An examination of A Lear of the Steppes is of especial interest to authors, as the story is so exquisite in its structure, so overwhelming in its effects, that it exposes the artificiality of the great majority of the clever works of art in fiction. A Lear of the Steppes is great in art because it is a living organic whole, springing from the deep roots of life itself; and the innumerable works of art that are fabricated and pasted together from an ingenious plan – works that do not grow from the inevitability of things – appear at once insignificant or false in comparison.
In examining the art, the artist will note that Turgenev’s method of introducing his story is a lesson in sincerity. Harlov, the Lear of the story, is brought forward with such force on the threshold that all eyes resting on his figure cannot but follow his after movements. And absolute conviction gained, all the artist’s artful after-devices and subtle presentations and side-lights on the story are not apparent under the straightforward ease and the seeming carelessness with which the narrator describes his boyish memories. Then, Harlov’s household, his two daughters, and a crowd of minor characters, are brought before us as persons in the tragedy, and we see that all these people are living each from the innate laws of his being, apparently independently of the author’s scheme. This conviction, that the author has no pre-arranged plan, convinces us that in the story we are living a piece of life: here we are verily plunging into life itself.
And the story goes on flowing easily and naturally till the people of the neighbourhood, the peasants, the woods and fields around, are known by us as intimately as is any neighbourhood in life. Suddenly a break – the tragedy is upon us. Suddenly the terrific forces that underlie human life, even the meanest of human lives, burst on us astonished and breathless, precisely as a tragedy comes up to the surface and bursts on us in real life: everybody runs about dazed, annoyed, futile; we watch the other people sustaining their own individuality inadequately in the face of the monstrous new events which go their fatal way logically, events which leave the people huddled and useless and gasping. And destruction having burst out of life, life slowly returns to its old grooves – with a difference to us, the difference in the relation of people one to another that a death or a tragedy always leaves to the survivors. Marvellous in its truth is Turgenev’s analysis of the situation after Harlov’s death, marvellous is the simple description of the neighbourhood’s attitude to the Harlov family, and marvellous is the lifting of the scene on the after-life of Harlov’s daughters. In the pages (pages 140, 141, 146, 147) on these women, Turgenev flashes into the reader’s mind an extraordinary sense of the inevitability of these women’s natures, of their innate growth fashioning their after-lives as logically as a beech puts out beech-leaves and an oak oak-leaves. Through Turgenev’s single glimpse at their fortunes one knows the whole intervening fifteen years; he has carried us into a new world: yet it is the old world; one needs to know no more. It is life arbitrary but inevitable, life so clarified by art that it is absolutely interpreted; but life with all the sense of mystery that nature breathes around it in its ceaseless growth.
This sense of inevitability and of the mystery of life which Turgenev gives us in A Lear of the Steppes is the highest demand we can make from art. Acia, the last story in the present volume, though it gives us a sense of mystery, is not inevitable: the end is faked to suit the artist’s purpose, and thus, as in other ways, it is far inferior to Lear. Faust, the second story, has consummate charm in its strange atmosphere of the supernatural mingling with things earthly, but it is not, as is Lear, life seen from the surface to the revealed depths; it is a revelation of the strange forces in life, presented beautifully; but it is rather an idea, a problem to be worked out by certain characters, than a piece of life inevitable and growing. When an artist creates in us the sense of inevitability, then his work is at its highest, and is obeying nature’s law of growth, unfolding from out itself as inevitably as a tree or a flower or a human being unfolds from out itself. Turgenev at his highest never quits nature, yet he always uses the surface, and what is apparent, to disclose her most secret principles, her deepest potentialities, her inmost laws of being, and whatever he presents he presents clearly and simply. This combination of powers marks only the few supreme artists. Even great masters often fail in perfect naturalness: Tolstoi’s The Death of Ivan Ilytch, for example, one of the most powerful stories ever written, has too little that is typical of the whole of life, too much that is strained towards the general purpose of the story, to be really natural. Turgenev’s special feat in fiction is that his characters reveal themselves by the most ordinary details of their every-day life; and while these details are always giving us the whole life of the people, and their inner life as well, the novel’s significance is being built up simply out of these details, built up by the same process, in fact, as nature creates for us a single strong impression out of a multitude of little details. The Impressionists, it is true, often give us amazingly clever pictures of life, seen subtly and drawn naturally; but, in general, their able pictures of the way men think and act do not reveal more than the actual thinking and acting that men betray to one another, – they do not betray the whole significance of their lives more than does the daily life itself. And so the Impressionists give pictures of life’s surface, and not interpretations of its eternal depths: they pass away as portraits of the time, amazingly felicitous artistic portraits. But Turgenev’s power as a poet comes in, whenever he draws a commonplace figure, to make it bring with it a sense of the mystery of its existence. In Lear the steward Kvitsinsky plays a subsidiary part; he has apparently no significance in the story, and very little is told about him. But who does not perceive that Turgenev looks at and presents the figure of this man in a manner totally different from the way any clever novelist of the second rank would look at and use him? Kvitsinsky, in Turgenev’s hands, is an individual with all the individual’s mystery in his glance, his coming and going, his way of taking things; but he is a part of the household’s breath, of its very existence; he breathes the atmosphere naturally and creates an atmosphere of his own. If Hugo had created him he would have been out of focus immediately; Balzac would have described the household minutely, and then let Kvitsinsky appear as a separate entity in it; the Impressionists would sketch him as a living picture, a part of the household, but he would remain as first created, he would always repeat the first impression he makes on us, a certain man in a certain aspect; and they would not give us the steward revealing his character imperceptibly from day to day in his minute actions, naturally, and little by little, as this man reveals his.
It is then in his marvellous sense of the growth of life that Turgenev is superior to most of his rivals. Not only did he observe life minutely and comprehensively, but he reproduces it as a constantly growing phenomenon, growing naturally, not accidentally or arbitrarily. For example, in A House of Gentlefolk, take Lavretsky’s and Liza’s changes of mood when they are falling in love one with another: it is nature herself in them changing very delicately and insensibly; we feel that the whole picture is alive, not an effect cut out from life, and cut off from it at the same time, like a bunch of cut flowers, an effect which many clever novelists often give us. And in Lear we feel that the life in Harlov’s village is still going on, growing yonder, still growing with all its mysterious sameness and changes, when, in Turgenev’s last words, ‘The story-teller ceased, and we talked a little longer, and then parted, each to his home.’
Turgenev’s sympathy with women and his unequalled power of drawing them, not merely as they appear to men, but as they appear to each other, has been dwelt on by many writers. And in truth, of the three leading qualities into which his artistic powers may be arbitrarily analysed, the most apparent is precisely that delicate feminine intuition and sensitive emotional consciousness into all the nuances of personal relations that women possess in life and are never able to put into books. This fluid sympathetic perception is instinctive in Turgenev: it is his temperament to be sympathetic or receptive to all types, except, perhaps, to purely masculine men of action, whom he never draws with success. His temperament is bathed in a delicate emotional atmosphere quivering with light, which discloses all the infinite riches of the created world, the relation of each character to its particular universe, and the significance of its human fate. And this state of soul or flow of mood in Turgenev is creative, as when music floats from a distance to the listener, immediately the darkening fields, the rough coarse earth of cheap human life, with all the grind and petty monotony of existence, melt into harmony, and life is seen as a mysterious whole, not merely as a puzzling discrepancy of gaps and contradictions and days of little import. This fluid emotional consciousness of Turgenev is feminine, inasmuch as it is a receptive, sympathising, and harmonising attitude; but just where the woman’s faculty of receptiveness ends, where her perception fails to go beyond the facts she is alive to, Turgenev’s consciousness flashes out into the great poet’s creative world, with its immense breadth of vision, force, and imagination. Thus in laying down A Lear of the Steppes the reader is conscious that he is seeing past the human life of the tragedy on to the limitless seas of existence beyond, – he is looking beyond the heads of the moving human figures out on to the infinite horizon. Just where the woman’s interest would stop and rest satisfied with the near personal elements in the drama, Turgenev’s constructive poetic force sees the universal, and in turn interprets these figures in relation to the far wider field of the race, the age, and makes them symbolical of the deep forces of all human existence.
And thus Turgenev becomes a creator, originating a world greater than he received. His creation of Bazarov in Fathers and Children from a three hours’ accidental meeting with a man while on a journey, is an extraordinary instance of how unerringly his vision created in fore-thought a world that was to come. He accepted the man, he was penetrated with the new and strange conceptions of life offered, and as a poet he saw in a flash the immense significance to society of this man’s appearance in the age. He saw a new and formidable type had arisen in the nation, negating its traditions, its beliefs, its conceptions; and from this solitary meeting with an individual, Turgenev laid bare and predicted the progress of the most formidable social and political movement in modern Russia, predicted it and set it forth in art, a decade before its birth.
In truth, Turgenev’s art at its highest may well be the despair of artists who have sufficient insight to understand wherein he excels. He is rich in all the gifts, so he penetrates into everything; but it is the perfect harmony existing between his gifts that makes him see everything in proportion. Thus he never caricatures; he is never too forcible, and never too clever. He is a great realist, and his realism carries along with it the natural breath of poetry. His art is highly complex, but its expression is so pellucid, so simple, that we can see only its body, never the mechanism of its body. His thought and his emotion are blended in one; he interprets life, but always preserves the atmosphere, the glamour, the mystery of the living thing in his interpretation. His creative world arises spontaneously from his own depths – the mark of the world’s great masters. Never thinking of himself, he inspires his readers with a secret delight for the beauty that he found everywhere in life. And he never shuts his eyes against the true.
We were a party of six, gathered together one winter evening at the house of an old college friend. The conversation turned on Shakespeare, on his types, and how profoundly and truly they were taken from the very heart of humanity. We admired particularly their truth to life, their actuality. Each of us spoke of the Hamlets, the Othellos, the Falstaffs, even the Richard the Thirds and Macbeths – the two last only potentially, it is true, resembling their prototypes – whom he had happened to come across.
‘And I, gentlemen,’ cried our host, a man well past middle age, ‘used to know a King Lear!’
‘How was that?’ we questioned him.
‘Oh, would you like me to tell you about him?’
And our friend promptly began his narrative.
‘All my childhood,’ he began, ‘and early youth, up to the age of fifteen, I spent in the country, on the estate of my mother, a wealthy landowner in X – province. Almost the most vivid impression, that has remained in my memory of that far-off time, is the figure of our nearest neighbour, Martin Petrovitch Harlov. Indeed it would be difficult for such an impression to be obliterated: I never in my life afterwards met anything in the least like Harlov. Picture to yourselves a man of gigantic stature. On his huge carcase was set, a little askew, and without the least trace of a neck, a prodigious head. A perfect haystack of tangled yellowish-grey hair stood up all over it, growing almost down to the bushy eyebrows. On the broad expanse of his purple face, that looked as though it had been peeled, there protruded a sturdy knobby nose; diminutive little blue eyes stared out haughtily, and a mouth gaped open that was diminutive too, but crooked, chapped, and of the same colour as the rest of the face. The voice that proceeded from this mouth, though hoarse, was exceedingly strong and resonant… Its sound recalled the clank of iron bars, carried in a cart over a badly paved road; and when Harlov spoke, it was as though some one were shouting in a high wind across a wide ravine. It was difficult to tell just what Harlov’s face expressed, it was such an expanse… One felt one could hardly take it all in at one glance. But it was not disagreeable – a certain grandeur indeed could be discerned in it, only it was exceedingly astounding and unusual. And what hands he had – positive cushions! What fingers, what feet! I remember I could never gaze without a certain respectful awe at the four-foot span of Martin Petrovitch’s back, at his shoulders, like millstones. But what especially struck me was his ears! They were just like great twists of bread, full of bends and curves; his cheeks seemed to support them on both sides. Martin Petrovitch used to wear – winter and summer alike – a Cossack dress of green cloth, girt about with a small Tcherkess strap, and tarred boots. I never saw a cravat on him; and indeed what could he have tied a cravat round? He breathed slowly and heavily, like a bull, but walked without a sound. One might have imagined that having got into a room, he was in constant fear of upsetting and overturning everything, and so moved cautiously from place to place, sideways for the most part, as though slinking by. He was possessed of a strength truly Herculean, and in consequence enjoyed great renown in the neighbourhood. Our common people retain to this day their reverence for Titanic heroes. Legends were invented about him. They used to recount that he had one day met a bear in the forest and had almost vanquished him; that having once caught a thief in his beehouse, he had flung him, horse and cart and all, over the hedge, and so on. Harlov himself never boasted of his strength. ‘If my right hand is blessed,’ he used to say, ‘so it is God’s will it should be!’ He was proud, only he did not take pride in his strength, but in his rank, his descent, his common sense.
‘Our family’s descended from the Swede Harlus,’ he used to maintain. ‘In the princely reign of Ivan Vassilievitch the Dark (fancy how long ago!) he came to Russia, and that Swede Harlus did not wish to be a Finnish count – but he wished to be a Russian nobleman, and he was inscribed in the golden book. It’s from him we Harlovs are sprung!.. And by the same token, all of us Harlovs are born flaxen-haired, with light eyes and clean faces, because we’re children of the snow!’
‘But, Martin Petrovitch,’ I once tried to object, ‘there never was an Ivan Vassilievitch the Dark. Then was an Ivan Vassilievitch the Terrible. The Dark was the name given to the great prince Vassily Vassilievitch.’
‘What nonsense will you talk next!’ Harlov answered serenely; ‘since I say so, so it was!’
One day my mother took it into her head to commend him to his face for his really remarkable incorruptibility.
‘Ah, Natalia Nikolaevna!’ he protested almost angrily; ‘what a thing to praise me for, really! We gentlefolk can’t be otherwise; so that no churl, no low-born, servile creature dare even imagine evil of us! I am a Harlov, my family has come down from’ – here he pointed up somewhere very high aloft in the ceiling – ‘and me not be honest! How is it possible?’
Another time a high official, who had come into the neighbourhood and was staying with my mother, fancied he could make fun of Martin Petrovitch. The latter had again referred to the Swede Harlus, who came to Russia…
‘In the days of King Solomon?’ the official interrupted.
‘No, not of King Solomon, but of the great Prince Ivan Vassilievitch the Dark.’
‘But I imagine,’ the official pursued, ‘that your family is much more ancient, and goes back to antediluvian days, when there were still mastodons and megatheriums about.’
These scientific names were absolutely meaningless to Martin Petrovitch; but he realised that the dignitary was laughing at him.
‘May be so,’ he boomed, ‘our family is, no doubt, very ancient; in those days when my ancestor was in Moscow, they do say there was as great a fool as your excellency living there, and such fools are not seen twice in a thousand years.’
The high official was in a furious rage, while Harlov threw his head back, stuck out his chin, snorted and disappeared. Two days later, he came in again. My mother began reproaching him. ‘It’s a lesson for him, ma’am,’ interposed Harlov, ‘not to fly off without knowing what he’s about, to find out whom he has to deal with first. He’s young yet, he must be taught.’ The dignitary was almost of the same age as Harlov; but this Titan was in the habit of regarding every one as not fully grown up. He had the greatest confidence in himself and was afraid of absolutely no one. ‘Can they do anything to me? Where on earth is the man that can?’ he would ask, and suddenly he would go off into a short but deafening guffaw.
My mother was exceedingly particular in her choice of acquaintances, but she made Harlov welcome with special cordiality and allowed him many privileges. Twenty-five years before, he had saved her life by holding up her carriage on the edge of a deep precipice, down which the horses had already fallen. The traces and straps of the harness broke, but Martin Petrovitch did not let go his hold of the wheel he had grasped, though the blood spurted out under his nails. My mother had arranged his marriage. She chose for his wife an orphan girl of seventeen, who had been brought up in her house; he was over forty at the time. Martin Petrovitch’s wife was a frail creature – they said he carried her into his house in the palms of his hands – and she did not live long with him. She bore him two daughters, however. After her death, my mother continued her good offices to Martin Petrovitch. She placed his elder daughter in the district school, and afterwards found her a husband, and already had another in her eye for the second. Harlov was a fairly good manager. He had a little estate of nearly eight hundred acres, and had built on to his place a little, and the way the peasants obeyed him is indescribable. Owing to his stoutness, Harlov scarcely ever went anywhere on foot: the earth did not bear him. He used to go everywhere in a low racing droshky, himself driving a rawboned mare, thirty years old, with a scar on her shoulder, from a wound which she had received in the battle of Borodino, under the quartermaster of a cavalry regiment. This mare was always somehow lame in all four legs; she could not go at a walking pace, but could only change from a trot to a canter. She used to eat mugwort and wormwood along the hedges, which I have never noticed any other horse do. I remember I always used to wonder how such a broken-down nag could draw such a fearful weight. I won’t venture to repeat how many hundred-weight were attributed to our neighbour. In the droshky behind Martin Petrovitch’s back perched his swarthy page, Maximka. With his face and whole person squeezed close up to his master, and his bare feet propped on the hind axle bar of the droshky, he looked like a little leaf or worm which had clung by chance to the gigantic carcase before him. This same page boy used once a week to shave Martin Petrovitch. He used, so they said, to stand on a table to perform this operation. Some jocose persons averred that he had to run round his master’s chin. Harlov did not like staying long at home, and so one might often see him driving about in his invariable equipage, with the reins in one hand (the other he held smartly on his knee with the elbow crooked upwards), with a diminutive old cap on the very top of his head. He looked boldly about him with his little bear-like eyes, shouted in a voice of thunder to all the peasants, artisans, and tradespeople he met. Priests he greatly disliked, and he would send vigorous abjurations after them when he met them. One day on overtaking me (I was out for a stroll with my gun), he hallooed at a hare that lay near the road in such a way that I could not get the roar and ring of it out of my ears all day.