Ivan Turgenev, Smoke (1867)

It’s quite a long time since I read a classics, and even longer a Russian novel. I was looking for Tchekov short stories at the library, browsing through the letter T, and I ended up with a novella by Turgenev… don’t ask! Anyway, it was a pleasant read, and I shall probably read some more classics, if my next stroll in the library doesn’t distract me.

The story of Smoke is simple enough. Back in Moscow when they were both young and poor, Litvinov fell in love with beautiful and proud Irina, but she got a chance to join the court in St. Petersburg and she married a rich and ambitious general. Years later, in Baden, the fashionable German spa town, Litvinov and Irina are reunited: she is bored among the pretentious and empty circle of expatriate Russian aristocrats and unhappy with her husband. He is engaged with a pure and simple young woman named Tatiana. Guess what? Irina’s fascination strikes once again and he’s ready to abandon Tatiana and his honor to chase the wild goose. Irina promises to leave her husband, then retracts, and then…

Actually the simple story is adorned, up to the point of being nearly derailed, by a series of satirical portraits of Russians abroad. The point is that all of them are very stupid, corrupt, vain, may they belong to the aristocrats or to the reformist parties. A lot of political issues of the time are discussed there, which in part elude me. I learnt from Googling around that the novel was writing shortly after the end of slavery in Russian Empire, and apparently the concept of liberty was still quite challenged by aristocrats. Also there was a dispute at that time between Russian nationalists and other Russians who said that Western development and values were better, at the risk of appearing self-defeating. Dostoyevsky belonged to the first group while Turgenev sided with the second, and the novel sparked off a conflict between them. It was really a surprise to me to see so much self-hatred and pessimism for Russian future depicted in the novel, and you can easily assume it was Turgenev’s own view.

Spoiler alert

The only reluctance I have with this novel is that we never get to enter Irina’s head. She’s passionate, at times proud and weak, scheming and coquette or sincerely in love, we never know for sure. Of course she pales if you compare her to Anna Karenina, an obvious reference. In the end instead of accepting to leave her husband she proposes Litvinov to follow them and to be her lover en titre, which at no times would be acceptable for such an honest man like him. This proposition seems unreasonable for her, infuriating for Litvinov and a decisive ground to break the spell under which he has been put ever since they met again. I was a tad dissatisfied with the binary opposition between honest, pure, modest, middle class Tatiana, and corrupt, evil, charming, proud aristocrat Tatiana.

Any other Russian heroine you would recommend? Maybe I just should go back to Anna Karenina, a novel I admit I skimmed through but never managed to read from cover to cover…


3 thoughts on “Ivan Turgenev, Smoke (1867)

  1. Sounds kind of fun – although I can understand your disappointment with the polar opposites (a bit stark, tend to like my fiction with a little more subtlety). I was going to recommend Anna Karenina, since its a favorite. Otherwise, have you read Crime and Punishment? Not a heroine, but a very interesting hero!

  2. This is fascinating! I hope to read more of your encounter with more classics, especially those from Russia.

    It was really a surprise to me to see so much self-hatred and pessimism for Russian future depicted in the novel, and you can easily assume it was Turgenev’s own view.

    Indeed, if I remember it right, Turgenev was gravely disillusioned by the time he wrote Smoke because his previously published work, Fathers and Sons, was not received well by the Russian reading public.

    I’ve been meaning to read Anna Karenina for the longest time. That’s one of my frustrations. Anyway, it’s not really a 19th Century classic, but Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita does have a fantastic heroine.

  3. I enjoy your comments. You can often find traces of Turgenev’s life in his stories. He spent years in France, a hanger-on of the singer Pauline Viardot. Most biographers believe that they were lovers and the husband more or less tolerated it. Turgenev himself wanted more.

    I just posted on a collection of his short stories, http://silverseason.wordpress.com/. The wealthy and powerful woman who appears in so many of them was his own mother.

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