Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

One of the great things about keeping a book review blog is that it pushes you to read books that would otherwise have remained on your to do list.  Such a book is Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (published 1862).  I'm a big fan of Russian literature and so I wondered would Fathers and Sons be as good as I hoped?  The answer is yes.  It's very good and I would also add a wonderful introduction to the 19th century Russian novel.

Fathers and Sons is set in Russia's rural countryside and the year is 1859. Russia has recently lost the Crimean war.  Alexander II has suceeded his father as Emperor of Russia and has ushured in a new age of reform.  The question of the Russian serfs (who will be emancipated in 1861)  is on everyone's mind.  It is a time of  turmoil in Russia.  Things are in flux and this is particularly true in the divide between the older and younger generations.

And so when the novel begins, Nikolai Kirsanov, a landowner, is waiting for his son Arkady Kirsanov.  Arkady has been away at the University of St Petersburg, and he has brought home with him a medical student friend, Yergeny Bazarov.   Nikolai is thrilled to have his son home from college and is very welcoming to Bazarov. Arkady's uncle, Pavel Kirsanov, looks at Bazarov, his long hair and arrogant manner and takes an immediate dislike to the young doctor. Arkady announces to his father that he and Bazarov are nihilists.  They reject authority and question everything. Bazarov explains the disillusionment he and his fellow nihilists feel with society as follows:

"We saw that even the clever ones amongst us, the so-called leading figures in society and the social critics as they're called, were no bloody good and we were busy talking alot of nonsense, fussing about with this and that kind of art and unconscious creativity and parliamentarianism and a legal profession and devil knows what, when the real business of life was about one's daily bread, when the grossest superstition was stifling us, when all our joint-stock companies were collapsing simply because there weren't enough honest people, when even the liberation  of the serfs which the government's been so busy with, will scarcely do us any good because our peasants will be glad to steal from each other simply in order to drink themselves silly down the local pub". 

Fathers and Sons has a number of sub plots involving other characters but primarily this is Bazarov's story.  Bazarov is a fascinating character who has an effect on everyone he meets.  His friend Arkady idolizes him, Arkady's uncle despises him. Arkady's father is just trying to keep the peace.  The beautful young widow Anna Odintsova, who is every bit Bazarov's equal intellectually, is intrigued by him. Bazarov's parents feel their son walks on water and when Bazarov comes home troubled about something he asks for privacy and his father tells his wife:

"You and I, my old dear, wore out our Evgeny a wee bit on his first visit.  Now we've got to be more sensible." Arina Vlasevma agreed to what her husband said but gained little from it because she only saw her son at meal-times and finally became frightened to talk to him at all ... and then she'd go off to Vasily Ivanovich and ask him, leaning her cheek on her hand: 'How can I find out, my dear, what darling Enyushka'd likes for dinner, cabbage soup or borsch? 'Why haven't you asked him yourself?'  'But I'd bore him!'

What troubles Yevgeny Bazarov is that he has fallen in love with Anna Odintsova and he is not so much heartbroken that she does not feel the same (though she does care about him) as he is angry that he let his guard down.  As Bazarov told his friend Arkady earlier in the book:

"And what's all this about the mysterious relationships between a man and a woman? We physiologists know all about these relationships.  Just you study the anatomy of the eye - where's all this enigmatic look, as you call it, comes from?  It's all romanticism, nonsense, rubbish artiness". 

Bazarov returns home and decides to join his father, also a doctor, and take care of the patients in their rural community.  The father is thrilled and boasts to all his friends that his son knows all the new medical treatments.  But there is tragedy looming at the end of this novel which I won't recount here in order to preserve some suspense.

Fathers and Sons when it was published back in 1861 was controversial.  The older generation felt Turgenev was glorifying nihilism.  The younger generation felt that Turgenev had turned Bazarov into a caricature of a young radical.  But today Fathers and Sons is recognized as one of the great novels of world literature where it is often included in 100 best novels of all time lists.  I really enjoyed Fathers and Sons.  One of the best books I've read since starting my book blog back in 2015.  It's not a very long novel, 200 pages, and since translation is key I would advise reading the Oxford World Classics edition, translated wonderfully by Richard Freeborn.  You won't be disappointed.


  1. Great review.

    I have been wanting to read this for some time. There are many reasons that I think this this book would appeal to me. One of many is hat I am fascinated by studies of nihilism.

    I agree on the importance of translation, especially when it comes to Russian literature. I tend to do a bit of research before reading anything in translation these days.

    1. Hi Brian,

      Thank for your comments. I too am fascinated by nihilism. Interesting that we have such great writers from 19th century Russia: Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov but the 20th century with the exception of Pasternack there are no really great novels that I know of. Not hard to figure out why.

  2. Great review, I have never heard of this one before, thank you will go and check it out.


    1. Thanks so much for responding. It is a very good book and a great intro to the 19th century Russian novel.