Ivan Turgenev is probably the least known of the Russian trio of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev but nonetheless you should read him if you want to boast that you’ve read ‘the Russians’.
Sketches from a Hunter’s Album is a lesser known work of this lesser known Russian, written before his big novel Fathers and Sons.
“Oh, you think everyone's interesting. That's because you're a Red. I don't. I believe that quite a lot of people were just manufactured when God was thinking of something else," says a character in Mortimer's 'Paradise Postponed' and Turgenev must obviously be "a Red" because he finds all his subjects in those little sketches immensely interesting. In just a few pages he extracts what is important about a character and make him as vivid as if we met the chap ourselves and drank vodka with him. (He does also write about women).
Upon a first glance these are just beautiful pastoral stories filled with love for the Russian landscape and its people, but obviously they are not as innocent as they appear or Turgenev wouldn't get arrested on their account.
Nowadays we might wonder what was so outrageous about them but in Tsarist Russia you simply couldn’t say anything that would question the institution of serfdom (which was thriving in Russia until mid-19th century, long after it was abandoned in Western Europe, and was almost indistinguishable from slavery).
Turgenev doesn’t come across as very engaged because his narrator is almost entirely removed, his only role being that of an observer, but with such an obvious injustice facts alone suffice and there is hardly any need for a commentary. Also, his perceptive portraits of all the characters speak volumes about his compassion, more than any politically engaged diatribe would.
While the political angle of this book is important, it, of course, is no longer as relevant as it was. What is important, though, are the descriptions of nature and landscape. I read and re-read those wanting to teleport myself to Ukraine in summer or spring. Sadly, here I am, in dreary London, where there was no summer for the last three years. When was the last time I spent a warm summer night by a campfire? When was the last time I smelled the forest early in the morning? When was the last time I ran through the fields escaping a sudden spring shower? When did I actually wade in a river?
Turgenev is right - non-hunters can envy hunters. I envy them the whole thing, bar the animal killing, as I don’t have any need for that. If you can go to some untamed countryside in a temperate climate, go. If you can’t, read Turgenev, it’s the next best thing. I don’t think there is any writer who can evoke a sense of place more gracefully than him. He also addresses the reader directly (although he does, of course, assume him to be a man), which is rather quaint and I wish more contemporary writers did that, other than in post-modernist experiments a la Calvino. I liked this book so much I also bought a Polish translation. I think Turgenev would read wonderfully in Polish.
All of the stories were beautifully written but as far as content goes, my favourite ones were Bezhin Lea and the Clatter of Wheels. Interestingly, they both take place during a summer night. Give me a summer night!
Or at least real spring. I’ll take spring.
"It's time, however, to finish. Appropriately I have mentioned the spring' in springtime it is easy to say goodbye, in the spring even the happy are enticed to far-off places... Farewell, my reader; I wish you lasting happiness and well-being."