Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

6. 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
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.