Thursday, April 13, 2017

Turgenev and unhappy love

Alfred L. Kroeber
Together with Spengler, Toynbee and Sorokin, the American anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber was one of the four great philosophers of history in the twentieth-century. Father of the famous science fiction writer, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, A.L. Kroeber hypothesized that cultural configurations begin with a precursor genius, continue with a stage of maximum bloom, and then enter a period of decay, more or less extended in time.
The history of Russia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides two perfect examples for Kroeber’s analysis, two astonishingly parallel and simultaneous configurations in two different fields of culture: literature and music.
  • In Russian literature we can point to a clear precursor (Pushkin), a time of maximum bloom (Gogol, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov), and a period of slow decline (the Russian authors of the twentieth century).
  • In Russian music there was also a precursor (Glinka), a period of maximum flowering (Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) and another of slow decay (Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich).
Ivan Turguenev
The historical role of Ivan Turgenev has been somewhat obscured by the competition of his two great contemporaries, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. He was certainly a great writer, who specialized in describing unhappy loves. Let us look at a brief summary of his works, which appear here in chronological order, except the last, which is a short story.

  • In Diary of a Superfluous Man the protagonist falls in love with a girl who, in turn, is fascinated by a prince passing through the city. When the protagonist challenges the prince, the whole city turns its back on him, but when the prince, who just sought to amuse himself, leaves without marrying, all but the girl acknowledge that he had been right in defying him. The girl, however, hates him and ends up marrying another. That is why the protagonist, on his deathbed, comes to the conclusion that his life has been superfluous, that it would be better if he had not been born.
  • In Home of the Gentry, the protagonist, who is married but considers himself a widower because he reads in a newspaper the news of the death of his unfaithful wife, who had abandoned him, falls in love with a girl who accepts him, but when they are preparing their marriage, his wife reappears to ask for money. Consequently, the two fiancĂ©es have to give up their love.
  • In First Love, a young teenager discovers that the woman he is in love with is his father’s lover.
  • Curiously in Fathers and Sons, which in my opinion is Turgenev’s best work, the action revolves less around love, although one of the two protagonists, Arkady, falls in love and marries the sister of the woman who fascinated him for some time, who in turn could have married Bazarov, the other protagonist, but this was prevented by his principles.
  • In Torrents of Spring a young man falls in love with a girl who returns his love, but then lets himself be seduced by a woman, collector of lovers, and consequently loses his beloved.
  • In Virgin Soil (Turgenev’s answer to Dostoevsky’s The Devils or The Possessed), two young lovers are engaged in revolutionary political activism, but seeing that their efforts to change the world are futile, the young man commits suicide and the girl ends up marrying another.
  • Finally Yakov Pasynkov can be considered an extreme case of unrequited loves. The narrator and the character who gives title to the story fall in love with the same girl, who ends up marrying a third man, precisely he who deserved her least. Yakov Pasynkov spends the rest of his life mourning the loss of his love, and dies without learning that two other girls are hopelessly in love with him. Yakov Pasynkov, one of the most likeable personages of Turgenev, is a clear proof that it is not so difficult to build a story revolving around a good person.

Manuel Alfonseca

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