The back of this book reads “This new translation… makes Trugenev’s masterpiece about the conflict between generations seem as fresh, outspoken, and exciting…” blah blah blah. I can tell right now, fresh, outspoken, and exciting are not words I would use to describe this book.
Nikoli Petrovoch Kirsanov is a Russian landowner with about 200 serfs. He lives with his older brother Pavel, who had fought with distinction, on his failing country estate. Kirsanov is a widower, a poor manager, and a somewhat indulgent father. His son Arkady had gone to St. Petersburg to continue his education and Nikoli had lived with him every winter until the year prior to the beginning of our story. We begin as Nikoli is waiting for Arkady to come home after graduation only to find he has brought home a friend, Bazarov. Bazarov proceeds to be unpleasant from his first moment, almost until his last in the book. I shouldn’t have been surprised, he’s a nihilist and almost every page utters, “there is no truth, only science.” I paraphrase because he is rude, obnoxious, and at times philosophically longwinded. Nikoli who has been looking forward to being with the son who he practically worships is distraught to see Bazarov’s influence in all that Arkady does, particularly his laxness about familial affection. Pavel is also horrified by the young Bazarov, so much so that Arkady and and his friend end up taking off to town for some excitement. Whilst gadding about the meet the young widow, Odinstova. Here the book takes a slight turn to the romantic with some love triangles and oh so many philosophical discussions. Eventually, Bazarov, finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being in love, a state which he’s already denounced at length several times in the novel. Eventually we see Bazarov return to his ancestral home and make everyone’s lives miserable there.
As a character study this book is interesting. There is that dichotomy of old and young. The book does capture that moment in time when an older generation and a younger generation just look at one another and shake their heads without being able to fully comprehend why the other side thinks the way it does. It also shows that moment when the blinders are taken off and the young see the old without an idealism that they had as children. Flaws are exposed, and in Arkady’s case, it is like a pendulum that swings out, and swings back. Bazarov’s relationship with his own parents, indeed his own self, is far more complicated. We also see contrasting personality in the widow Odinstova (Anna) and her sister, Katya. Initially both Arkady and Bazarov dismiss Katya as unintelligent, pliable, pleasant, but as the story progresses we learn about Katya’s inner motivations and the character she truly possesses that has been overshadowed by Odinstova’s hardness. I enjoyed the character progressions, and they are certainly well rounded and complex.
What I didn’t enjoy was the writing style overall. Older Russian authors in general have that sparse style of description that leaves some of the scenes and settings lacking. I’ve been accused of doing the same thing with my own fiction writing (yes, I write fiction, what of it!?) so I feel this is an easily spotted mistake. I also ended up disliking a majority of the characters which also makes this a challenging book to love. While I don’t regret reading this book, it isn’t one I’d pass along as great Russian literature, or even an interesting case study in generational shifts.