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Lessons from a Master,
This review is from: Sketches from a Hunter's Album: The Complete Edition (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
It's taken me until now to get to Sketches From A Hunter's Album. Now I have finished it and now I am grieving. It will stay in my nonlending collection so I can savor it even after the surprise has gone. It's like losing a friend.
Turgenev calls these 'sketches' rather than stories. It's a good distinction. More story writers should concentrate on their sketch pads. The sketches are of places and people in the rural south of Russia in the 1840s. Each is strung thematically on Turgenev's wandrings through the countryside while hunting for game birds. Each begins with a mention that he was hunting in a certain place. He goes into lovely thoughtful and surprising descriptions of the woods or marsh, the sky, the smells, the sounds, the light. Even in translation, these are exquisite. He speaks of shifting light shining through the leaves onto the forest floor, or unbreatheable noonday heat, or changing skies at the advent of a storm, a dawn, or a sunset; he calls up moments from your own life that you thought could not be shared with anyone who wasn't there and he makes you relive those moments as if he had been there with you.
For anyone who has spent time out of doors, these little Aldo Leopold nature essays standing alone would be reason enough to read the 'Sketches', but these are just hors d'œuvre to his descriptions of the persons he meets while hunting. When sketching people, Turgenev does gracefully what Dickens tried to do and did clumsily; that is, he describes the physical characteristics of a person and gives you a fully formed description of their character as well, and he does this without sounding forced and without showing himself. (And you will burst out laughing at the sudden recognition that, indeed, someone does look 'like a root vegetable'.)
"Sketches" was published twice in Turgenev's lifetime and in the second edition he added to it. In the earlier sketches, Turgenev brings a character to life in a description; the character may speak a few words, and disappear from the scene, as people do in real life, leaving the reader to speculate what became of him. Yet, Turgenev has given us enough insight into the character that we think we know what probably happened next, and so the story is complete. These are elegant Aristotelian constructs with the action taking place offstage, and, oh elegance! with the final action taking place in the reader's imagination after the story has ended. If my description leaves you wondering, read them! (Would that I could spur you to act as Turgenev spurs his readers to think. Ah, but it's too much... .) This is what Turgenev does. He starts you thinking, but requires you to complete the story. In the later sketches Turgenev is just as deft in his descriptions, but perhaps to satisfy the market or his editors he adopts a more plot driven model. These later contributions can more truly be called stories rather than sketches. They are equally well-crafted, but they demand less of the reader. Curiously, they give us less as well.
The hunter's travels theme gives the collection an interrelatedness, almost like a picaresque novel. As in Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote, neither the author nor the protagonist directly express opinions, but as stories accumulate the reader acquires the author's strong politicized view. We meet the aristocrats and peasants of rural Russia. The serf-holding system had been 'liberalized' in the early 19th century, but it is revealed as the unnamed slavery it was. Landlords control peasants' rights to marry; they name the persons to fill regional conscription quotas; they assign agricultural and residential alotments; and thoughtless and uncaring aristocrats use these powers carelessly or maliciously to destroy lives. Liberal aristocrats fare no better than traditional feudalists, as Turgenev details social reformers' well-meaning disasters which beggar both for the peasants and the bumbling aristocrats who direct them.
America often forgets that its civil war was part of a European pandemic of peasant revolts driven by the extended logic of the Enlightenment. As masters and slaves in the United States were struggling with the immorality of a divine order handed down from a prior age, the masters and servants in Europe did the same. The 1840s, 50s, and 60s were tumultuous times in central and eastern Europe. Turgenev, arrested and exiled in 1852 because of the 'Sketches', has an historical place akin to the American abolitionists of the same day, however, unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, Turgenev draws his characters in three dimensions with humanity, with love and understanding even when he does not forgive them their moral failings. The 'Sketches' would be an interesting book to teach alongside Huckleberry Finn.