Why Turgenev Remains One of the Most Important Russian Writers (And Why You Should Read the Constance Garnett Translation)

Josh Billings on the Pocket Universes of a True Literary Master


The English novel at the end of the 19th century had a problem, and that problem was French.

Emile Zola had thrown the first stone. In his 1875 manifesto, Le Roman Experimental, the prominent French novelist insisted that in order to survive the industrial age the novel would have to turn away from the charms of Romanticism, and towards a more pragmatic, if somewhat less compelling muse: the scientific method.

Zola’s inspiration for this change was the physiologist Claude Bernard, whose “Introduction a L’Etude de la Medecine Experimental” (1865) lobbed the then-revolutionary suggestion that medicine should stop trying to understand itself as an art. In this way, Bernard said, the practice could separate itself from those folk traditions that had guided it for centuries, working its way towards those underlying principles without which “we have only groping and empiricism.”

Zola believed that fiction should do the same. Instead of plucking its characters from the author’s imagination, it should select them from real life; instead of cooking up fantastical plots, it should chart its subjects’ interactions with the disinterest of a technician watching a petri dish. The results would be brutal, but invigorating. “We teach the bitter science of life, the uncompromising lesson of the real,” he said, sounding a little like Morpheus telling Neo to stare through the matrix.

To younger writers like Flaubert, Maupassant and Daudet, however, such pitilessness was a natural evolution from the adventurousness displayed by their great Romantic progenitor, Victor Hugo: a freedom which had been liberating at one point, but developed over the years into a “huge oak,” in whose shadow, as Zola put it, “it seems impossible that any new tree should grow.”

[pullquotes]“This House deplores the rapid spread of demoralizing literature…”[/pullquotes]

The reception to all this across the Channel was dramatic, to say the least. Shaken by the depth charge of Darwinian theory, and unburdened by a genre-dominating like Hugo, the British press jumped on “Naturalism” (as Zola called it) with a mixture of hand-wringing and old-fashioned Francophobia. “[T]he banishing from human life of all that gives it glory and honor: the victory of fact over principle, of mechanism over imagination[…] in a word of matter over mind,” wailed W.S. Lilley, in a survey of the Naturalist novel published in the Fortnightly Review in 1885.

The vitriol frothed into politics in 1888, when the House of Commons carried a motion stating that “this House deplores the rapid spread of demoralizing literature, and is of the opinion that the law against indecent publications and pictures should be enforced, and if necessary strengthened.”

In 1888, an organization known as the National Vigilance Association brought an action against Henry Vizetelly, at that point the main publisher of French Naturalist novels in England, under the claim that he was “trafficking in pornographic literature.” When the NVA repeated this claim in 1889, Vizetelly was sentenced to three months in prison.



As hysterical as it may sound today, one of the things that becomes clear about the British reaction to French Naturalism when we look at it in hindsight is that it was not just about preventing schoolgirls from reading about brothels. On the contrary, it was, at bottom, a literary argument.

Stripped of outrage, its main criticism was that in making the novel more “scientific” Zola had robbed it of the moral dimension that was such a key part of its appeal. He had misunderstood the central feature of the novel form—that is, its Quixotic mixing of both reality and romance—as a bug, rather than a feature. In doing so, he had paradoxically made the novel less real, producing works that, for all their brilliant depiction of the inhuman processes gripping modern life, lost sight of the human being at the center of those processes.

It is against the backdrop of this insufficiency, I think, that we can understand the passion for Russian literature that gripped England at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. As a publishing phenomenon, the so-called Russian fever, as it was known at the time, was dramatic enough to suggest the satisfaction of some need going unmet by native products—the Victorian equivalent to the Latin Boom of the mid-20th century. Certainly there were other factors that contributed.

After being regarded for centuries as a combination boogeyman/country cousin, Russia during that time had entered a period of unprecedented change, capturing the world’s imagination in a way that would have seemed unlikely only a few generations earlier. English readers wanted to know all about it: its culture, its history, its politics. More than that, they wanted to read about it, not just in newspapers, but in the newly-translated novels that, to their immense gratification, seemed to be offering them exactly the kind of course correction that they had been missing since the French Naturalists took the genre to task.

Turgenev managed the trick that the French had not, framing the changes going on in the world of the late 19th century in a way that did not simply sweep the old ways under the rug.

Perhaps no other author of the 19th century demonstrates the hand-and-glove nature of the Russian fever better than the earliest and most successful of its imports, Ivan Turgenev. As the first Russian novelist to be widely translated, Turgenev received a surprisingly smooth reception in English—except, of course, when it came to his name.

“Ivan Tourqueneff,” was how the Scotsman spelled it, in an early mention in 1870—although to be fair even this elaboration paled in comparison to the attempt that George Moore made when he lamented in an 1896 letter to his brother that his recently published novel Evelyn Innes was “inferior to Tourgournoff.” Later, Moore revised his spelling to the slightly-less-bizarre “Turgueneff,” whom he went on to praise:

“[H]e is not the ferocious cynic who, having drunk and found gall, would spit gall into every cup within reach; he is a man who, having learned the lesson thoroughly well, knowing we must live, since Nature has so willed it, is inclined towards kindness and pity; who would say ‘Obey Nature’s laws, be simple and obey; it is the best that you can do.’”

Moore’s capitalized “Nature” makes his subtext clear: here, at last, was the answer that British literature had been waiting for, a writer capable of squaring the Naturalist circle with a deftness that could make even the most careful Gallic craftsman jealous. Clearly such a writer understood the forces that humanity had unleashed on itself; at the same time, according to Moore, Turgenev managed the trick that the French had not, framing the changes going on in the world of the late 19th century in a way that did not simply sweep the old ways embarrassedly under the rug.

Perhaps just as importantly, his ironic, highly-nuanced fiction inhabited, in a way that no other work of the day seemed capable of doing, a political/literary sweet spot, one that allowed its readers to feel like they were engaging with the difficult social problems of their age, although without being unduly threatened by them.



In order to understand how Turgenev managed to do this—that is, how he satisfied the seemingly incompatible demands for comfort and challenge that the late Victorian brought to the novel, like a child demanding that a bedtime story both keep them interested and put them to sleep—I think it’s useful to think about another titanic figure of the era, one whose shaping influence on the English-language reception of Russian literature has been, for the most part, misunderstood.

It’s become conventional wisdom to talk about Constance Garnett, the indefatigable ex-Fabian whose translations of the major Russian authors during the Russian fever were so persuasive that she became a sort of surrogate author for many of her readers (Joseph Conrad: “Turgenev for me is Constance Garnett, and Constance Garnett is Turgenev”), as a well-intentioned but essentially butterfingered plodder, whose lack of fluency in Russian caused her to gloss over those subtleties that might have challenged her essentially risk-averse audience.

There is some truth to this, especially when it comes to Garnett’s later work on more shaggily heteroglossic authors like Dostoevsky or Gogol; but in her translations of Turgenev Garnett caught her author’s accent perfectly, preserving those suggestive dimensions that other translations have typically sacrificed, presumably in order to bring Turgenev closer to the authoritative fluency that most readers expect a “great” writer to display.

As the critic Rachel May has noted, such streamlining is unfortunately pretty typical of translations from Russian, a language whose comparatively late literary flowering has meant that its great works in prose often imitate oral storytelling, and whose novels therefore tend to treat the narrative voice as a character in and of itself, signaling biases, emotions, or hypocrisies via tics that may strike the English translator as redundant. Taken on their own, such touches might seem trivial; but added up over the course of an entire work their removal creates atmospheric shifts that can alter the reader’s experience of the work. In certain cases, it can even change its meaning, diminishing the formal innovation underpinning Turgenev’s complex social critique.

My point in contrasting the two translations here is not to scold the Slater-Pasternak Slater version for altering the original, but to highlight how much these changes alter Turgenev’s meaning.

The costs of such misunderstanding become usefully glaring when we look at Garnett’s translation of Fathers and Children, which is not just her masterpiece but one of the translation high points of the era. It’s a book that, despite frequent period clunkiness, is extremely effective at communicating Turgenev’s superpower as a writer, that is, his ability to use the protean, inherently spoken nature of Russian storytelling to suggest the myriad smaller, subjective worlds eddying within the current of any story, no matter how glossily straightforward it might at first appear to be.

It starts doing this in its very first page, on which Turgenev introduces us to two men, the landowner Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, and his servant Piotr, who are waiting for a carriage to bring the former’s beloved son back to the family estate. While they wait, the scene’s crisp introductory dialogue gives way to a single two-page paragraph of backstory about Nikolai Petrovich—one whose jumbled first-this-happened-then-this-happened inelegance does a lot to characterize the landowner himself as a disorganized, if essentially sincere man.

The effect is reproduced well both by Garnett and in the more recent translation done by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater (New York Review of Books, 2022); but then immediately after this paragraph the narrative snaps out of Nikolai Petrovich’s consciousness and into a sentence description of Piotr’s situation, which differs in the two versions:

“The servant—out of a sense of propriety, or perhaps not wanting to remain under his master’s eye—went out to the courtyard gate to smoke a pipe.” (Slater-Pasternak Slater)

“The servant, from a feeling of propriety, and perhaps, too, not anxious to remain under the master’s eye, had gone to the gate, and was smoking a pipe.” (Garnett)

Staring at these two sentences side by side can feel a bit like examining a “Spot the Difference” puzzle in a kids’ magazine; but if we allow our eyes to unfocus a little, what stands up, I think, is primarily the different relationship that they suggest between the narrative voice and the interior world of Piotr.

In the first version, Slater and Pasternak Slater keep their distance, cordoning the servant’s subjective experience off from the rest of the sentence with a pair of dashes, and inserting the possessive pronoun “his” in a way that makes it clear that it is the author himself who is describing Piotr here.

In the Garnett version, on the other hand, the border between narrator and narratee blurs, making the description seem less objective than like a flash of ventriloquism allowing us to overhear what might be Piotr’s own reference to Nikolai Petrovich (“the master”). For a brief second, it even feels like the servant’s own thinking might have inserted itself into the narrative, usurping the description in a way that emphasizes the openness of Turgenev’s own phrase (pod barskim glazom, which in a literal translation might be “beneath master’s eye”).

My point in contrasting the two translations here is not to scold the Slater-Pasternak Slater version for altering the original (it does, of course, but so do all translations), but to highlight how much these changes alter Turgenev’s meaning, turning a daring technical extension of the third-person’s traditional objectivity into just another passage of description. In doing so, they dampen what is the main point of the sentence in the original Russian: to contrast Nikolai Petrovich’s charming but essentially indulgent self-presentation with the less obviously-significant world of his manservant, and to make us “see” Piotr’s subjective world in a way that Nikolai Petrovich himself, for the most part, does not.

We may wonder which audience is more discomfited by the radical sympathies of Turgenev’s prose: the Victorians, or us?

That a pair of 21st-century translators can make the same mistake may seem ironic; but to my mind it only highlights the immense subtlety of Turgenev’s accomplishment—and, by extension, Garnett’s reinvention of it. Speculating on what might have contributed to her sensitivity, a number of possible elements come to mind. Her Victorian British awareness of social hierarchies? Her Fabian sympathies for the working class? The fact that she was a woman? Whatever it was (or whatever combination it was), examining the translations themselves we see that over and over again her successes stem from a dogged and often somewhat awkward-sounding literalness, as if she were anxiously trying to reproduce Turgenev’s Russian sentences using exactly the same syntax and punctuation as the original.

Interestingly enough, these reproductions often convey exactly the kind of subjective tint that more naturalized versions leave out. In a brief passage in the fourth chapter, for example, the manservant Prokofyich takes the overcoat of the young Arkady’s “nihilist” friend, Bazarov: a piece of clothing that Bazarov himself refers to using the informal and self-deprecating term odyozhenka, instead of the more customary shinyel. The peculiar word choice is characteristic of Bazarov, who cares little for conventions, linguistic or otherwise; but it leads to a parenthetical reaction by the old servant that, again, comes off differently depending on which translation we are reading:

“(Prokofyich, with an astonished look, picked up Bazarov’s garment in both hands, raised it high above his head, and tiptoed out of the room).” (Slater-Pasternak Slater)

“(Prokofitch, with an air of perplexity, picked up Bazarov’s ‘garment’ in both hands, and holding it high above his head, tiptoed out of the room).” (Garnett)

As with the earlier example, the most glaring alteration that the Slater-Pasternak Slater translation make here—removing the quotation marks around the word “garment”—distorts the original, draining the moment of its comedy and making Prokofyich’s little joke seem like the twitching of a water bug. It observes the old man’s gesture from a distance, missing once again the way that Turgenev’s ungovernable attention leaps over both the straightforward anonymity of traditional third person and the more controlled ironies of free indirect discourse.

Garnett, on the other hand, preserves Turgenev’s joke and his sympathy, creating a sentence that is unwieldy but in its own way far more representative of the original. The change is one of texture, atmosphere, tone; a small change, in other words. And yet the difference in final effect is enormous—so much so that we may wonder which audience is more discomfited by the radical sympathies of Turgenev’s prose: the Victorians, or us?

The comparison may feel uncomfortable, especially when we consider that so many of Turgenev’s narrative extensions involve members of less-privileged social classes—although we should point out that members of the nobility are also granted glimpses of interiority in Fathers and Children, many of which are similarly glossed over in the Slater-Pasternak Slater translation.

In one scene, for example, the foppish uncle of the Kirsanov family, Pavel Petrovich, is given his own chapter of backstory: a tale of lost love whose compressed, slightly parodic tone reflects our understanding of him as a man rendered ridiculous by his devotion to foreign models. But even within the framework of this critique, Turgenev lets the uncle’s own voice burst through in moments of vivid pettishness.

“On his return from abroad, he had gone to visit his brother with the idea of spending a couple of months with him to admire his happiness, but he only stayed a week.” (Slater-Pasternak Slater)

“When he came back from abroad, he had gone to him with the intention of staying a couple months with him, in sympathetic enjoyment of his happiness, but he had only succeeded in standing a week of it.” (Garnett)

Torqued as it is around a series of astute prioritizations, Slater-Pasternak Slater’s version of this sentence reads undeniably as cleaner, neater, “more natural”—as better, in other words, at least until the final clause, where it replaces Turgenev’s shaded vyzhil (“survived”) with the simpler, unshaded “stayed.”

Garnett’s version, on the other hand, bumbles along in what can only be described as fastidious translatorese, sticking the landing, improbably, with “he only succeeded in standing”—a phrase whose ventilation of Pavel Petrovich’s annoyance clues us in to the fact that what we are reading here is in fact a motley monologue rumbling closer and closer to the inner, not at all objective thoughts of its subject.

This sense is key to our understanding of the next, culminating paragraph in the chapter, where we get a sentence that again bifurcates depending on which translation we are reading. “This time was harder for Pavel Petrovich than for another man; in losing his past, he lost everything,” Garnett’s version reads, articulating Pavel Petrovich’s suffering while at the same time hinting at the reserves of complacent self-pity running underneath it.

In the Slater-Pasternak Slater version, on the other hand (“This was a time more difficult for Pavel Pavlovich than for anyone else…”), the comically-aggrandizing tone of the first clause is localized and therefore muted, transforming what in the original is a rich act of self-justification into a confusing mixture of registers. For a second, we are not sure exactly who is speaking—for by removing so many of the animating asides leading up to this sentence, the Slater-Pasternak Slater translation has actually made it harder for us to follow the shifts of narrative perspective that a moment like this relies on for its effect. It has trained us to expect the kind of straightforward, lacerating, written irony that Flaubert uses in his portrait of Monsieur Homais, say, as opposed to the much more self-contradictory, storytelling inhabitations deployed by that same author when it comes to Madame Bovary herself. In doing so, it has transformed what in the Russian is a moment of rich ambiguity into one of floundering non-commitment—as if, in its inability to decide whose side it is on, the story itself has been forced to admit that it has no idea what Pavel Petrovich’s story means.



Confusing though they can be, the blurrings of the Slater-Pasternak Slater translation of Fathers and Children at least remind us of Turgenev’s great strength, that is, its ability to both make and suspend its judgment, holding condemnation and compassion together—often in the same sentence. It is this combination, more than any tameness of subject matter, that sets Turgenev apart from his Naturalist competitors.

Zola flays mercilessly, or forgives totally; but Turgenev flays and forgives at the same time, satisfying our sense of reality while making us feel that the entropic tragedy of things is a kind of fate, meaning something unavoidable. In this way, his vaunted progressive message is only half the story, since it is delivered against the backdrop of a world that is inherently compromised and broken, and whose injustices we are therefore tempted to understand (in Robert Frost’s phrase) as matters of “grief,” instead of “grievance.”

It is not difficult to see why such a world might have felt comforting to the mostly educated and upper class reading public of Garnett’s time. For these readers, to quote May, “Turgenev’s art had everything to which the late Victorians aspired”—meaning, I think, not just consciously coveted aesthetic values like “simplicity,” “naturalness,” or “impeccable beauty,” but also the aquifer-like calmness from which these virtues seemed to derive.

You could argue that the best part of 20th- and 21st-century Russian and Eastern European writing would be unthinkable without the narrative “spokenness” that Fathers and Children smuggled into 19th-century fiction.

For despite all its concern with political questions like rural poverty or the freeing of the serfs, what the Victorian reader (and, yes, translator) appeared to value most highly in Turgenev’s fiction was its feeling of permanence—as if there at least, in the hinterlands of this underdeveloped, terminally-unbalanced country, the messy but ultimately stalemated drama of human existence was still being staged the same way it always had been, like a mystery play whose actors changed but whose plot remained boringly, blessedly intact.

It is a view of Turgenev, and indeed of Russian literature as a whole, that has endured in the Anglophone world almost entirely intact, rearing up again in everyone from Hemingway to George Steiner to James Wood (an interesting, non-English-speaking variant appears in the work of the Marxist critic Gyorgy Lukacs, whose interpretation of Russian literature as an unceasing road to revolution inverts the Victorian pastoral while essentially keeping its wish-fulfilling structure intact).

And yet it makes sense that, in trying to create a version of the writer for our own age, translators like Slater-Pasternak Slater might prefer to turn away from this equivocal Turgenev, dampening those formal aspects of his that qualify and complicate his social critique, and streamlining his shaggy narrative voice into something that sounds more clean-cut and incisive. After all, if there’s one thing that our current historical has suggested, it is that clarity of moral vision trumps all, or should, especially when it comes to the kind of hypocritical complacency that Turgenev’s prose, for all its clear-eyed acuity, suggests is just another ineradicable part of human nature.

Still, reading Garnett’s version Fathers and Children side by side with its cleaner update, I can’t help thinking how influential Turgenev’s example has continued to prove over the years. In an era where so much prose depends on either well-worn confessional antics, or the familiar ironies of a comfortably-ensconced narrator, it may sound out of step to suggest that Turgenev’s flexible, storytelling voice can sound like anything less than antique; and yet, taking a step back from English-language literature, we find that a huge amount of the best contemporary writing derives from exactly the kind of imaginary inhabitation that he pioneered.

Indeed, you could argue that the best part of 20th- and 21st-century Russian and Eastern European writing—in particular, in the inventive hybrid works of Svetlana Alexievich, Lyudmilla Ulitskaya, Olga Tokarczuk, and Tatyana Tolstaya (to name only four)—would be unthinkable without the narrative “spokenness” that Fathers and Children smuggled into 19th-century fiction. Add the vast, still-undertranslated body of skaz literature and “Village prose” from the Russia of the 20th century, and you have a veritable mirror-universe of contemporary literature—one in which the subtle but tenacious boundaries separating first and third person, narrator and subject, and even reader and writer, are all put thrillingly in play.

Such playful challenging seems to have felt more hospitable to the Victorian landowner steeped in Dickens and Sterne than it does to us; and yet at the end of the day, it is the atmosphere of ethical and imaginative evenhandedness created by his formal innovation that remains the most enduring aspect of Turgenev’s legacy. This is the real “permanence” of his writing, a breadth that moves beyond simple whataboutism and into a troubled laying bare of human intractability that still, despite all its anguish, cannot help but delight in the individual’s need to escape the common fate, whatever that fate may be.

Fathers and Children understands, like few other books of its time, that this is a problem—maybe the problem. But what really sets it apart is its clear-eyed insistence that there are no isolated solutions to it, and that therefore our only hope—if it is a hope—is to accept the uncomfortable fact that, despite our private arrangements, we are in the world together.

Josh Billings
Josh Billings
Josh Billings is a writer and translator who was born in Vermont, grew up in Papua New Guinea and Zambia, and currently lives in Farmington, Maine. His writing has appeared in Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, and elsewhere. His translations of Alexander Pushkin, Aleksander Kuprin and the Strugatsky brothers are available from Melville House Books. He can be contacted at josh.billings@gmail.com.

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