Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Sportsman’s Notebook discussion: three

A brief post on the last nine stories in (my version of) A Sportsman’s Notebook: “The Singers”, “Pyotr Petrovich Karataev”, “The Rendezvous”, “Prince Hamlet of Shchigrovo”, “Chertopkhanov and Nedopyuskin”, “The End of Chertopkhanov”, “The Live Relic”, “The Knocking”, and “Forest and Steppe”.

The text and other links related to A Sportsman’s Notebook can be found here. All quotes are from the translation by Charles and Natasha Hepburn.

This section of the sketches is probably the most diverse in subject material as well as quality. “The Singers” introduces the Russian “pot-house”, a place where drinks are sold, the setting in several of these stories. The emotion that the singing invokes, far from feeling artificial, resonates within the audience (including the narrator) and the reader. Heartache runs throughout the sketch, from the singers, their songs, the listeners, and the final cries of the peasant boys. Alcohol will play a larger (and more explicit) role in these stories. The saddest part of the story comes from the fleeting nature of the happiness realized by the singers and the audience as they temporarily escape the numerous oppressive forces bedeviling them.

Turgenev walks a fine line throughout these sketches—his subtlety yields sympathy. In contrast, more detail (at times) reduces the compassion for the characters. The maiden in “The Rendezvous”, alluring at first, becomes less attractive as she allows her beau to continually mistreat her in an overly melodramatic tale. On the other hand, minimal compassion for peasant characters can grow to admiration (or at least sympathy) after meeting their buffoonish landowners. The title character in “Pyotr Petrovich Karataev” provides a good example of this change in feeling, the narrator stating that acquaintance with “such creatures” as Pyotr (described initially as a scoundrel) afford “no sort of pleasure.” Yet by the end of the story it is difficult not to sympathize with him. The bittersweet recitation of passages from Hamlet at the end of the tale feels fitting for such a character.

There are many literary references in this last section. “Prince Hamlet of Shchigrovo” continues the Hamlet allusion, the title character embodying a self-awareness and loss of hope that Turgenev paints throughout many of his sketches. Turgenev’s 1860 speech contrasting such skepticism with idealism, “Hamlet and Don Quixote”, is anticipated throughout A Sportsman’s Notebook.

The longest tales (“Chertopkhanov and Nedopyuskin”, “The End of Chertopkhanov”) introduce characters that seem to be taken straight out of Gogol’s Dead Souls, displaying the same poshlost as the earlier work. The humor provided by these characters, loveable in spite of themselves, turns to pity as Chertopkhanov loves his lover, his friend, and (most importantly) his horse. The parodies in these two stories, as well as the beginning of “Prince Hamlet of Shchigrovo”, provide a comedy that is devastatingly effective in pricking the egos of the noble class.

“Forest and Steppe” is the final tale, a beautiful hymn to nature, although the privileged perspective tarnishes it somewhat for me. “The Live Relic”, instead, feels like a more natural end to the book (even though it was added well after the other stories). The narrator, stopping by a family estate, finds a previously beautiful servant (Lukeira) wasting away due to an unknown illness. The story feels forced at times, yet it is still effective. Lukeira’s beatific acceptance of her fate stands in sharp contrast to the resignation shown by many other characters in other stories. She continually looks for the positive, celebrating whatever she finds regardless of how insignificant. (As an aside, in a way her outlook mirrors the narrator’s/Turgenev’s view toward nature in “Forest and Steppe”.) Her willing submission to whatever will happen is a fitting conclusion to A Sportsman’s Notebook.

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