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Saturday, 30 December 2006

A Sportsman's Notebook bookcover; Everyman's LibraryReview: A Sportsman's Notebook, Ivan Turgenev (1950)

First published in 1852 as a series of pieces for the radical periodical The Contemporary, A Sportsman’s Notebook canvasses issues that were pressing for Westernisers in Russia at the time.

The format is ideal. As anyone who has read Jane Austen will know, a ‘sportsman’ was a hunter. Ideal because the hunter travelled all over the place (“Probably not many of my readers have had occasion to look inside a country pot-house—but we sportsmen, there's nowhere we don't go” says the narrator in a story midway through the book, ‘The Singers’).

Naturally, he was of noble birth. Serfs were not allowed to travel freely, and would be punished for taking another man's game. Accompanied by his retainer, a serf, the nobleman spent the spring and summer months chasing birds through wood and coppice, and shooting them.

Part of the travelling experience was meeting with the people who lived on the land which was the birds’ habitat. The book is thus filled with a dense kaleidoscope of characters, and allows the writer to display the many human relationships that obtained in the countryside of Russia. Many freemen abused their serfs, as we find in these short stories.

University-educated and noble himself, Turgenev was early exposed to this kind of abuse: his mother was apparently something of a psychopath, meting out beatings on a whim. Turgenev also travelled widely, and was exposed to Western modes of thought and living, from a young age.

The pieces in this collection are generally not referred to as short stories. Max Egremont, who wrote the introduction to my Everyman edition, says: “The episodes are not stories but glimpses of situations or characters, occasionally descriptions of scenery or landscape.” A Web site that provides a good intro to Turgenev including biographical information, calls them ‘sketches’.

I feel this is an abuse of Turgenev’s seemingly casual artistry. Certainly there is something ephemeral about the pieces, but that is all a part of their charm. Like a well-executed but spontaneous shot from the bore of a gun, as the birds flee their cover, the stories are swiftly entered and end with a quiver, a sudden silence that leaves reverberations in your mind. “Max Egremont is a historian, not a literary scholar,” says another Web site. Egremont studied modern history at Oxford University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is also a bit of a stuffed shirt. His introduction is graceless and impossible to enjoy. The biographical bits only are worth remembering.

The 25 short stories in this 400-page book are very memorable, however. What amazes me most is that Nabokov did not mention him, as far as I can recall, even once. Nabokov’s dislike of Dostoyevsky is well-known, but he may also have been put off by the ‘engaged’ nature of Turgenev’s work. Nevertheless, I feel that he is at least equal in quality to Tolstoy, of his peers.

Turgenev's love of nature is striking, and the passages devoted to describing its beauties cause you to reflect in interesting ways on the other content he presents you with. He is not religious, he is liberal (“… when the serfs eventually won their freedom, Turgenev's text was credited with helping to secure their emancipation.”), he is educated. He seems to be the ideal guide, for an Australian, to the society he came from.

The flow of the stories is also very creative. One story, in particular, stuck me as being different from the rest, and displeased me somehow. In ‘Tatyana Borisovna and her Nephew’ the lady does not read (“Read?—no, she doesn‘t read; to tell the truth, books are not printed for the likes of her…”), but is nevertheless a good soul who all her neighbours respect. There is much talk in this story about philosophy and aesthetics; feelings, in other words. They seem to be important to Turgenev.

It happens that Tatyana had taken in an orphan, Andrei. He is something of an artist, and when he reaches the age of twelve, he is introduced to a man who has the pretensions of a connoisseur, and who takes Andrei to St Petersburg. There Andrei turns into an insufferable fop. When the man dies seven years later, Andrei, out of cash, returns to the countryside where he causes the hearts of the local maidens to flutter and his aunt to dote on him. But: “Many of her former acquaintances have stopped visiting Tatyana Borisovna.”

That’s the end of the story. It’s typical Turgenev: a sharp, almost brusque termination that leaves you thinking.

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