Fathers and Sons

Rather than a story this felt more a meeting of characters and generations, and the conflict and love between them. The fathers of the old Russia of Nicholas I and the sons of the new reign of Alexander II, with his declaration to liberate his people from serfdom.

On May 20th 1859 Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov collects his son Arkady from university. When Arkady asks if his friend and mentor can come home with them, we’re introduced to Evgeny Vasilevich Bazarov. Declaring himself a nihilist, Bazarov’s commitment is to science and materialism and sets himself against the older generation whose passion for the arts he dismisses as ‘a lot of sloppy nonsense.’

Nikolai Petrovich is so excited to see his son and their easy relationship and banter is touchingly realistic. At the family estate Bazarov meets Arkady’s uncle Pavel Petrovich, a man of principles, an Anglophile, manicured and suited in English cloth. Everything about him and the way of life on the Kirsanov’s estate is dismissed by Bazarov. He argues that he won’t acknowledge authority, accept any principles on faith and repudiates anything aesthetic. Nikolai listens in disbelief, with his head bent into his hands ‘But to reject poetry? he reflected . . . to have no sympathy for art and nature?’ but he is philosophical, he is worried by the rift that has come between him and his son; he’s tried so hard to keep up with changing fashions so that he can talk with Arkady but all in vain. Pavel Petrovich on the other hand is simply outraged by Bazarov’s free and easy manner and the discourtesy that is being shown to them needles away at him and the stage is set for fireworks.

‘Bravo! Bravo! . . . Previously young people had been expected to learn. Because they didn’t want to appear to be ignoramuses, they worked hard willy-nilly. But now all they have to say is: Everything in the world’s nonsense! and that’s that. Young people are delighted. The fact is that previously they were simply dunces and now they’ve suddenly become nihilists.’

Fathers and Sons follows Bazarov over a summer. He and Arkady leave the Kirsanov estate and go to stay with friends in town, no longer the stranger here he is seen as superior and his ideas are treated with deference; then it’s on to his own extremely proud parents, where he presents a slightly softer version of himself. And then it’s back to the friends, back to the Kirsanov’s and then home again by the end of August. It’s a very small world that such huge subjects are being discussed in!

To the ‘li’l ole Kirsanovs’ as Bazarov calls them nihilism represents the end of civilisation and all that is dear to them; to Arkady his young disciple he says:

‘you’re not made, for the bitter, sour-tasting, rootless life of people like me. You haven’t got the daring, you haven’t got the anger, all you’ve got is youthful courage and youthful fervour – and that’s not enough for what I’ve got to do.’

Like his own parents and even his contemporaries in town he sees them all set in a place in time and history whereas he is a new kind of hero that in his cynical rejection of everything represents the future.

I found the theme of fatherhood and paternal love in Fathers and Sons really delicate, I wonder if Vasily Ivanovich, Bazarov’s father wasn’t a bit overwhelmed by his son, but Nikolai Petrovich with memories of his own youthful behaviour and his joy and thoughtfulness and worrying over Arkady I found very touching. My problem was Bazarov, such a rude cocky young man. He made me feel as if I was in the same camp as the oldies, which wasn’t a particularly comfortable place to be!

15 thoughts on “Fathers and Sons

  1. The oldies camp is much more fun! You get to be all judgemental and call it wisdom. 😉 My ignorance of the Russians is pretty profound, so needless to say I haven’t read this, or any Turgenev. Would it be a good one to start with?

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    1. ha ha!! that’s one way of looking at it! I feel quite ignorant about the Russians too but this is short and more humorous than I’ve implied so may be it is a good place to start – I can imagine you enjoying Crime and Punishment!

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  2. ‘A very small world’ sounds like a good place to start when it comes to discussing huge subjects. This sounds like a good way to get a grasp on some Russian history. I do like a story with strong characterisations.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Lord, that’s a question! I began in my teens with Solzhenitsyn, and then moved on to Dostoevsky and Gogol and then Tolstoy. There are so many of them – if you want 20th century Bulgakov is brilliant. And of course the wonderful Chekhov too – his short stories might be a good place to begin!

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  3. On the Turgenev front, I’ve only experienced First Love, which I really enjoyed via Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime earlier this year. Funnily enough, I had been put off somewhat by Karen’s previous experiences with him (as mentioned above, I knew that she had struggled in the past). Nevertheless, I found it a wonderful evocation of the maelstrom of emotions that often accompanies first love. Definitely worth considering if you haven’t read it already!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No I haven’t read it, I thought his understanding/writing about the nuances of relationships was excellent so I can imagine it being very good – thanks for the tip!

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  4. I have read too little of Russian literature, I mean to improve. In this review, you got me at “delicate” and after all, I’m an oldie, lol !

    Liked by 1 person

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