Summer in the midwest is delightful before it gets too hot, usually at the end of the first week in June. (“I’ll think about that tomorrow.”) Meanwhile, on a recent lovely day, with purple clover, dandelions, and other weedy flowers blooming, I lingered outdoors to finish Turgenev’s Spring Torrents (1871). And I enjoyed this slight, yearning novel about love gone wrong.
This is one of Turgenev’s later novels, and is not highly esteemed by the critics. (Avrahm Yarmolinksy calls it “mawkish.”) Yet I don’t mind the simplicity and sentimentality, and love Turgenev’s lyricism and intelligence. This novel grew out of a long short story, and, according to Leonard Schapiro’s essay in the Penguin, can be considered either genre: the Russian word “povest” applies to both novel and short story.
As always, Turgenev is a master of 19th-century Russian tropes: we have the impetuous hero, a stay in a resort town or at a country estate, a love affair, intense conversations about politics (in this case about owning serfs), walks in gardens and parks, and a duel. And yet there are unexpected plot twists along the way. The hero’s life is ruined, not by a duel but by a dangerous friendship.
Though you may or may not be a fan of the frame construction, Turgenev’s use of it captures our attention as a portal to the past. At age 53, Dmitry Sanin looks back and worries that 30 years ago he may have ruined the life of the woman he jilted. Sanin is having a midlife crisis, and is genuinely despondent.
He had never before felt so tired – in body and in spirit. He has spent the whole evening in the company of agreeable women and educated men. There had been some beautiful women among them too, and nearly all the men had been witty and accomplished. His own conversation had come off very well, brilliantly even…and yet, and yet…never before had he felt such disgust for life, such taedium vitae, which the Romans talked about in their time.
And then Turgenev deftly segues into the story of Sanin at 23, who is visiting Frankfurt after a trip to Italy. On an aimless walk around town, he enters a patisserie by chance: a beautiful young woman, Gemma, rushes out from the back and begs him to help her brother, Emil, who is dying. It is merely a fainting fit, and he revives Emil by brushing his limbs with clothes brushes. The doctor approves this rather strange course of healing. Gemma and her mother, the humorous Frau Lenore, invite him for dinner, and treat him like a member of the family. He talks politics with Gemma’s uncle Pantelone, a former actor, and he keeps postponing his journey home. Frau Lenore and Pantelone are the most vivid characters in this family, while Gemma and Emil are little more than sketches on the page. But then they are young. The humor will come later.
No, Gemma and Sanin are not in love – she is engaged to a placid German store manager, but, ironically, it is Sanin, rather than the fiance, who fights a duel after a soldier at a cafe makes inappropriately provocative comments to her. Sanin is such a romantic! No one dies in the duel-the result is that Sanin and Gemma fall in love and he proposes.
The problem is, What will they do for money? As a landowner, he wants to sell his estate so he can refurbish the patisserie and support the whole family in style. By chance, he runs into an old school friend, who invites him to Weisbaden, where his beautiful businesswoman wife, the exuberant, Virgil-quoting ex-peasant Maria Nikolaevna, may be interested in buying it. But Sanin’s visit to this couple – who make a horrifying bet about him – ends in his abandoning Gemma and accompanying them to Paris. The whole novel turns on this event. So much can be learned about Sanin from this plot twist. And so we understand his perhaps romanticized recollections of early love.
Turgenev fans will not read Spring Torrents without remembering the long three-way relationship between Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, the opera singer he loved for most of his life, and her husband, Louis Viardot, a theater manager and writer. If you’re interested in reading more about these stars, I recommend Orlando Figes’s The Europeans, a smart, ambitious history of the development of European culture and technology that revolves around this influential trio, who promoted the work of their peers, international writers, musicians, and artists.
I very much enjoyed Spring Torrents (Penguin), translated by Leonard Schapiro.