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But Serezha could not sleep: he was only pretending to be asleep. Outside, the whole house was moving through the twilight into the evening. To the material slave-song of the floors and buckets, Serezha was thinking how unrecognizable everything would become in the light when all this movement was over. He would feel as if he had arrived a second time and, what was more important, well rested into the bargain.

Ah the Russians! What a people. The hallmark of a would-be teenage intellectual is a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky – though of course the French also have Sartre and Camus on offer, but really to my mind Notes from the Underground is required reading for the budding existentialist. The Russians nailed this philosophy of distancing oneself from life itself as an unromantic process before Frenchmen had even begun to enrage clerics with their secular pontifications (while donning the necessary turtle neck, puffing on a Gauloises and simpering in impressionable girls’ ears as well!).

As Lydia Slater points out in the introduction to this novel, Russians have the same word for pity as they do for love – zhalet, which may provide a clue as to why Russian literature enjoys such a reputation for philosophical depth. While I was reading the introduction I was alarmed at the degree of emotion expressed regarding the international reception of Pasternak‘s work following the phenomenal success of Doctor Zhivago. It was only later that I realized the introduction was written by the author’s sister.

Where family is concerned, perhaps it is difficult even for Russians to maintain that literary hauteur.

The story of The Last Summer concerns Serezha’s reflections on the events of the previous year in Moscow. The war is still ongoing. His mother has passed away and numbed with shock, he has only just managed to complete his university exams. He travels to visit his sister Natasha and her family. Exhausted from his journey an too tired to indulge his sister’s curiousity about events in the war, he falls into bed and thinks back on the summer just gone.

Following the completion of his studies, Serezha was hired as a private tutor to the son of a family named Fresteln. He is given a room at their mansion, is well-paid and finds the work not to taxing. In the evenings he joins the family for dinner and afterward wanders the city streets till well into the morning. Serezha is a curiously intense and romantic sort. He spends most of his evenings with prostitutes, even developing an obsession with them, convinced that it falls to him to ‘save’, them by dispersing large sums of money to each of the Muscovite street-walkers.

Of course, work itself is not the solution. Work enslaves and provides small financial reward. He hits instead upon the scheme of writing a play for an acquaintance, Kovalenko and with the proceeds liberating these women with whom he feels a kindred spirit.

However, the main focus of Serezha’s romantic interest is a fellow employee of the Fresteln household, a Danish maidservant named Anna Arild Tornskjold. Though she is referred to as the ‘companion’, of Mrs Freteln, when Anna speaks to Serezha she complains that she was recruited under false pretences. Her husband had only just died during a stay in Berlin when she accepted the notice and travelled all this way to discover the role was more menial than described. The two converse in a mixture of German and English, with the intimacy of their talks encouraging Serezha’s interest in the widow.

I have squeezed what little plot there could be said to be found in these pages, but do not take from that that this is a slight novel. Pasternak’s prose is a revelation of descriptive power and private musings. A morning start is described as ‘tangled threads of sultry heat, as nightmarish as crumbs in the beard of a corpse’. This is more poetry than prose, with heavy hints of semi-autobiographical reflection.

Pasternak appears to be describing the death-throes of romance itself in the wake of The Great War. His desire to save not just the prostitutes, but Anna herself, indeed all women, speaks to a peculiar messianism. Serezha’s concerns are far too bound up with his own thoughts. There is a beautiful moment when, having propositioned Anna, she finds him at the appointed meeting time furiously writing a draft of his proposed play. Quietly she retreats, leaving him to his private enthusiasms.

A master of language, beautifully written.

He said occasionally to Mary, revealing his deepest feelings, ‘I was lucky. I got away with it.’ He meant that his bad start, his mistakes, the things that might have wrecked him, had somehow combined to establish him. He had almost fallen in with that part of humanity of which he was frequently mindful [..] the part that did not get away with it – the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.

Years ago, whenever I had to prepare for an exam, I decided upon a strange little tradition to avoid undue stress. I would plug away at my studies in the weeks before the exam, but during the end of term period I would refuse to look at my textbooks and read a decent novel instead.

There was one book that I repeatedly read in this manner and that was Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Ideas simply dance off the page of this book. I have always found it a very inspiring read, as well as an enjoyable one, that put me in the perfect frame of mind for sitting in a room and calmly answering a series of problems. So for me an unread book by the author is always a pleasure.

The Victim concerns a man named Leventhal who works for a New York magazine publisher. During a sweltering hot summer in the city, he finds himself alone. His wife has travelled South to be with her family. His brother is away working in Galviston, leaving Leventhal to check in on his sister-in-law and her children. He feels it is his duty to take care of the young family, but resents the hysterical calls he receives from his brother’s wife Elena. When he is called away from the office because of an emergency, his resentment towards her grows when he discovers her youngest son Mickey is seriously ill and she does not want him to be sent to hospital, preferring to care for him at home. Lonely without his wife and frustrated with his brother’s absence , as well as concerned that his employer at the magazine will not tolerate his abrupt departures from the office on these emergency calls –  Leventhal’s nerves are already dangerously frayed when he encounters a man from his past named Kirby Allbee.

Though he has not thought about Allbee in years, he is surprised at how readily his name comes to mind when he meets the fellow in a public park late one night. Leventhal can see that the man has hit on hard times, his face flush with drink and remembers that only for the grace of god he might also have shared this humiliating fate.

Allbee drops a series of hints that he has been expecting Leventhal, that he owes him for a serious wrong done to him. Then, frustrated at the obliviousness of his perceived enemy, Allbee accuses him of deliberately ruining his life. Leventhal protests that he has no idea what the man opposite him means, but then recalls that it was Allbee who had recommended him for a job interview with a publisher that quickly went sour. Leventhal had argued with the man, a Mr Rudiger who was used to having his own way and flew into a rage when this interviewee saw fit to lecture him on how to run his own business.

However, Leventhal also remembers that Allbee had always been a serious drinker, a friend of a mutual friend who would often make excuses for his poor behaviour at parties and who enjoyed making malicious anti-semitic remarks within hearing to provoke him and other Jews. In Leventhal’s eyes Allbee is yet another New England Old Family aristocrat who cannot accept responsibility for his own failings.

Despite himself though, he begins to sympathize with the twisted Allbee, even evidence a strong paranoiac streak of his own. The man seems to appear wherever he goes, eventually invading Leventhal’s home, which he is powerless to prevent. Each of them believes himself to be a victim of the other, but also of their class, their race, everything that makes them who they are.

Bellow in effect has reinvented Dostoyevsky’s The Double and aligned it to a Jewish & Anglo-Saxon x/y axis. The demented Allbee views Leventhal’s success as being a result of Jewish influence in the professional sector. Leventhal is infuriated by this, but doubts himself, questioning the validity of his indignation.

Bellow is a master of introspection, the doubling of these two tormented men is perfectly captured. A modern classic.


 


‘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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