Listen. I promise Turgenev isn’t that bad. I know you don’t believe me, but if you ever find yourself with a gun to your temple and a command to pick a Russian author that won’t bore you to tears (wait, who wouldn’t cry? There’s a gun to your head), pray it is Turgenev.
Classic texts can be intimidating due to the immense amount of mental attention they require, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is totally bogus and not deserving of your trust. Russian texts are particularly challenging, and that’s coming from someone with a pretty hot and heavy Slavic background.
Like a text from any part of the globe, there are a lot of foreign elements at play that the reader must decode, and Ivan Turgenev’s second novel, 1859’s Home of the Gentry, is the perfect definition of this.
Home of the Gentry depicts the homecoming of Fyodor Ivanych Lavretsky (spoiler alert, all Russians have 2-3 names, and this text is no exception) who returns to Russia a disillusioned, broken man after he catches his wife in the throes of an affair.
He returns to visit his cousin, Marya Dimitrievna Kalitina, who has two daughters, Lenochka and Liza. Lavretsky, scorned and jaded from hurt by his cheating wife Varvara Pavlovna, is immediately drawn to the young, beautiful Liza, who lives her life in a quiet seriousness and devout religious devotion- but no qualms appear to surface about being attracted to your cousin, no matter how distantly related, so that’s a thing.
The two can’t fight the feeling anymore and confess their love for each other, despite all of Liza’s trepidations about Lavrestky’s leaving his wife. What progresses in this little novella only goes to support the idea that life is not fair and, without spoiling the ending, in true Russian style, everyone is smarter in the end but just as miserable.
The nice thing about this text, however, is that it is quick and easy to read, even with the antiquated language. Turgenev’s style is fairly accessible, making him a top choice of Russian authors to read in the aforementioned gun crisis.
What make this text a bit more challenging is the cultural context behind it, especially the identity crisis for young Russians in the late 1800s with the opening of European culture that was incredibly trendy. While reading, I imagined the Europeanized Russians like a bunch of hipsters, people who saw the light and began writing their screenplays in coffee shops with soy lattes and having vinyl parties with their parents’ record players. Even for 1800s Russians, these people were pests.
However, what makes Home of the Gentry so beautiful is the weaving together of this accessibility and this exclusivity; it’s easy to understand and enjoy the text while having to do just a bit of research to keep your head above water in terms of context. While it’s not a particularly uplifting book, it ain’t no Little Life, so you won’t need to worry about bawling your eyes out.
But just to be on the safe side, keep some tissues ready.