Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the Eve

Ivan Turgenev

Another portrait into the Russian nineteenth century. This one centers on the insights as well as dilemmas faced by the Russian intelligentsia around the Crimean War. Questions of society, activity, thought, art, politics and the West achieve central focus, in the context of intergenerational fervent. The main themes are reminiscent of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, although with a somewhat different tone and overall far less intensity or overall quality. Indeed, this story left less moved than the norm for Turgenev, partly because there was in fact more direct story and literal plot than in some of his earlier pieces. In a recent review I commented on the strength of his writing even with little happening in the formal dramatic sense, and that aspect is born out from the other side of the equation--here a fair deal is happening, but too much of it moves around a love triange and ends up feeling overly flat. It’s on the margins of the main story where politics and the impossible political dilemmas seep through that the text becomes alive, becomes aesthetically radical. Rather oddly, I find myself drawn more to the plotless segments of the book, the long speeches, the description of the natural world.

It’s far from a failure, in no small part because the characters are well conveyed, vivid and specific at all the right points. Still, there remains a sense that they could have become a lot more interesting and effective as elements in writing if they’d been doing less of the typical romantic focus and shifting, and perhaps if they’;d done less in general, been given more of a chance to simply be.

Worse than: Sketches from a Hunter’s Album by Ivan Turgenev
Better than: The Crocodile by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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