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Turgenev

1917


Dear Edward,

I am glad to hear that you are about to publish a study of Turgenev, that
fortunate artist who has found so much in life for us and no doubt for
himself, with the exception of bare justice. Perhaps that will come to
him, too, in time. Your study may help the consummation. For his luck
persists after his death. What greater luck an artist like Turgenev
could wish for than to find in the English-speaking world a translator
who has missed none of the most delicate, most simple beauties of his
work, and a critic who has known how to analyse and point out its high
qualities with perfect sympathy and insight.

After twenty odd years of friendship (and my first literary friendship
too) I may well permit myself to make that statement, while thinking of
your wonderful Prefaces as they appeared from time to time in the volumes
of Turgenev's complete edition, the last of which came into the light of
public indifference in the ninety-ninth year of the nineteenth century.

With that year one may say, with some justice, that the age of Turgenev
had come to an end too; yet work so simple and human, so independent of
the transitory formulas and theories of art, belongs as you point out in
the Preface to _Smoke_ "to all time."

Turgenev's creative activity covers about thirty years. Since it came to
an end the social and political events in Russia have moved at an
accelerated pace, but the deep origins of them, in the moral and
intellectual unrest of the souls, are recorded in the whole body of his
work with the unerring lucidity of a great national writer. The first
stirrings, the first gleams of the great forces can be seen almost in
every page of the novels, of the short stories and of _A Sportsman's
Sketches_--those marvellous landscapes peopled by unforgettable figures.

Those will never grow old. Fashions in monsters do change, but the truth
of humanity goes on for ever, unchangeable and inexhaustible in the
variety of its disclosures. Whether Turgenev's art, which has captured
it with such mastery and such gentleness, is for "all time" it is hard to
say. Since, as you say yourself, he brings all his problems and
characters to the test of love, we may hope that it will endure at least
till the infinite emotions of love are replaced by the exact simplicity
of perfected Eugenics. But even by then, I think, women would not have
changed much; and the women of Turgenev who understood them so tenderly,
so reverently and so passionately--they, at least, are certainly for all
time.

Women are, one may say, the foundation of his art. They are Russian of
course. Never was a writer so profoundly, so whole-souledly national.
But for non-Russian readers, Turgenev's Russia is but a canvas on which
the incomparable artist of humanity lays his colours and his forms in the
great light and the free air of the world. Had he invented them all and
also every stick and stone, brook and hill and field in which they move,
his personages would have been just as true and as poignant in their
perplexed lives. They are his own and also universal. Any one can
accept them with no more question than one accepts the Italians of
Shakespeare.

In the larger, non-Russian view, what should make Turgenev sympathetic
and welcome to the English-speaking world, is his essential humanity. All
his creations, fortunate and unfortunate, oppressed and oppressors, are
human beings, not strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking
themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions.
They are human beings, fit to live, fit to suffer, fit to struggle, fit
to win, fit to lose, in the endless and inspiring game of pursuing from
day to day the ever-receding future.

I began by calling him lucky, and he was, in a sense. But one ends by
having some doubts. To be so great without the slightest parade and so
fine without any tricks of "cleverness" must be fatal to any man's
influence with his contemporaries.

Frankly, I don't want to appear as qualified to judge of things Russian.
It wouldn't be true. I know nothing of them. But I am aware of a few
general truths, such as, for instance, that no man, whatever may be the
loftiness of his character, the purity of his motives and the peace of
his conscience--no man, I say, likes to be beaten with sticks during the
greater part of his existence. From what one knows of his history it
appears clearly that in Russia almost any stick was good enough to beat
Turgenev with in his latter years. When he died the characteristically
chicken-hearted Autocracy hastened to stuff his mortal envelope into the
tomb it refused to honour, while the sensitive Revolutionists went on for
a time flinging after his shade those jeers and curses from which that
impartial lover of _all_ his countrymen had suffered so much in his
lifetime. For he, too, was sensitive. Every page of his writing bears
its testimony to the fatal absence of callousness in the man.

And now he suffers a little from other things. In truth it is not the
convulsed terror-haunted Dostoievski but the serene Turgenev who is under
a curse. For only think! Every gift has been heaped on his cradle:
absolute sanity and the deepest sensibility, the clearest vision and the
quickest responsiveness, penetrating insight and unfailing generosity of
judgment, an exquisite perception of the visible world and an unerring
instinct for the significant, for the essential in the life of men and
women, the clearest mind, the warmest heart, the largest sympathy--and
all that in perfect measure. There's enough there to ruin the prospects
of any writer. For you know very well, my dear Edward, that if you had
Antinous himself in a booth of the world's fair, and killed yourself in
protesting that his soul was as perfect as his body, you wouldn't get one
per cent. of the crowd struggling next door for a sight of the Double-
headed Nightingale or of some weak-kneed giant grinning through a horse
collar.

J. C.

Joseph Conrad