April 29, 2013

On an Aristocrat's Bookshelf: Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev sits in beautiful library with a book on his lap and staring out into the distance.
Ivan Turgenev in a Beautiful Library
Turgenev is not one of those names that spring readily to mind when most think of great Russian Literature. (At least, in my circles, this is the case.) Perhaps this is for a reason- Turgenev does not have the same sweeping grandeur or philosophical treatises as Tolstoy. Perhaps he does not deal with matters so weighty as Dostoevsky nor as shocking as Nabokov. No devil has yet appeared in human form in his books- that I have recognized. If anything, he is the Russian Jane Austen.

Despite this, in the past few days Turgenev has become one of my favorite authors.   As part of my Summer Reading, I've been choosing a much wider variety of books than normal. Turgenev's First Love sat on the local library shelf. I picked it up on a whim, read the back, read the first couple of pages, and was sold. A book about Russian Aristocracy, dealing with concerns of love and well created main heroines? What isn't to love?

Turgenev's main strength is how accessible he is- much like Austen. The Penguin Classic's translator is lucid and, apparently  does great credit to Turgenev's writing. His characters are well formed and interesting. Their conflicts- mostly internal struggles- are exciting to read. Just enough is left out of the exposition that the reader has to work to fill in some of the details- a trait missing in many American authors.

But what charmed me the most about First Love is that his charming characters are actually charming. Too many times have I read stories where social, charming, captivating characters are so not because of their actions or words, but because of their descriptions or the rather false reactions of other characters. I actually liked Turganev's heroines- which is a feat for writing about the 1840's. Their actions were charming, I could see why they ensnared the attentions of many men. Yet, they weren't obnoxious or cloying.

In short, I highly recommend this author. You have the satisfaction of reading a classic, but reading it for pleasure rather than obligation. His characters are delightful to observe and you feel a real pathos.

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