Fathers and Sons

by Ivan Turgenev

8/10

This was a refreshing and engaging story, much breezier than you might expect when someone says “mid-19th century Russian lit.” Not much ultimately happens, and it’s more about the sons than the fathers, but it’s a quick and satisfying read, and important for a greater understanding of world literature, given that Turgenev influenced Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy. It’s also important because Turgenev is most responsible for popularizing the concept of “nihilism.”

I greatly enjoyed Turgenev’s realism, where characters don’t automatically behave like romantic dolts. Their actions aren’t always rational and you get the strong sense that some of them (Anna, specifically) are deluding themeselves. The ending isn’t sentimental, not everyone lives happily ever after, and I loved the book all the more because of it.

In the end, of course, Turgenev’s message is rather saccharine. Bazarov, the exemplar of cold rationality, is unexpectedly bowled over by love and rejection, after which life no longer seems worth living. The struggle of the new generation to distinguish themselves from their fathers then cedes to the traditional joy of marriage and family.

To be sure, there’s more going on here thematically, with the reforms of the Russian feudalism, the critique of aristocracy and so forth. It’s interesting although I would have enjoyed a more in-depth treatment. And actually my main critique of the book is that it’s so slight that it ends up feeling inconsequential. It’s just barely a novel, and I would have liked to spend more time with the characters and their problems.

Fun fact: Vladimir Nabokov rates Turgenev 4th on his list of Russian writers, behind Tolstoy, Gogol and Chekhov (and ahead of Dostoyevsky). He considered Turgenev influential with his realism but stylistically run-of-the-mill.

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