Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

Fathers & Sons by Turgenev (1861). French title : Pères et fils. Translated by Françoise Flamant. For quotes, I have used English the translation by Richard Hare that I found online.

Turgenev_Peres_FilsWe are in Russia in 1859 and Arkady Kirsanov comes home to his father’s small country estate. He has finished school and brings with him his friend Bazarov. The book opens with a warm chapter where the Kirsanovs, father and son, meet again after Arkady’s long absence. Nikolai Petrovich is very affectionate with his son and really happy to have him back. In return, Arkady clearly dearly loves his father. Arkady’s mother is dead and the Kirsanov household is composed of his father Nikolai Petrovich, his uncle Pavel Petrovich and Arkady soon discovers that his father has a young mistress, Fenichka and that they have a child together.

Bazarov is introduced right away as a nihilist. He speaks his mind, believes in nothing, is only interested in science and considers art as useless. He despises women and sentiments. He likes arguing for the sake of it and rapidly enters into verbal fights with Pavel Petrovich. Arkady is full of admiration for Bazarov, Nikolai Petrovich is ready to give him some credit since his son finds him so fascinating. The first chapters of the books show these arguments between the young generation represented by Bazarov and the old generation represented by Pavel Petrovich. Bazarov speaks like an extremist, probably fueled by his youth. Turgenev is obviously trying to state a point through these dialogues. He belongs to Pavel Petrovich’s generation and statements such as this one:

Autrefois les jeunes gens étaient obligés d’étudier ; ils n’avaient pas envie de passer pour des ignares, ils se donnaient du mal, bon gré, mal gré. Aujourd’hui, il leur suffit de dire : fariboles, tout n’est que fariboles ! Et le tour est joué. Ils sont bien contents, les jeunes gens. C’est vrai, cela: autrefois ils étaient tout bonnement des propres à rien, et maintenant les voilà tout d’un coup promus nihilistes Formerly young men had to study. If they didn’t want to be called fools they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now they need only say ‘Everything in the world is rubbish!’ and the trick is done. Young men are delighted. And, to be sure, they were only sheep before, but now they have suddenly turned into Nihilists.

made me cringe. This sounds like the eternal dispute between parents and children and I don’t like the idea that youth is depraved, less cultured than their parents, blah blah blah. Every generation has said things like this about their children and for me it comes more from an inability of the oldest to adjust to society’s changes than from the youth being less worthy. Anyway.

After a short stay at Nikolai Petrovich’s, the young men go to town and end up staying at another estate that belongs to Anna Sergeyevna. She’s a young widow who lives with her sister Katya. Arkady has a crush on Anna Sergeyevna who has put him in the friend zone. However, she’s fascinated by Bazarov and they spend long moments discussing, leaving Arkady to entertain the young Katya.

And poor Bazarov who has loudly exposed how foolish it is to fall in love finds himself in a love trap with Anna Sergeyevna while Arkady starts to appreciate Katya’s company. And I won’t say more about the plot.

At the beginning, I didn’t like Bazarov at all. Surely, harsh judgments like this one…

« Pourquoi ne veux-tu pas tolérer la liberté de pensée chez les femmes ? dit-il à mi-voix.- Mon vieux, parce que, d’après mes observations, les seules femmes qui pensent librement sont des horreurs. » “Why do you disagree with free thought for women?” he asked in a low voice.“Because, my lad, as far as I can see, free-thinking women are all monsters.”

…didn’t help his case with me. And it’s repeated several times only with different words.

He has the arrogance of the youth who think they know everything and despise the older generation, on principle. The man is full of principles about everything and also full of himself. Time teaches you that you need to stick to your values in life but be a bit more malleable about principles, otherwise compromises are hard to find. Being in love forces Bazarov to look at himself in a new light. He’s not better than the others and feelings cannot be helped.

After a while, they leave Anna Sergeyevna’s estate and go to Bazarov’s parents. The prodigal son is welcomed with warm embraces and tears of joy. Bazarov’s father was a doctor in the military. The family lived the life of wanderers before Bazarov Senior retired to his wife’s property. Now he grows vegetables, takes care of the villagers and spends time with his wife. He’s like Candide, minding his own business and cultivating his garden. The unwanted love feelings that can’t be repressed alter Bazarov’s behavior. He becomes less arrogant, understands his father better and shows more what his apparent harshness hides, like here, in this discussion with Arkady:

Bazarov ne répondit pas aussitôt.« Sais-tu à quoi je pense ? dit-il enfin en croisant ses bras sous sa tête.- Non. A quoi?

– Au fait que mes parents ont la belle vie ! A soixante ans, mon père se démène, il a plein la bouche de ses “palliatifs”, il soigne les gens, joue les grands cœurs avec les paysans, il s’en paye, quoi; ma mère aussi est heureuse: ses journées sont à ce point bourrées d’occupations de toute sortes, et de gémissements, et de lamentations, qu’elle n’a même pas le temps de se voir vivre ; tandis que moi…

– Toi ?

– Moi je pense que je suis là, couché au pied d’une meule…La toute petite place que j’occupe est si infime en comparaison du reste de l’espace où je ne suis pas et où rien ne me concerne ; et la portion de temps qu’il me sera donné de vivre est tellement insignifiante à côté de cette éternité où je n’étais pas et où je ne serai pas…Et dans cet atome, dans ce point mathématique, le sang circule, le cerveau travaille, désire aussi…Quel scandale ! Quelle inanité !

– Permets moi de te faire observer que ce que tu dis là s’applique à tous les hommes en général…

– Tu as raison, repartit Bazarov. Je voulais dire qu’eux, là, mes parents, ils sont occupés et ne s’inquiètent pas de leur propre insignifiance, elle ne leur monte pas à la gorge…tandis que moi je…je ne ressens que de l’ennui et de la haine. »

Bazarov was silent for a while. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” he said at last, clasping his hands behind his head.“No. What is it?”

“I’m thinking how happy life is for my parents! My father at the age of sixty can fuss around, chat about ‘palliative measures,’ heal people; he plays the magnanimous master with the peasants–has a gay time in fact; and my mother is happy too; her day is so crammed with all sorts of jobs, with sighs and groans, that she hasn’t a moment to think about herself; while I…”

“While you?”

“While I think; here I lie under a haystack…The tiny narrow space I occupy is so minutely small in comparison with the rest of space where I am not and which has nothing to do with me; and the portion of time in which it is my lot to live is so insignificant beside the eternity where I have not been and will not be… And in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something … how disgusting! How petty!”

“Allow me to point out that what you say applies generally to everyone.”

“You’re right,” interrupted Bazarov. “I wanted to say that they, my parents I mean, are occupied and don’t worry about their own nothingness; it doesn’t sicken them …while I …I feel nothing but boredom and anger.”

At that stage I thought that poor Bazarov had now seen the real reason to his zeal. He was trying to fill the void.

Apart from the conflict of generation, there’s also a political side of Fathers and Sons about the agrarian reform that occurred these years in Russia. If I understood well, the main change is that serfs became farmers. Nikolai Petrovich and Anna Sergeyevna are liberal and in favor of the change. I’m not familiar with this reform and the political context of Russia at the time. Turgenev wanted to make a point but I can’t write about it. The novel is also stuffed with references to scientific theories and scientists of the time as Bazarov is a doctor and interested in sciences. They flew far above my head and only impaired my reading.

Fathers and Sons was our Book Club choice for April and it unanimously received mild appreciation. I have mixed feelings about this novel. Sure, it is interesting on many levels and it is a great piece of literature. I can see what Turgenev brought to Russian literature. But –of course, there’s a but—I never felt engaged in the characters’ story. I felt they were created for the writer to put his ideas in a literary form. Turgenev wanted to make a point more than he wanted to tell a story. I could feel it and that’s why I didn’t love the book.

PS : In May we’re reading Machine Man by Max Barry.

  1. May 3, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    I’m glad this isn’t one of many unread Russian novels I own. It sounds a bit dry. Your review doesn’t tempt me at all – and after Agnes Grey I hope I’ve learned my lesson. However, you made me rememeber that I’ve still not read First Love, which I own. Have you read that?


    • May 3, 2015 at 8:45 pm

      Dry is the right adjective, I think.

      This was my first Turgenev. I have book which includes L’abandonnée, Jacques Passinkov and Andreï Kolosov. I wonder why they keep on translating firstnames in French instead of leaving the Russian names. It gets on my nerves. English translators don’t do that and call a Pyotr “Peter”


      • May 4, 2015 at 7:45 am

        That’s very annoying. I suppose newer translators don’t do it so much.


        • May 9, 2015 at 6:39 pm

          They do it all the time with Russian names.
          Do they do that in German?


          • May 9, 2015 at 7:59 pm

            I don’t think so. I never noticed.


  2. May 3, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Emma, you might be interested to read what I thought (LOL only a couple of paragraphs) about how each character represents a ‘type’ in Russian society at that time, see http://anzlitlovers.com/2012/07/06/fathers-and-sons-by-ivan-turgenev/


    • May 3, 2015 at 9:02 pm

      Thanks for the link.

      Hmm. I think the characters are caricatures in spite of Turgenev.

      Arkady seems weak but while he’s tempted to look up to Bazarov, he has strong beliefs coming from his education. He’s willing to change but not to the extreme Bazarov is ready to go to.

      I don’t think Pavel is set in his ways. He’s ready for changes but he admires Great Britain and he’d like a British model for Russia. Bazarov is the antithesis of British politeness, so they could only start on the wrong footing. (foot? I’ll never know)

      I liked Anna, and I liked Turgenev for creating a female character who doesn’t swoon of love as soon as a man looks at her and doesn’t feel the urge to die of unrequited love. How ironic. Bazarov despises love and despises intellectual women and he falls in love with an Anna!!


  3. May 3, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Sorry to hear that you didn’t love Turgenev but this one may not have been the best one for you to start with due to its political content/point. First Love is excellent and I hope you try that (Caroline too). The Emancipation of the Serfs wasn’t as good a social event as it sounds and it certainly added to the civil unrest and helped pave the way to revolution. The serfs were taxed heavily and often had nothing left over on which to survive. It was a mess….


    • May 3, 2015 at 9:04 pm

      I’ll keep First Love in mind.

      I don’t have enough background in Russian history to fully appreciate what Turgenev tried to show here. I had the feeling, though, that the transition between serf and farmer was ill-prepared.


  4. May 3, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    I have been wanting to read this for years. I will hopefully get to this one soon.

    Sometimes writers to create characters to represent things. I agree that such creations are difficult to connect and feel sympathy for.

    I also agree that when older folks disparage younger generations that it usually rings very hollow.


    • May 3, 2015 at 9:07 pm

      You’d probably find it interesting. In your edition, the publisher might include a nice introduction to all the political aspects.
      I had helpful footnotes but it wasn’t enough.


  5. May 3, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    An excellent critique, Emma. I think I would find this novel a little frustrating too, probably for the sane reasons as you’ve articulated in your billet. It does sound rather heavy-handed. A product of the Russian society of the period, perhaps?


    • May 3, 2015 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks Jacqui.

      The translation dates back to 1982 and I found it a bit heavy and the dialogues a bit theatrical. However, when I looked for quotes in English, the translation was in line with the French one. So I guess it’s the real style of the writer.

      Sometimes the dialogues reminded me of a play by Molière, like The Learned Ladies.

      I’m not sure it’s a product of the Russian society of the time. It’s more a Turgenev thing.

      Perhaps someone with better knowledge of Russian literature will help us on that.


  6. May 4, 2015 at 5:50 am

    Everyone here followed the Turgenev \ Chernyshevsky \ Dostoevsky saga as discussed at Wuthering Expectations and at this point many other book blogs? No? I guess not? Fathers and Sons was a piece of dynamite. Kaboom!

    I usually think of Turgenev as the light, elegant Russian, the French Russian, with Fathers and Sons the most elegant of the bunch. Dostoevsky is the heavy one. Turgenev’s dialogues can certainly be theatrical. A couple of his earlier novellas feel suspiciously like plays converted into novel form.

    The peasants almost all farmed when they were serfs, and they continued to farm when they were freed, at least until the Soviet government started herding them into cities.


    • May 5, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      Sorry but I didn’t follow this saga. To be honest, what you write is too complicated for me, most of the time. 🙂

      Is this novel elegant? That’s not an adjective I would have chosen to describe it. The dialogues are theatrical, sometimes. I wonder if it comes from the translation. It would be interesting to compare Viardot’s translation to the one I’ve read. Viardot didn’t speak Russian but Turgenev helped him…(don’t ask me how you can translate a book whose language you don’t speak.)


  7. May 6, 2015 at 2:32 am

    What I write is mostly too complicated for me, too. So that’s all right.

    I would love to know about the old French translation. What did Flaubert read, what did he see? For an example of elegance – more cinematic than theatrical – see the last paragraph and especially the move to the last line of Chapter 4. No dialogue in that passage. Technically not too far from Flaubert.


    • May 9, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      Ha ha!

      Here’s the translation by Turgeniev & Viardot

      Here’s the last paragraph of the Chapter 4 in both translations:


      Dieu sait à quoi il pensait ainsi, mais ce n’était pas dans le passé seulement qu’errait son imagination; il avait l’air morne et absorbé, ce qui n’est point le cas lorsque l’on s’abandonne uniquement à des souvenirs. Au fond d’une petite chambre donnant sur le derrière, se tenait assise, revêtue d’une douchagreïka bleue, et un mouchoir blanc sur ses cheveux noirs, une jeune femme, nommée Fenitchka; quoique tombant de sommeil, elle tendait l’oreille et jetait de temps en temps les yeux sur une porte entr’ouverte, qui laissait voir un petit lit où dormait un enfant dont on entendait la respiration égale.


      Dieu sait où vagabondaient ses pensées, mais à coup sûr ce n’était pas uniquement dans le passé : son visage avait une expression concentrée et maussade que l’on n’a pas, lorsqu’on est occupé seulement de souvenirs. Et dans une petite chambre située à l’arrière de la maison, une jeune femme veillait aussi, assise sur un large coffre : elle portait un chauffe-cœur bleu pâle et elle avait jeté un fichu blanc sur ses cheveux sombres ; Fénetchka, car c’était elle, tour à tour prêtait l’oreille, somnolait, ou levait les yeux vers la porte grande ouverte derrière laquelle on apercevait un lit d’enfant d’où montait la respiration égale d’un bébé endormi.

      English translation:

      God knows where his thoughts were wandering, but they were not wandering only in the past; his face had a stern and concentrated expression, unlike that of a man who is solely absorbed in his memories. And in a little back room, on a large chest, sat a young woman in a blue jacket with a white kerchief thrown over her dark hair; this was Fenichka; she was now listening, now dozing, now looking across towards the open door, through which a child’s bed was visible and the regular breathing of a sleeping infant could be heard.

      The Flamant translation is closer to the English translation, so we may say that there’s a good chance they are close to the original. However, the last sentence “ou levait les yeux vers la porte grande ouverte derrière laquelle on apercevait un lit d’enfant d’où montait la respiration égale d’un bébé endormi” is very heavy in French with the “derrière laquelle” and the “d’où montait” in the same sentence. It sounds lighter in English, at least to me.
      I don’t know Flaubert well enough to compare but in my opinion Turgenev doesn’t have the lightness of brush that Flaubert has when he describes someone. But, I read Turgenev in translation and Flaubert in the original…


  8. Vishy
    May 6, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘Father and Sons’ as much as you had hoped to, Emma. Turgenev was one of my favourite authors when I first started reading Russian literature. I love his love stories, especially ‘First Love’ and ‘Torrents of Spring’ – I remember crying a lot when I first read them 🙂 I haven’t read Turgenev for a long time though, and so I don’t know how much I will like him now. I hope to read ‘Fathers and Sons’ sometime though and see whether I agree with you. It was interesting to read Bazarov’s thoughts on women – being from the new generation and being rebellious, I would have thought that his thoughts would be more liberal. Reading that passage does make us cringe. I remember reading somewhere that Turgenev was the first Russian writer to make it big in Europe and in other countries – even ahead of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov – he was a celebrity in his era. Today though, the reputations of the other three have grown dramatically while his has declined.


    • May 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm

      I’ll probably read First Love one of these days.

      I agree with you: I expected Bazarov to be more modern in his vision of women. But he speaks like a Neanderthal and it’s annoying.

      Turgenev was famous in his time. I read somewhere that he prepared readers for the future great Russian novelists.

      I loved War and Peace and The Idiot.


  9. May 8, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Thanks for this review! I was considering to read Fathers and Sons which seems to be among Tugenev’s most famous works. So far I only know his novella First Love and to be truthfully, it didn’t leave me overly impressed although it wasn’t too bad either.

    Well, I’ve had my share of Russian literature two decades ago – I even ploughed my way through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a complete, thus unabridged German edition – and I realised that I don’t seem to be on the same wave length with Russian authors because none of the books sent me into raptures. Recently I read some novellas of Fyodor Dostoyevsky for my upcoming Reading Summer of Nordic White Nights and nothing has changed…


    • May 9, 2015 at 6:47 pm

      I loved War and Peace and The Idiot so I’m not allergic to Russian literature. Anna Karenina gets on my nerves as a character (so does Scarlet O’Hara, btw) but it doesn’t mean anything about the book.
      One of my friends from the book club made the same statement: something’s off between her and Russian lit. Well, we can’t like everything.


      • May 11, 2015 at 2:35 pm

        Yes, we can’t like everything… but we change over time and maybe at a later stage I’ll be able to appreciate the classics of Russian literature.

        By the way, there is one novel by a Russian author which I adored, much newer, though, ie from 1972: Lydia Chukovskaya, Going Under (Спуск под воду), the sequel to Sofia Petrovna (Софья Петровна) which I never got into my hands.


        • May 11, 2015 at 10:22 pm

          That’s true, we change but I’ve noticed that I didn’t like Wuthering Heights as a teenager and disliked it the two times I read it as an adult.
          I’ve never heard of Lydia Chukovskaya.


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