• On the Short Stories That Inspired a Russian Czar to Free the Serfs

    How the Fiction of Ivan Turgenev Changed Lives

    My Afghan godfather, a bristling military man, who at one time back in the 1930s held the all-India motorcycle speed record, spoke of A Sportsman’s Notebook as one of the two or three books that formed and continued to inform his mind. I remember his copy of it lying on his bedside table, leather-bound, pocket-size, printed on onionskin paper.

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    He cared more for horses and dogs than for books, and could in no degree be thought literary, yet he found a place of repose in Ivan Turgenev’s stories, a cool refuge from a life of heat and action. The Notebook is that kind of book, one that appeals widely, and one that strikes deep, one that can serve sturdily through an entire life. 

    The Notebook lands at a critical stage in the development of the short story. Turgenev had the good fortune to be born and bred in the place where this poetic form, the short story, came to its highest (yet) glory—the Russia of the middle and late 19th century. Chekhov is Chekhov, and comparisons are odious when talking about writers of this standard and so closely aligned. Yet if Chekhov finds a sublimity unequaled by anyone, certainly A Sportsman’s Notebook can beguile us so deeply with its descriptions of man and beast and the lord’s good earth that we say, thank you for what you have done, and well done, and please do it again and again, as he does.

    The book passes through many rooms, and each has its deep interest. It is that unusual thing, a classic that is not pitched right down the middle. It is quirky. Coming early in the development of the short story form, it has the raw originality of youth, is bright and morning. 

    Turgenev’s family received properties from the czars whom they served since coming over from the Golden Horde in 1440 to join the court of Grand Prince Vasili Ivanovich. Spasskoye, the name of Turgenev’s principal estate, where these stories are set, comprised 50 thousand acres of good black earth. The Turgenevs held this land since the 1600s, granted to them as a reward for military service. Fifty thousand acres is not merely a farm, it’s a state. There were Indian princely states—other principalities throughout history—smaller than that. That’s 78 square miles, or a box eight miles to a side. 

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    Russian history—the history of those lands—is shot through with violence, right up to the present day. The callousness of the administration toward the workers sent in to clean with mop and pail the irradiated hulk of the Chernobyl reactor had roots in the violence of the earliest rulers of Russia. Peter the Great could crush a gold coin in his massive fist, but all those mad or sane rulers crushed men for sport.

    Absolute in her realm, Turgenev’s mother, Varvara Petrovna, ruled Spasskoye with a caprice and violence rare even for the extravagantly despotic nobility of her day. She printed her own paper, weaved cloth, grew all her food, cut timber, ran sawmills, made candles. All sorts of works. If Russia had ceased to exist and Spasskoye floated in the middle of a blue sea she would have missed only the clothes she ordered from Paris—the indulgence of a jolie laide married to a dashing and chronically unfaithful man. 

    Unusually, for a work of fiction—for any work of art—the Notebook played an important political role in the history of Russia.

    Turgenev’s grandmother once beat to death a page-boy and hid the body in her embarrassment under a pile of cushions. His mother demanded that men being sent to Siberia or to serve in the army, a lifetime’s banishment, parade before leaving under her living room window and thank her for her forbearance to them. As a young man Turgenev observed a little girl being abused in the courtyard of his mother’s Petersburg house and realized with a start that this was his own illegitimate daughter from a Spasskoye serf woman.

    His mother knew of the girl’s parentage and surely bound her to hardship as another of the torments she might inflict on this son that she adored and yet must hurt—as she herself had been hurt so badly in childhood, rejected by her own mother, preyed upon sexually by her stepfather. (Turgenev took the girl to Paris and educated her and settled a substantial dowry upon her, renamed her Paulinette after the love of his life, Pauline Viardot—one of the finest European singing voices of her time. That is another story.) 

    This estate, and the hard times his mother showed him there, are schools for this book. Had Varvara Petrovna been a better woman, Turgenev would not have had the knowledge to write A Sportsman’s Notebook. These stories are as much informed by his mother’s despotism as by the larger despotism of the Russian state. His personal revolt ran parallel to a larger national political revolt. Through his childhood and later as a man, Turgenev sought out the company of the serfs in the kennels and kitchens of Spasskoye because among them he found kindness. A Sportsman’s Notebook is the fruit of those encounters. The strength of these stories is in his portraits of these men and women. 

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    The Notebook comprises his first truly successful work. When in 1852, at the age of 34, he issued the first edition, with most of the canonical stories that are included in the present volume, he had published a few slight pieces, nothing to suggest the brilliance to come. The Notebook has the quality of work done for himself, for love, unrestrained. Not bothering about plot too much, he drew portraits of these men and women from the estate, took up stories that he had heard or seen enacted.

    The characteristic that distinguishes stories about life from life itself is that life has no plot, no meaningful plot. In most cases, as we have come to understand the short story form, plot is imposed upon human interactions by the writer. One great charm of these stories is that they are so unplotted, some of them held together only by the framing device of the narrator going out hunting and encountering some man or woman or situation. More than others, Turgenev can say, in his modest offhand voice, I made it out of a mouthful of air. 

    Unusually, for a work of fiction—for any work of art—the Notebook played an important political role in the history of Russia. In the middle of the 19th century, the necessity of liberating the serfs, who were virtually slaves, had become pressing upon an increasingly westernized nobility. The necessity of their liberation, and then the means and outlines of that emancipation, puzzled the nobles and most importantly, the czar—Alexander II.

    This constituency found it difficult to reconcile itself to the loss of their revenues and powers flowing from this emancipation in part because they knew very little about their serfs, had never paid much attention to them. They commanded obedience with banishments and the knout, and otherwise indulged themselves with serf orchestras on their estates and desperate feats of gambling and spoke French among themselves. If they gave it any thought, they would have considered it an impertinence for their serfs to have private lives. 

    Turgenev’s stories imposed the humanity of these men and women upon their owners, showed them in all their complexity. The stories came as a revelation to their readership. Any man who’s ever killed a chicken knows that it’s best not to look it in the eye. Turgenev forced his fellow landowners to do that, look the serfs in the eye. Alexander II acknowledged the role these stories played in guiding him to issue the Emancipation Edict that freed the serfs in 1861. 

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    Even today, with our different circumstances, we can benefit from this compelled awakening. In Turgenev’s time a debate—which directly led to the terrible Russian Revolution—raged between those who advocated a turn to the West, and those who dreamed of a new Slavic establishment different from anything bred in Europe.

    It might seem that these combats, long played out, are irrelevant today. The debate about the correct direction for Russia’s development, while it included the class conflict between landowners and serfs, had at its core a cultural conflict, a fundamentally Oriental Russianness pulling against European rationalism. This is in many respects the same as our present-day debate about the interpenetration between the Northern and the Southern hemispheres. Both are questions about how two cultures should marry.

    The Notebook has some particular excellencies, which I would point out to you, gentle reader, as would a host at a banquet drawing out with fork and knife a delicacy on the served platter. Turgenev is masterful in these stories of two particularly difficult arts, sketches of characters, men and women in all their complexity, and descriptions of nature. The stories are juxtapositions of these two excellencies. 

    He is describing the steppe, is walking across it: “Whirlwinds—sure sign of settled weather—march in tall white pillars. . . .” 

    I have seen many whirlwinds, but I’ve never before observed that, when the wind blows up twirling columns of dust and straw along a field, this means it will be fine and blue. I’ve taken more words to show it than he does—he is so right in these descriptions. There are many superb passages describing landscape. No one does it better, because he observes nature so closely and because he knows it so well.

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    The generous descriptions of men and women at Spasskoye are drawn with all the love of the hungry-hearted boy.

    The title of the book is quite accurate—these are notebooks drawn from the experiences of a passionate sportsman. The great solace of Turgenev’s life was shooting, mostly birds. He was a disappointed man—disappointed first in childhood, in his mother’s love. His contemporaries dismissed him as ineffectual and shapeless, and though he wrote these brilliant tales and much else, too often he was characterized simply as a conteur.

    Landscape is the refuge of the wounded spirit, and one senses behind his romantic and passionate descriptions of the Russian steppe the sad uncertainty that he felt regarding his place among men and women. The generous descriptions of men and women at Spasskoye are drawn with all the love of the hungry-hearted boy; the descriptions of nature are written from the perspective of the rootless man. 

    Master of description, he is also superb with endings, is quirky in this regard. Endings are the hardest part of any story, and are particularly difficult for a short story writer, among other reasons simply because he is so regularly faced with the problem of doing them right. (A novelist writes an ending only every few years.) The endings of some of these stories are so attenuated and poetically true—and true only poetically—as to leave the reader bemused and shaken. I’ll walk through one of my favorites, to give you a flavor of this. 

    Like so many of the stories in the Notebooks, “The Singers” seems hardly constructed at all. A hunter, a small landowner, walks into a peasant tavern in a run-down village on a hot summer day. A highly miscellaneous group is assembled—Blinker, Muddlehead, Wild Master—these are their nicknames, and they’re an odd lot, loungers and boozers, “road masters” as we call them in Pakistan, men whose main occupation is strolling up and down the village street. 

    It turns out that there is a contest on, a singing contest, with the prize a pot of beer. The challenger, an outsider known only as “the huckster,” wins the draw and begins. He sings artfully: 

    His voice was quite sweet and agreeable, though somewhat husky; he played with it, twirled it about like a toy, with constant downward trills and modulations and constant returns to the top note, which he held and prolonged with a special effort . . . . 

    Gradually, he catches up his audience, enflames them. 

    Encouraged by the signs of general satisfaction, the huckster fairly whirled along and went off into such flourishes, such tongue-clickings and drummings, such wild throat-play, that at length, exhausted, pale, bathed in hot sweat, he threw himself back, let out a last dying note—and his wild outburst was answered in unison by the company. 

    The louder part of the crowd by acclamation crowns him the winner, no contest—but cooler heads prevail and his local rival, Yasha, is asked to try his voice. 

    His first note was faint and uneven, and came, it seemed, not from his chest, but from somewhere far away, as if it had chanced to fly into the room. . . . Seldom, I confess, have I heard such a voice: it was somewhat worn and had a sort of cracked ring; at first it had even a certain suggestion of the morbid; but it also held a deep, unsimulated passion, and youth, and strength, and sweetness, and a deliciously detached note of melancholy. The truthful, fervent Russian soul rang and breathed in it and fairly caught at your heart, caught straight at your Russian heartstrings. 

    When he finishes, the audience is silent; the innkeeper’s wife, in tears, withdraws into another room. The rival singer, the huckster, goes up to Yasha. “‘You. . . . It’s yours. . . . You’ve won,’ he brought out at last with difficulty and dashed from the room.” 

    Now comes the shift, irrational and intuitive, that I find so intriguing. The narrator, the landowner, goes out of the inn, his world made strange by the music he has heard, falls asleep in a hay loft, and rises just as night has fallen. Collecting himself, he sets off home, passing the tavern, where all are drunk now and rolling around like beasts—he sees it through the window. Walking along the dark road, he hears a boy calling a name, Antropka, Antropka, over and over again. 

    “Antropka! Antropka-a-a! . . .” it called, in stubborn, tearful desperation, with a long dragging-out of the last syllable. 

    For a few moments it was silent, then began to call again. The voice carried clearly in the unmoving, lightly-sleeping air. Thirty times at least it had called Antropka’s name, when suddenly, from the opposite end of the meadow, as if from a different world, came a scarcely audible reply: 


    The boy’s voice called at once, glad but indignant: “Come here you devil!” 

    “What fo-o-o-r?” answered the other, after a pause. “Because father wants to be-ee-ee-eat you.” 

    There it closes—leaving the strange nutty taste of this ending, which is almost unsatisfying, lingering on our palates. What does it mean? 

    And so that’s it, or not quite. “Soft you; a word or two before you go.” I make a special pleading for these stories. I am a farmer in Pakistan, in a land that surely is among the last places on earth where the condition that Turgenev describes—feudal life—still exists.

    I pray that this form of inequality will never again be visited upon mankind, but suspect that human folly is incapable of correction, and that someday, on Mars or on Planet X, again man will lord over man as they did in feudal Russia—and as they do in our present, sad Pakistan. I have lived, and I hope to die, in my faith in Turgenev. I speak with special knowledge. He has described this scene—this feudal scene—better than anyone—and fixed it forever. 


    Adapted from A Sportsman’s Notebook. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ecco. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Featured image: The Volga Boatmen, by Ilia Efimovich Repin (1844-1930).

    Daniyal Mueenuddin
    Daniyal Mueenuddin
    Daniyal Mueenuddin, author of the acclaimed In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, The Best American Short Stories 2008, selected by Salman Rushdie, and the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010.

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