Monday, July 13, 2009

Reading Turgenev by William Trevor and the Turgenev maiden

Since I’m reading several of Turgenev’s works, I thought I would take a take a quick look at Reading Turgenev, the first half of William Trevor’s 1991 book Two Lives. For a brief editorial review and a good summary, see the product page—the May 19, 2000 review covers the book fairly well.

While the review of the book is fine, I wanted to take a quick look at why Trevor chose Turgenev as the author for one of the plot points (and of course the title). To escape a loveless marriage, Mary Louise clandestinely meets her cousin, Robert. During their meetings, where they eventually declare their love for each other, Robert reads to her from his “favorite Russian author”. After Robert’s death, Mary Louise takes possession of the Turgenev books and lives apart from her husband and family in the attic, immersing herself in everything she can accumulate that belonged to Robert.

At one point Mary Louise listens to Robert read from Turgenev and thinks “she had never listened to a voice as beautiful. Delight caressed each word he uttered, gentleness or vigour matched phrase and sentence. If all he’d read was a timetable she would have been entranced.” And in one sense, the choice of Turgenev has the same feeling—almost any author would do. But as the story unfolds, Mary Louise takes on the appearance of a Turgenev heroine. From William Lyon Phelps’ Essays on Russian Novelists:
The heroine of "Rudin," the young girl Natalya, is a faint sketch of the future Lisa. Turgenev's girls never seem to have any fun; how different they are from the twentieth century American novelist's heroine, for whom the world is a garden of delight, with exceedingly attractive young men as gardeners! These Russian young women are grave, serious, modest, religious, who ask and expect little for themselves, and who radiate feminine charm. They have indomitable power of will, characters of rocklike steadfastness, enveloped in a disposition of ineffable sweetness.

From the same essay (in the first chapter):

The heroine of Rudin, of Smoke, of On the Eve, the sinister Maria of Torrents of Spring, the immortal Lisa of A House of Gentlefolk, the girl in Dostoevski's Poor Folk; Dunia and Sonia, in Crime and Punishment--many others might be called to mind. The good Russian women seem immensely superior to the men in their instant perception and recognition of moral values, which gives them a chart and compass in life. Possibly, too, the women are stiffened in will by a natural reaction in finding their husbands and brothers so stuffed with inconclusive theories. One is appalled at the prodigious amount of nonsense that Russian wives and daughters are forced to hear from their talkative and ineffective heads of houses.

So while any author chosen could have fit the bill for Mary Louise’s enchantment and Robert's choice of books, choosing Turgenev highlights the qualities that adorn many of his heroines or maidens in his stories and makes Mary Louise’s eccentricities (madness?) easier to understand. I’ll let Vladimir Nabokov have the last word on the archetype:

Of all Turgenev’s characters, the “Turgenev maiden” has probably achieved the greatest fame. Masha (“A Quiet Backwater”), Natalia (“Rudin), Liza (A Nest of Gentlefolk) vary but little among themselves and are undoubtedly contained in Pushkin’s Tatiana. But with their different stories they are given more scope for the use of their common moral strength, gentleness, and not only their capacity but, I would say, their thirst to sacrifice all worldly considerations to what they consider their duty, be it complete resignation of personal happiness to higher moral considerations (Liza) or complete sacrifice of all worldly considerations to their pure passion (Natalia). Turgenev envelops his heroines in a kind of gentle poetical beauty which has a special appeal for the reader and has done much to create the general high concept of Russian womanhood.

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