‘What I’m thinking is: here I am, lying under a haystack…The tiny little place I occupy is so small in relation to the rest of space where I am not and where it’s none of my business; and the amount of time which I’ll succeed in living is so insignificant by comparison with the eternity where I haven’t been and never will be…And yet in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well…What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense!’.

I like Russians. Oh sure, if you dig into the classics every character has triple-barrel names, there’s talk of serfs and agriculture the entire time (that bloody neverending chapter in Anna Karenina for one), and half the dialogue is in French. I still enjoy reading Russian novels though, both modern and classic, because they have a consistent dry sense of humour. Whether the author is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Victor Pelevin, the tone is similar, to my mind at least. That’s what surprised me the most about this tale of misunderstandings between the young and the old, the regrets that crowd the space between parents and their children. It was pretty funny, in a sort of ‘a-ha’, way.

Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov is a widower, an unsuccessful landowner and a proud father. The novel begins with him impatiently for his son’s return from St. Petersburg. The year is 1859. Nikolai Petrovich is an old man, given to daydreaming and poetry. He lives with his brother Pavel, always the more outgoing of the two, a handsome military officer with a one-time promising career, who threw it all away over a doomed love affair. They are both trapped by their pasts, country aristocrats with little understanding of how to manage the serfs who live on their lands.

Arkady, his son, arrives back from graduation with his charismatic friend Bazarov in tow. The two young men converse frequently about exciting new ideas. Poor Nikolai Petrovich is left behind by their discussions. Bazarov in particular disturbs the balance of the house. His manner towards all aristocrats is contemptuous and snide. He declares that all art is nonsense, only what we can determine through science is of value. Arkady is enthralled by his commanding friend, echoing his opinions on most everything. Over dinner the young men send Pavel into a rage when they announce that they are nihilists. All the old values must be swept away, society is corrupt and only proper reform will solve the problems of modern life. This ideological gulf between the two generations increases the antagonism between the four men and over time each of them finds their certainties tested.

As I have said, I was surprised at how funny this book can be. Pavel has a particularly wicked tongue and his debates with Bazarov are extremely witty – However, we are unable to understand one another. I, at least, have the honour not to understand you.’ The nihilist’s young ward in training Arkady is naieve and easily shocked by his friend’s cynicism, although he tries to hide it. Bazarov in particular is contemptuous of intellectual women. For all his talk of ‘reform’, and criticizing of old values, he is peculiarly conceited in many ways. His nihilism is an extravagantly inverted form of egotism. Only provable scientific theories are of value and as he intends to become a doctor, he reduces everything in life to biological drives, pronouncing himself an enemy of romance. Which makes it all the more amusing when he falls in love. Bewildered and angry at these strange emotions, he becomes curiously sympathetic, despite his abrasiveness. Apparently Turgenev was viciously attacked by members of both the political Left and Right for his caricature of nihilistic views. Personally I think Bazarov is a well realized character who happens to claim to be a nihilist, but is in fact simply very confused by life.

My edition of Fathers and Sons was translated by Richard Freeborn. He choice of phrasing distracted me occasionally from the flow of the novel’s language. Bazarov often says ‘mate’ in an almost contemporary fashion and the dialogue of the serfs appears to be imported from Yorkshire. Still the warmth and empathy Turgenev feels for Arkady and his father is retained.

It’s a simple tale, one that repeats itself with every generation. I enjoyed it very much.

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