about - is Pavel. He's a Russian who, while now elderly, remains as he was from his youth: distinguished, handsome, a reputation as a `lady-killer', with an aristocratic flair, and besotted with English bespoke and colourful tailoring and fancy accoutrements (handkerchiefs, cufflinks, neckerchiefs). He's also deeply civilised, graceful, yet in no doubt of his views, with a strong and independent viewpoint and depth of character. He is also deeply generous and caring, having giving much of his money to Nikolai, to help him keep his farm and land. And the intense debates between Pavel (increasingly infuriated), and Bazarov (bored, steely, deeply rude and negative), are worth the price of the novel many times over.
A wonderful, moving, compelling read.
A note on this edition: Because there are several editions of this novel available to buy, and some much cheaper than this one, I first wanted to highlight that I believe this one is by far the best to date, for two reasons: the translator, Rosemary Edmonds's version, is elegant and smooth, and her own introduction is excellent - providing meaningful reflection and understanding not only of the novel, but Turgenev's talent, other works, and the political and literary times he lived through. The second major reason is because this edition (I think) is the only one that contains Isaiah Berlin's brilliant, insightful lecture on the novel that he first gave in 1970, and was included in this edition from 1975 onwards, and that offers much insight into the novel's historical context and background in terms of philosophy and politics in Russia during Turgenev's lifetime.