Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reader's Diary #386- Ivan Turgenev: A Sportsman's Notebook

Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Notebook (sometimes titled A Sportsman's Sketches or A Hunter's Sketches) was my third read for the Russian Reading Challenge.

"Sketches" is an apt description of the book. While Wikipedia has it listed as a selection of short stories, only a couple sections or so towards the end would really qualify as short stories-- and I don't mean Turgenev was throwing out vague pseudo-intellectual plots either. The impression that I had was that he didn't intend them to more than portraits and landscapes of the people and places he'd come across in his hunting exploits around a small section of Russia.

Mostly peasants and landowners, the composite population was interesting reading... for a bit. It quite reminded me of a National Geographic article; Turgenev began almost every sketch with a description of the land and weather, then would delve into the confessions, anecdotes, and philosophies offered to him by one soul or another. It was interesting to note that in many ways the peasants had no more in common to one another than they did with the landowners. Some were content with their lot in life and grateful for what they had, while others saw their lowercase treatment as unjust. I love such topics and without fail they get my brain working overtime. This time I found myself wrestling with the difference between ambition and greed.

But for all the political undertones and tourism through literature, A Sportsman's Notebook was too long. National Geographic's aren't 398 pages, nor should this book.

Turgenev himself comes across as a bit too sterile and too removed from his subjects. While charming in the way he addresses the reader directly in that old Russian style, he's nonetheless boring. In the introduction, Max Egremont praises him for being "too subtle a writer to produce a mere political tract" but taking a stance on something would have been nice. Turgenev may have illustrated the life of the downtrodden peasant, but he also illustrated the life of the happy peasant, the unlucky landowner and others. It was a great cross-section in the interest of a sociological study, but a little controversy would have livened things up in the interest of a book. Egremont goes on to say that "the critical tone of the book annoyed the authorities." Was something loss in translation? Over time? I didn't see it as much of a critical book at all. I think he played it too safe.

The Soundtrack
1. 2 Dots On A Map- The Russian Futurists
2. Winds of Change- Scorpions
3. Eli, The Barrel Boy- The Decemberists
4. Stand- R.E.M.
5. Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier- Corb Lund

For my fourth and final book for the challenge, I'm hoping to read something by a modern Russian writer, someone still alive. Any suggestions?

Cross posted at the Russian Reading Challenge.


Isabella K said...

I think I read some Turgenev back in the day, but if I did, it obviously didn't make much impression...

For a modern, you might look up Viktor Pelevin and see something appeals to you. I quite liked Helmet of Horror (a reworking of the Minotaur myth); Homo Zapiens is about a guy who works in advertising (lots of alcohol/drugs, and Russian mafia). Both somewhat challenging reads in different ways.

John Mutford said...

Isabella: I don't think this Turgenev will last long in my memory either. The Minotaur book sounds quite intriguing. I'll probably forego the other one though as I'm not into mafia stories at all. Thanks for the recommendations.

Allison said...

Interesting playlist you had there.