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The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev Paperback – November 15, 2012
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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About the Author
Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900-1997) was born over a toyshop in 1900 and, much to his everlasting distaste, was named after Queen Victoria. A writer and critic, his is widely reputed to be one of the best short story writers of all time, with the rare ability to capture the extraordinary strangeness of everyday life. He died in 1997.
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So it's hard to avoid the feeling that the account is somewhat one-sided. But where it does succeed splendidly is in conveying - perhaps not wholly intentionally - the rank absurdity of Russian political and literary life. The character sketches, even if incomplete, are outstandingly vivid. Most writers are treated benevolently, with the curious and glaring exception of Goncharov. But the overall effect is inescapable: Russian writers strut like bumbling puppets in an outrageous farce among the humourlessly insane revolutionaries, literary critics, Slavophiles, social conservatives and other entrenched zealots, all vaguely homicidal. Much of the book reads as if it were conceived by Waugh or Gerhardie and set in that kind of never-never land. And somehow all this sounds exactly true.
The least interesting parts cover Turgenev's lifelong relationship with the Viardots: the relationship is bizarre enough in itself, but somehow bloodless and uneventful; any mileage that can be extracted from it would be mostly material for psychoanalysis. Pritchett does not go that way, although it seems significant - if not striking - that throughout his life Turgenev was apparently unable to sustain, or perhaps even consummate, a sexual relationship with a woman of his own class. That does rather limit the dramatic aspects of the narrative and strengthens the farcical; although Pritchett is at pains to stress how much suffering his subject went through. No doubt Turgenev himself would be the first to agree, but as suffering goes, his lot does not seem excatly insupportable (granted that his last years were physically painful).
All this is not to quibble with the book, just to point out its limitations and idiosyncrasies. Much of it is fascinating, especially the numerous details and observations that by their nature would be unlikely to crop up with a Russian biographer: for instance, Turgenev burning sugar and sealing wax to mask the stench of his manservant's feet; or the way Belinsky, an ardent Westerner, despised Europe and had not the slightest interest in its history; Turgenev leaving his bedside rug to Pauline as a memento; Pauline sending him her nail clippings; etc.
I noted a couple of details that Pritchett gets wrong: strangely, both concern the poet Tyutchev. He states that after the famous fire at sea incident Turgenev had a long affair with Tyutchev's wife who had behaved, unlike Turgenev, with great personal courage during the ordeal. It seems, however, that within a couple of weeks she left for Italy with her husband, and within two or three months she was dead, so an affair, long or otherwise, is unlikely. Perhaps it was an affair in the sense of his other affairs with mature women - strictly platonic, passionately unadventurous. I have found no mention of it, though, in other sources. Secondly, Pritchett is under the misapprehension that Tyutchev was the agent hired by Turgenev to manage his estate. It is more likely to have been Nikolay Tyutchev, a non-writing member of Belinsky's circle, many times mentioned by Goncharov with vitriol as one of Turgenev's hangers-on; again, though, I have seen no other source to confirm this.