Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Home Of The Gentry

Having now read Ivan Turgenev’s “Home Of The Gentry”, I can well understand why the novel was so greatly admired by Gustave Flaubert, Henry James and Joseph Conrad.

I can further declare, having now examined its source material, that Crispin Whittell’s stage adaptation, “The Primrose Path”, which we recently saw at The Guthrie, was shockingly inept, largely misrepresenting Turgenev’s themes, and was much more reliant upon current British soap opera practices than upon Turgenev.

Turgenev’s novel, at root, is a tale of Christian forgiveness, Christian charity—and Russian identity.

Lavretsky, the novel’s central character, is half serf and half nobility. He embodies the Russia of 1859, a land caught between feudalism and modernization. Beliefs are fracturing, passions are flaring, social tensions are rising—yet inaction on all fronts is the order of the day. (It was Tsar Alexander II himself who—courageously—took matters into his own hands two years later. Against the advice of all strata of Russian society, Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861, in the process presenting more than 20 million Russian serfs with ownership of the land they worked.)

Lavretsky further embodies the unthinking worship of Western society typical of the Russian upper classes of 1859. Lavretsky has been taught to view Russia as backward and primitive—yet he finds that he fits into Paris society no better than he is suited for life in the Russian provinces. He is too Russian for the French, too French for the Russians.

It is Lavretsky’s return to his dilapidated Russian estate that propels the storyline into motion. He meets Liza, a young woman whose most pronounced quality is her essential goodness. Lavretsky contemplates marriage to the virtuous and spiritual Liza—until a shocking external event renders such marriage an impossibility.

“Home Of The Gentry” contains all the Turgenev virtues: masterful descriptions of Russian countryside and Russian family life; insightful characterizations of a wide range of persons; and incomparable depictions of the simultaneous stultification and anarchy endemic to life in the Russian provinces. The novel is passionate yet somber, idealistic yet true, painful yet suggestive of redemption. Above all, the novel is deeply reflective—yet totally non-judgmental.

“Home Of The Gentry” is a masterpiece.

I am surprised the novel is not more widely known.

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