The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by Turgenev, and completed by Dostoevsky.
For modern readers, Turgenev appears to be the most ‘artistic’ of the writers of his time. He deplored the idea that the artist must use art as a vehicle to propound his own views, and that art must always have social or utilitarian purpose. Polemic was completely alien to his fastidious nature. He appears to be more concerned with art, aesthetics, the transmission of subtle states of feeling caused by the beauty of nature, of personal relationships, of art; he is the most Jamesian of the Russians, the most French. His voice is understated, transparent, urbane and delicate; he never intrudes his views on the reader or the characters, but is concerned most with the integrity of his vision: to reproduce the truth, the reality of life, accurately and powerfully, is the literary man’s highest joy, he writes in his Reminiscences, even if that truth does not correspond to his own sympathies. His writing is the most realistic in the Chekhovian sense, in that it describes a recognizable world in which people are limited by their social environment, in which people cannot express directly what is in their hearts (unlike the torrential loquacity of Dostoevsky’s characters, say) but express it through silences, through glances, and the impalpable power of the unsaid. Turgenev is a master at describing the world, choosing details for details’ sake, not for symbolic or metaphorical reasons, but in order to give a felt life: in Fathers and Sons the chickens scratching in the yard, the statue of Silence with a broken nose placed in the stable, the jars of pickles on the window sill with their mis-spelt labels, the peasant woman who describes her illness as ‘hoisted by the gripes’... but cannot describe what she means by these words; all this creates an intensity of life. For modern readers his slim, svelte, achingly beautiful novels offer perfectly realized glimpses of a completely vanished world.
However, Turgenev was not without a social conscience, and his self-conscious artistry must be viewed in the context of a general Russian tendency to believe passionately in the mission of literature to change the world, to address and influence society, to combat: injustice, poverty, oppression. He was the boon companion of the social critic Belinksy, the revolutionary Bakunin, and the individualist Herzen. Many of his books entered directly into the burning issues of the day: Sketches from a Huntsman’s Album is said to have spurned the vacillating Tsar Alexander II to finally order the emancipation of the peasants; Rudin describes the stultification of intellectual life under the oppressive regime of Tsar Nicholas 1st. Fathers and Sons caused a huge controversy on its publication in 1862, with critics accusing the author of corrupting the young, and the young accusing him of misrepresenting them.
During the late 50s and early 60s, Russian intellectual life was characterized by a radical split between the ‘fathers' – the generation of writers who were young during the heavily oppressive 40s (among them Dostoevsky, who was imprisoned and exiled for his ‘revolutionary activities’) for whom the new Tsar Alexander II’s reforms were a breath of fresh air; and the ‘sons', the new generation of students and younger intellectuals, for whom these reforms were not fast or far-reaching enough. Fathers and Sons situates this generational conflict within family relations. A young medical student, Bazarov, accompanies his friend Arkady on a visit to the latter’s family home in the provinces, and then later the two friends visit Bazarov’s family. The two young men describe themselves as ‘nihilists’. Although Bazarov himself never defines what this means, his younger friend Arkady defines it for him: a person who approaches everything from a critical point of view… a person who doesn’t bow down before authorities, who doesn’t accept even one principle on faith, no matter how much respect surrounds that principle. A collection of Bazarov’s sayings helps to give the character of this nihilism:
➢ At present the most useful thing is to deny, so we deny.
➢ A decent chemist is twenty times more use than any poet.
➢ Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles,…what a lot of foreign, useless words. A Russian would not want them as a gift.
➢ I have conceived a loathing for this peasant. I have to work the skin off my hands for him, and he won’t so much as thank me for it.
➢ The tiny space I occupy is so small compared to the rest of space, where I am not and where things have nothing to do with me; and the amount of time in which I get to live my life is so insignificant compared to eternity, where I’ve never been and won’t ever be, yet in this atom, this mathematical point, blood circulates, a brain functions, and desires something as well. How absurd! What nonsense!
➢ The only thing I’m proud of is that I haven’t destroyed myself, and no woman is going to destroy me.
➢ What’s important is that two times two makes four. The rest is nonsense.
➢ Nature’s not a temple but a workshop where man is the laborer.
Bazarov is in the line of heroes descended from Lermontov’s Pechorin, Pushkin’s Onegin, and Turgenev’s own superfluous man, Tchulkaturin: charismatic, original, luminescent, who at once create and describe a new type of character in literature and a new type of person in history. From him is descended Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and Camus’s Meursault.
The opposite point of view in the dialectic in the novel is provided, firstly, by Arkady’s uncle, in many ways a portrait of the urban Westerniser Turgenev himself, who says: Civilisation… its fruits are dear to us. And don’t tell me they’re worthless. The most miserable dauber, the pianist who taps on the keys in a restaurant they are more useful than you are because they represent civilisation, and not brute Mongol force. You imagine that you are a progressive, you should be sitting in a Kalmuck wagon. Ironically, what Arkady’s uncle cannot understand is that Bazarov does not consider himself a progressive at all (‘progress’ is just another Western ‘–ism’). The book dramatises not only the debate between the two camps, but also their mutual incomprehension. The second way nihilism is contested is in the plot of the novel itself, in which Bazarov is undone by the forces of nature, the only forces that he ultimately recognises, first by the power of love, and then dying uselessly of blood poisoning, death by the most insignificant, microscopic and inglorious of causes.
It is Turgenev’s great genius that what is in effect a clearly drawn dialectic between two points of view does not descend into a mere novel of ideas, does not preach, does not take sides, does not sacrifice character for clarity of argument, does not bore. There are many discussion scenes in the book, but they are always gripping, because the characters are to the fore, the points of views expressed come palpably from the characters themselves, and not from the author, or from the dialectic. The book is full of many memorable characters, not least the women, all fully rounded and lovingly drawn, and there are many trademark Turgenev lyrical moments, such as the sound of Arkady’s father playing Schubert on the cello drifting across the evening garden.