Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Home of the Gentry by Ivan Turgenev.

Ivan Turgenev by Ilya Repin (1874).
Home of the Gentry (Дворянское гнездо), also known as The Nest of Gentlefolk or The House of Gentlefolk, is the 1859 novel by Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (Ива́н Серге́евич Турге́нев). I haven't read Turgenev for many years and I don't believe I've ever written anything about any of his works. He wrote many short stories, novels, and plays; perhaps his best known novels are On the Eve (Накануне, 1860), Fathers and Sons (Отцы и дети, 1862), and Home of the Gentry. His short story collection, Sketches from a Hunter's Album (Записки охотника, 1852), was credited as changing the Russian public's opinion of serfdom, which was eventually abolished by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. He was a Realist, was admired by American novelist Henry James, and associated with Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Alphonse Daudet. His relationships with Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy were, however, strained: whilst travelling in Paris together, Tolstoy called him a bore, and Dostoyevsky parodied him in his 1872 novel The Devils (Бесы) in the character Karmazinov. Finally, in 1979 Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh discovered an asteroid and it is named 3323 Turgenev, after Ivan Turgenev. 

As for me, having read Fathers and Sons and On the Eve (both of which I'd like to re-read), I'd say I very much enjoy Turgenev's work and Home of the Gentry (Turgenev's second novel) is possibly my favourite so far. It's about a nobleman, Fyodor Ivanych Lavretsky, who returns home "to the provincial town of O..." (Oryol, perhaps? Oryol was the home of Turgenev) having learned that his wife, Varvara Pavlovna, has had an affair. On returning to "O..." he visits his cousin Marya Dmitrievna Kalitina and meets her daughter, Liza. He falls in love, and later learns that Varvara has died. He declares his love to Liza, and she reciprocates, however Fate is most unkind...

Home of the Gentry is a very gentle book, melancholic, and full of music: one can almost hear the strains of the piano not quite breaking the stillness of the novel. It's about love, loss, disappointment, and even boredom: Lavretsky struggles to find a purpose and is often thwarted, and this theme is often reflected in the music. Of Lemm, the German musician also visiting the Kalitinas, Turgenev writes,
Alas! the music turned out to be complicated and painfully strained; it was clear that the composer had striven to express something passionate and deep, but nothing had come of it; the effort had remained an effort.
This almost sums up Lavretsky. And in other times, happier times, the nightingale sings,
Everything was hushed in the room; the only sound was the faint crackling of the wax-candles, and sometimes the tap of a hand on the table, and an exclamation or reckoning of points; and the rich torrent of the nightingale's song, powerful piercingly sweet, poured in at the window, together with the dewy freshness of the night.
Sound and music is such a great part of Home of the Gentry and I regret not making a little list of the music and composers that are mentioned (I do remember Chopin, Beethoven, and Schubert are mentioned). When I come to re-read it I will, but for now I'll say music is the key to it. In happiness:
"She loves me, she will be mine." Suddenly it seemed to him that in the air over his head were floating strains of divine triumphant music. He stood still. The music resounded in still greater magnificence; a mighty flood of melody--and all his bliss seemed speaking and singing in its strains. He looked about him; the music floated down from two upper windows of a small house.
Times of excitement:
The waltz she had played was ringing in her head, and exciting her; whatever position she might find herself in, she had only to imagine lights, a ballroom, rapid whirling to the strains of music--and her blood was on fire, her eyes glittered strangely, a smile strayed about her lips, and something of bacchanalian grace was visible over her whole frame.
Times of ecstasy,
The sweet passionate melody went to his heart from the first note; it was glowing and languishing with inspiration, happiness and beauty; it swelled and melted away; it touched on all that is precious, mysterious, and holy on earth. It breathed of deathless sorrow and mounted dying away to the heavens. Lavretsky drew himself up, and rose cold and pale with ecstasy. This music seemed to clutch his very soul, so lately shaken by the rapture of love, the music was glowing with love too. "Again!" he whispered as the last chord sounded.
And at times of regret:
But Lemm sat a long while on his bed, a music-book on his knees. He felt as though sweet, unheard melody was haunting him; already he was all aglow and astir, already he felt the languor and sweetness of its presence . . but he could not reach it.
"Neither poet nor musician!" he muttered at last ... And his tired head sank wearily on to the pillows.
It brings characters together, literally in the music evenings hosted by Marya Kalitina, and in conversation between the characters, too. For this, the union of prose and music, I love Home of the Gentry. The characters are so well drawn; it's truly a compelling read even with the moments of melodrama. I'm looking forward to reading more Turgenev; I think for my next read will be Sketches from a Hunter's Album


Further Reading


  1. Ah, your review makes me want to have a Turgenev Read-a-Thon! I loved his Fathers and Sons ...... along with the circumstances that drove the characters, he so expertly and gently wove nature into the story and made it so much a part of the action, that when I think about it I get feelings of nostalgia. The emphasis on music in this book must have been lovely too. I can certainly see the differences in his novels compared to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Those two like to beat the reader about the head with their philosophies (though a nice beating it is), but Turgenev is more gentle with his thoughts. It doesn't surprise me that Tolstoy thought him boring.

    1. A Turgenev-a-thon would be awesome! I think I'll read something else quite soon, actually. Definitely will start with Sketches.Such a great writer :)

  2. I recently read and totally liked three of Turgenev's novellas, Lear of the Steppes, Faust and his highly regarded First Love. I can see a Turgenev read all as a very good project.

    1. I definitely agree. Did you blog about the novellas? I'll have to go have a look... :)


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