At Harold Bloom’s suggestion in HTR&W, I tackled “Bezhin Lea” and “Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands” by Ivan Turgenev. I say “tackled” because, unfortunately, these stories were evidence to me that I am accustomed to reading quickly and easily; reading them was a “difficult pleasure.” I expect not all of the stories on Bloom’s reading list will be so (dare I say it?) dull, but to me, “Bezhin Lea” and “Kasyan” failed to ignite my interest, despite the superior quality of the writing. I had intended to read all of Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, but I think I’ll stop at just the two for now.
Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (also called A Sportman’s Sketches) contains more than 25 stories about a hunter (assumed to be Turgenev) relating his experiences among the people he meets. The two “sketches” I read were beautifully written.
In “Bezhin Lea” (or “Bezhin Meadow” or “Bezhin Prairie”), the hunter gets lost after a long day of hunting. In the darkening twilight, he comes across a group of young peasant boys, with whom he spends the evening. Feigning sleep, the hunter overhears the conversation among the boys, which is about superstition and life and death. Bloom opines that we should read this story
to know better our own reality, our vulnerability to fate, while learning also to appreciate aesthetically Turgenev’s tact and only apparent detachment as a storyteller. (page 33)
I struggled to find my “own reality” in “Bezhin Lea.” After reading Bloom’s comments, I reread the story. Upon second reading I could sense what Bloom means: because the narrator was detached, the other characters are developed objectively to some extent. I suppose not “getting it” is just an example of how poorly I read the story the first time, but I also remember that Bloom expressed in his prologue that reading is intensely personal, and what he gets out of a story is not necessarily what I get out of the story. Maybe that is the case with Turgenev.
In “Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands” (or “Kasyan of Fair Springs”), the hunter is returning home from hunting when the axle breaks on his coach. He and his driver stop in a peasant village to have it repaired. While waiting, the hunter meets a strange peasant man, a dwarf named Kasyan. The hunter stays with Kasyan and goes hunting for grouse. The character of Kasyan was interesting to me and the writing was again beautiful, but again it took me two readings to really like him and the careful development of his character. Only after my second reading did I realize what Bloom meant:
[The hunter’s] thoughts on Kasyan remain unexpressed, but do we need them? … One need not idealize Kasyan; his peasant shrewdness and perceptions exclude a great deal of value, but he incarnates truths of folklore that he himself may scarcely know that he knows. (page 35)
I think Turgenev has a superb ability to capture the individuals in peasant society within the context of a story. In “Bezhin Lea” and “Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands,” Turgenev captured the different superstitions and philosophies of the peasants without lecturing us or rehearsing it before us. While I’m not in love with his writing, I think that is a reflection on my own ingrained reading habits. I can sense the quality of his writing, and I look forward, at some point in my life and not right now, revisiting Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.
Note that I read these two stories by Turgenev via the public domain project at Project Gutenberg, where the translator was different from Bloom’s. Also, if you haven’t yet read the stories and were planning on reading Bloom’s How to Read and Why, please note that Bloom does reveal spoilers: Bloom assumes that we, as readers, have already read these stories. I suspect that is how he will treat all of the works on his list. I’ve decided that I’m going to hesitate to read Bloom’s overview until I’ve read the work myself. I’m still intending to read his works in order; we’ll see if that lasts as well.
Do you consider Turgenev’s stories to be superior? Why or why not?
If you’ve read and reviewed Turgenev’s stories on your site, leave a link and I’ll post it here.
I can’t comment on the quality of Turgenev’s stories, because I haven’t read them yet. But I am interested to know if you read them or listened to them? I’ve downloaded audio books from Project Guttenberg (or was it Libre Vox?), but have not read any, because I don’t like to read on my computer.
In general, I’ve decided that I enjoy listening to some of these “classics” because they make more sense to me. Odd, since I usually think I learn with my eyes, not my ears. But a good reader for an audio book will do the difficult work of parsing the sentence and getting the phrasing right. It makes it easier to understand.
Of course, you can’t study the writing itself because it is hard to go back and re-read. SO when I really get into HTR&W, I’ll have to read the books, not just listen to them.
@Rose City Reader:
I read the Project Gutenberg version, on my computer. That may have been part of it: reading on my computer just didn’t give them a chance. But I’ve read other things on my computer and not minded (all of Age of Innocence and I loved that book!). I wonder if the translator would have made a difference. I’ll revisit Turgenev again but not right now!
I’ve just discovered LibriVox. A very nice option! Maybe I’ll try listening to Turgenev.
Bloom’s recommendation of these stories appealed to me also. But, as the title says, they’re “sketches,” not stories. They replace a contrived plot with close observation of what people do and say. It might be fair to describe both pieces as half fiction and half journalism, though we don’t really know what the proportions might be. Fiction or semifiction, however, they seem entirely believable.
What Bloom calls Turgenev’s “tact” is his refusal to moralize about or patronize his lower-class characters, who take center stage here. The fashion in literature before Turgenev (and Balzac a decade or two earlier) was to write romantically about idealized upper-class people in stories in which good triumphed and everything was neatly resolved. Turgenev instead shows us, apparently realistically, some of the intriguing and surprising thoughts of plain, uneducated people. None of Turgenev’s characters seem like they’ve been pulled off a stock shelf. Both sketches have open-ended, thought-provoking conclusions. Kasyan remains eccentric, enigmatic, but oddly admirable. The weird, disorienting setting of “Bezhin Lea” moves into the greater weirdness of the boys’ superstitions. When dawn comes, the hunter (and the reader) may be relieved that the irrational terrors of the night are replaced by the fresh beauty of the day. But later the bravest and most resourceful of the boys dies in an accident. We’re left to wonder, I think, whether that sort of death makes any more “sense” than being cursed by a forest sprite. When one thinks about it, the world’s real dangers are, perhaps, just as sinister as its magined ones.
At least that’s how I read it.