“When I glance back at my life, all I seem to have done is chase after ridiculous things.” – Ivan Turgenev, in an 1856 letter to his friend Yelizaveta Lambert.
I could barely get through the last chapter of Fathers and Sons. Tears kept dripping onto the page, blurring my vision and causing blotches of water damage in my library book. I had picked up the novel because another book I had been looking for was checked out, and when I encountered Turgenev a little further down the shelf, I remembered I claimed Fathers and Sons as one of my favorites. The last time I had read it, I was seventeen.
In the passage that made me cry, the young Bazarov, dying of typhus, sees the futility of his grand ideals and ambitions and realizes that his life has mattered no more than anyone else’s. His last feverish words are:
“No, it’s clear, I’m not needed. And who is needed? The shoemaker’s needed, the tailor’s needed, the butcher… gives us meat… the butcher… wait a little… I’m getting mixed…”
It had been a long time since a novel made me cry like this. My tears used to flow more freely when I was a teenager and reading a good book was almost a religious experience. Back then, books seemed truer than reality, and I did not yet realize that writers are mortals like anybody else. I cried over books that today I can’t even bear to read.
Fathers and Sons made a particularly deep impression on me. When I first read it, I was so excited that a 19th-century book could be relevant to a 20th-century teenager, that I bought extra copies to give to my friends, with reading instructions and margin annotations at the most significant passages.
Strangely enough, on second reading twenty-five years later, I didn’t recognize a single scene from the book. Even though I was again moved to tears, my initial reading seemed to have been completely erased from my memory. Maybe it was because this time I read it in English translation instead of Dutch (the marked-up Dutch version I read so many yeas ago was lost after I left Amsterdam), or maybe it’s because one never reads the same book twice.
The story of Fathers and Sons (which, in the original Russian, bears the slightly less gendered title Fathers and Children) is simple: two students – Bazarov, a radical young doctor, and Arkady, his admiring friend – go home to spend their graduation summer at their parental estates, first staying with Arkady’s family and then with Bazarov’s parents. Bazarov, who calls himself a “nihilist” and thinks of himself as a revolutionary, antagonizes Arkady’s father and uncle with his haughty manners and disdain for the ideas of the older generation. But the young men’s minds are taken off ideology when they both fall in love with a beautiful young widow: Anna Odintsov. Bazarov, who rejects “romantic love” because it contradicts his nihilist ideas, tries to ignore his feelings, but when Odintsov refuses him, he falls into a depression. The two friends retreat to the small estate of Bazarov’s parents, quarrel, and eventually part ways. Bazarov becomes increasingly moody and apathetic and contracts typhus through a careless medical mistake. He dies at his parents’ home before the summer is over.
On rereading, I had expected to recognize the scenes and characters that moved me years ago. But I could not even guess which passages I had underlined and annotated as a seventeen-year-old. I vaguely remembered being impressed with Bazarov – it was probably one of his speeches that I recommended to my friends – but as an adult, I found Bazarov childishly pompous and recognized him as an insecure young man who holds on to the reassurance of big ideas to avoid having to make emotional connections. He was, in fact, I now realized, the boyfriend with whom I had just broken up when I was seventeen and whom I continued to love obsessively.
On second reading, I found that my sympathy now lies with the older characters, whom Bazarov ridicules. I felt pity for Bazarov’s parents as they try to understand and please their disdainful son. I identified with Arkady’s tenderhearted father, whom Bazarov dismisses as a sentimental fool. I even found myself siding with Arkady’s conservative uncle, Pavel. When, in one of their many quarrels, Bazarov declares that he questions anything that has not been proven, Pavel replies: “We are old-fashioned people; we imagine that without principles… taken as you say on faith, there’s no taking a step, no breathing…” Now that I’m an adult, I’m inclined to agree with Pavel that there is indeed a limit to the power of rational thought. In the twenty-five years between my readings of Fathers and Sons, the elements that originally did not speak to me seem to have germinated and become a part of myself.
When Fathers and Sons was published in 1862 – at a time when Russian radicals and conservatives fiercely disagreed about how to reform society – the novel outraged ideologists on both sides. Conservatives criticized Turgenev for not condemning Bazarov’s radical ideas and for portraying him too sympathetically. Radicals complained Bazarov was too flawed and were offended by Bazarov’s pointless, un-heroic death. Turgenev had refused to simplify the psychology of his characters to adapt them to one doctrine or another. He chose the human over the ideological. This is why Turgenev’s characters are still so vivid 150 years later: he didn’t write to condemn or exalt, but to understand.
I decided to bring some passages from Fathers and Sons to the creative writing class that I teach at a prison in Vermont. In the previous weeks, we had been working on character descriptions, and I had been urging the guys to create characters without resorting to clichés and stereotypes. Reading Turgenev reminded me that the key ingredient to a good character description is empathy: you can’t write in-depth characters unless you identify even with the most unlikable of them. And that, I realized, is also the value of teaching creative writing to convicts, even if they will never publish anything and never even finish writing a story or an essay. In my introductory class, I quoted the Roman playwright Terrence: “I am human: so nothing human is alien to me.” When I explained that this is what I see as the key to writing – the assumption that if you look honestly into yourself, you can recognize anything human in there – my students nodded. I had been afraid that persuading convicts of the value of literature would be a hard sell, but I never had such an eager audience. I found out that these tough guys, who told me about robberies and violent assaults they had committed, wanted nothing more than to tell their story and be understood. (And getting to spend two hours a week with a woman may have been an additional incentive!)
I started teaching creative writing at the prison two years ago to prove to myself that literature is not an insulated luxury, but a necessity. The first class I taught was in the prison high school, which, by Vermont law, all inmates under twenty-three must attend if they have no high school diploma. I was terrified. With a lesson plan revolving around reflective writing and personal exploration, I faced ten hostile men whose survival strategy was to never share any emotion except anger. One tough guy, his tattooed arms defiantly crossed over his chest, ignored me when I asked him to read out loud a passage from The Great Gatsby. Others refused to join our circle around the big table and slumped gloomily on chairs near the door, as if waiting for an opportunity to escape. Only later did I realize the tough guy wasn’t trying to scare me, but was scared himself because his reading and writing were at third-grade level. The men who refused to sit around the table were sex offenders who knew their fellow inmates didn’t allow them to join the group. My proudest moment was when, at the end of the term, a drug dealer with literary aspirations told me that my critique of his writing scared him more than the reports from his probation officer.
Another reason why I had approached the prison was because I was dissatisfied with my job and felt I had lost my ideals. I was tutoring international graduate students at a university. Most of my clients – computer scientists, MBA students, and engineers – used me as an editing service before submitting their papers to scientific journals. I felt my work was mostly pointless. I rarely understood what I was reading, and often the students themselves didn’t understand either. As a child I had imagined bigger things for myself. I thought I would improve the world as a revolutionary or a great humanitarian. When I was fourteen, I wrote in my journal:
Wednesday May 8th, 1985
I’m so afraid I won’t be anything special when I grow up. I would never want to be just a bank manager or an insurance agent or anything like that. I don’t understand those people: they try to advance their career and make money, and then they die and someone else takes their place and they are completely forgotten. All that effort for nothing!
But I slid into an ordinary life, as most of us inevitably do. I had children, and time passed with work, family, mortgages that need to be paid, dinners that need to be prepared, and all the other little things that fill our days. But I still feel the echo of my teenage urge to make a difference in the world, even if it’s just in the smallest way.
I continue to teach at the prison once a week. It has become easier. The facility now mostly houses sex offenders, who tend to be the more literate and literary students. I have known some of them for more than a year and see their writing develop. They come to class diligently, often waiting for me before I arrive.
One of the passages I brought into class was a conversation between Arkady and Bazarov, after both have been rejected by Anna Odintsov. The young men are glum with disappointed love and strain their friendship by taking their ill-humor out on each other.
On their first day at Bazarov’s parental estate, Bazarov complains to Arkady about his existential despair:
“I think; here I lie under a haystack…The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be… And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something… Isn’t it hideous? Isn’t it petty?”
To which Arkady responds with dry dismissal:
“Allow me to remark that what you’re saying applies to men in general.”
My students snorted with condescension.
“This guy just has no direction!” said one.
“He sounds like a teenager who has been smoking pot in his parents’ basement,” said another.
But Dave (name changed) identified with Bazarov: “Sometimes I feel like that myself: what’s the point of it all? Why do we deal with all this insignificant stuff? Nothing ever changes. Why even write? Everything has already been written.” Dave’s main weakness as a writer is that he tends to make sweeping generalizations in his urge to find something meaningful (of which I tend to be guilty as well). I always have to spur him to pay attention to detail, which, after all, is where the story happens.
Arkady’s remark cuts to the essence of the novel. Indeed, the problem of existential despair applies to humanity in general. Almost all my students in the prison struggle with depression and turn to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions to take their minds off the pointlessness of life. Likewise, many of the characters in Fathers and Sons fight against “ennui,” or what in modern times would be called “existential boredom.” They use different strategies to fill in their lives with meaning: Bazarov’s parents are devout Christians, Pavel devotes himself to the meticulous observance of etiquette, Arkady’s father reads poetry, and Anna Odintsov, the woman with whom Bazarov falls in love, has carefully arranged her life in a rigid schedule of pleasant activities to stave off “ennui.”
Although every generation of young people rediscovers the meaninglessness of life, existential despair has been with us since the beginning of human culture. Already King Solomon, or whoever wrote in his name in Ecclesiastes, lamented the pointlessness of it all. When Turgenev titled his novel Fathers and Sons, he must have had in mind Ecclesiastes’ observation that “a generation comes and a generation goes, but the world persists forever.” And each generation, people stake the meaning of their existence on new ideologies, which, as time passes, become as irrelevant as the ideologies they replaced. It’s childish to assume that only extraordinary souls, like Bazarov, are crushed by the awareness of their own insignificance.
After Odintsov confides to Bazarov that she sinks into depression whenever she relaxes her discipline, Bazarov accuses her of mental cowardice: “You have ordered your existence with such impeccable regularity that there can be no place in it for dullness or sadness, or for any unpleasant emotions,” he complains. When I was seventeen, I would have agreed with Bazarov that Odintsov should have the courage to face the emptiness of her life. But now I’m not so sure anymore. I think it may actually be braver to keep trudging on and use any trick that works to keep the existential despair at bay.
Maybe that’s why the book made me cry again as an adult. I’m ready to accept defeat: my life will never measure up against my teenage aspirations. I am just as ordinary as anyone else. I may not have caused major damage, but neither have I changed the world. I recognize my own banality. I have grown up.