Reviewing classic books always feels a bit strange to me because what can I add to the years of literary conversation surrounding an author like Turgenev? So instead I’ll focus on what I enjoyed.
This was my first read by Turgenev but his work has been on my TBR for a while. I’ve read quite a few Russian authors now and enjoyed a lot of their work and I feel like, overall, I have a decent handle on Russian literature and history. I think this helped in reading Fathers and Sons because there is some historical background that the novel assumes the reader will understand. Having never read Turgenev before I can’t say if this is typical of his work but it does make it a little less accessible. (It’s possible the Isaiah Berlin lecture and/or the translator’s note included at the beginning of this edition address some of this but I skipped them both. I find a lot of introductions to classic books give away plot lines and seem to assume that you already know what will happen.)
Fathers and Sons focus on two young men, Arkady and Bazarov, their friendship, their love affairs, and, of course, their relationships with their fathers. These young men are nihilists. Or at least Bazarov is and Arkady ardently admires him and so goes along with most of what he says and does. I could describe their friendship as Bazarov is Arkady’s best friend but Arkady isn’t Bazarov’s.
We begin as the men arrive at Arkady’s home for a visit with his father. His father is delighted and over the moon to have Arkady home. Turgenev gives us a brief history of their family life, showing us how Arkady’s mother has died and letting us understand how precious Arkady is to his father. Arkady is also delighted to return home but his feelings are conflicted by seeing how his home life and his family’s estate look to Bazarov. Bazarov butts heads with Arkady’s uncle but gets along well with the young woman who is living with Arkady’s father.
Eventually the men move on, befriending a young widow and staying with her for some time before Bazarov finally returns home after three years to his own parents. His origins are more humble but Arkady accompanies him here too, both men reeling from their time spent with Madame Odintsov and her sister.
Bazarov’s parents are completely devoted to him. They are unspeakably happy at his return, completely proud of his every action, and heartbroken when he cuts his visit short. Turgenev captures them beautifully in a few short passages.
The setting may be unfamiliar to readers today but the human relationships on display here are not greatly changed. Friendships that flourish in certain quarters flounder when cast out into the wider world amongst real life issues. Parents adore their children and struggle to let them go. Children love their parents but don’t always respect or appreciate them.
The ending of the novel tied up a little too neatly, I felt, giving a tidy conclusion that felt more like an English novel of the Victorian age than the nuanced character-driven story I had just read. Overall though, I can see why Turgenev is still being read and I’ll certainly be looking to expand my exposure to his work.