Last reviewed: June 2018
November 9, 1818
September 3, 1883
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (tewr-GYAYN-yuhf), the first of the great Russian novelists to be read widely in Europe, was born in Orel, Russia, in 1818. He was the second of three sons born to his unhappily married parents: harsh and tyrannical Varvara Petrovna Lutovinov, who had inherited large estates at twenty-six after an unhappy childhood, and cold, handsome, philandering Sergey Nikolayeyvich Turgenev, an impecunious young cavalry officer who had married this woman six years his senior for her money. The child, who was to be known as the most European of the great Russian masters, first saw Europe at the age of four with his family and its entourage. Ivan Turgenev
Turgenev spent his earliest years in the elegance of the family mansion on the Spasskoye estate. When the family moved to their Moscow house in 1827, Turgenev began to prepare for the entrance examinations to Moscow University. By the time he entered, in 1834, he had fallen under the influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Schiller. In the same year, however, Colonel Turgenev transferred his son to St. Petersburg University. Then, with his wife away in Italy, the aloof colonel died.
Turgenev had written since childhood, and at St. Petersburg he continued his attempts, seeing two of his poems published a year after his graduation in 1837. In 1838 he went to Berlin to study intensively for a career as a teacher of literature, returning to St. Petersburg in 1841 to prepare for his M.A. examinations. Under the impact of an unhappy love affair, however, he failed to take his degree. The poem Parasha, published in 1843, signaled Turgenev’s escape from romanticism and was praised by critics for its sensitive simplicity.
When he resigned from the civil service job he had taken in 1842, his mother sharply reduced his allowance, and from that time on their relationship steadily became more acrimonious. He met Madame Pauline Viardot, the magnetic opera singer to whom he was to be devoted for the rest of his life, alternately her enchanted and despairing admirer. He published a realistic sketch in The Contemporary Review and then others in a similar vein. In February, 1847, he left Russia with Viardot and her husband, despite his mother’s frantic efforts to prevent him from doing so. He left the Viardots at Berlin, and in Paris, Brussels, and Lyons he continued to work on what were to be A Sportsman’s Sketches. Taking up residence at Courtavenel, the Viardots’ summer home, in the summer of 1848, he stayed into 1849. By the summer of 1850, when he returned home because of his mother’s deteriorating health, he had also composed many poems and more than half a dozen plays. For the most part these were comedies conspicuous for their dialogue. Although some were successfully staged, Turgenev was always extremely critical of them.
His mother’s death in November, 1850, made him a rich man. In March, 1852, however, he found himself under arrest: A laudatory article on Nikolai Gogol shortly after Gogol’s death, combined with the suspicion created by his sketches as they appeared, caused Turgenev’s arrest by the czar’s political police. He was confined in jail for a month and then placed under house arrest at Spasskoye for a year and a half. A Sportsman’s Sketches, collected in book form in August, 1852, was an immediate and resounding success. The realistic treatment of Russian life, particularly the plight of the peasants, was so influential that it helped bring about the emancipation of the serfs nine years later. Regaining his freedom, Turgenev worked on his first novel during 1855. Published in The Contemporary Review in January and February of 1856, Rudin was the story of a utopian who had eloquence, honesty, faith, and enthusiasm but was not strong enough to achieve real love or political usefulness.
Turgenev dropped his literary work for a time in 1856 to return to Pauline Viardot in France, but her departure with another man left him desolate, and illness completed his misery. His return to Russia in 1858 was the beginning of three years of fruitful work. In January The Contemporary Review published A House of Gentlefolk, into which Turgenev had put many of his emotions arising from his relationships with Viardot and with his own family. This melancholy novel of infidelity, worldliness, and wasted lives was a resounding success. Now the most celebrated of Russian writers, he immediately set to work, this time in Vichy, on a novel based on a manuscript given him by a young soldier rightly convinced that he would not survive the Crimean War to complete it. It became On the Eve, appearing in The Russian Herald in January and February, 1860. On one level a depiction of a love affair, on another level it was a foreshadowing of the Russia to come, when in the 1860’s so many of the nation’s youth were to band together against czarist autocracy.
Acrimonious political controversies, quarrels with Ivan Goncharov and Leo Tolstoy, and estrangement from Viardot saddened Turgenev, but he completed Fathers and Sons, which was published in March, 1862, in The Russian Monthly. This classic novel presented the age-old conflict between generations, but it was also localized in provincial Russia and set in a critical period. In Bazaroff(often spelled Bazarov), Turgenev created one of the first of the nihilists, those who wanted to sweep away the old and apply the tenets and methods of science to politics and other human affairs. The novel incensed both young and old, extremists and reactionaries. Turgenev, surprised and hurt, was attacked from all sides.
Except for brief visits home, the years between 1863 and 1871 were spent in Baden-Baden, some of them with the Viardot family. In March, 1867, he published another novel, Smoke, in The Russian Herald. This love story, with its portrayal of aristocrats and young revolutionaries, like Fathers and Sons, pleased no one. Sympathizing with neither side, castigating political persons and follies, he became a target for criticism from all quarters. During these years he continued his prolific output of short stories. The best of them, such as “A Lear of the Steppes” and “First Love,” bore the same hallmarks of his art, as did his novels: the psychological insight, the melancholy realism, the delicate nuances, the subtle creation of mood, and the sensitive pastel landscapes. After spending parts of 1870 and 1871 in England and Scotland, he published the short, nonpolitical novel The Torrents of Spring in 1872, in The European Herald. It was a great success and was very soon reprinted. In 1874 Turgenev moved into a suite of rooms in the house of the Viardots, where Henry James visited him in 1875.
Turgenev spent six years planning and writing his last novel, Virgin Soil, published in The European Herald in 1877. This novel, presenting to the reader a wide variety of the types who were to become revolutionaries, portrayed an aristocratic class that did not perceive itself to be in the process of dissolution. It also predicted with a high degree of accuracy the course that future events were to take in the writer’s unhappy country. Although the novel was a best-seller in France, England, and the United States, it was a failure in Russia, and Turgenev resolved to renounce fiction. In 1878 he began composing his Poems in Prose, reflections upon politics, philosophy, and his own intimate concerns. Though he was still a pessimistic agnostic, some of these works showed a lightening and a heartening at examples of courage and defiance of death.
Turgenev’s brief return to Russia in 1879 was a triumph in which honors and acclaim greeted him, and he was hailed as a pioneer and master. The academic honors conferred on him in Russia were soon matched by great universities in France and England. By 1882, however, when he had returned to the Viardot household, his health had begun to decline rapidly. Although he was told that he was suffering from angina pectoris, it was actually cancer of the spinal cord that confined him to his bed. By September he had virtually abandoned hope, but he lived on through a year of torment, dying in 1883. His funeral in St. Petersburg, attended by delegations from 180 different organizations, was an occasion of national mourning, an acknowledgment of the passing of a master of Russian literature.