|Turgenev, by Vasily Perov, 1872|
Virgin Soil (Russian: Новь Nov), a novel by Ivan Turgenev (1877).
By Ivan S. Turgenev
Translated from the Russian by R. S. Townsend
TURGENEV was the first writer who was able, having both Slavic and
universal imagination enough for it, to interpret modern Russia to the
outer world, and Virgin Soil was the last word of his greater testament.
It was the book in which many English readers were destined to make
his acquaintance about a generation ago, and the effect of it was, like
Swinburne's Songs Before Sunrise, Mazzini's Duties of Man, and other
congenial documents, to break up the insular confines in which they had
been reared and to enlarge their new horizon. Afterwards they went on to
read Tolstoi, and Turgenev's powerful and antipathetic fellow-novelist,
Dostoievsky, and many other Russian writers: but as he was the
greatest artist of them all, his individual revelation of his country's
predicament did not lose its effect. Writing in prose he achieved a
style of his own which went as near poetry as narrative prose can do.
without using the wrong music: while over his realism or his irony he
cast a tinge of that mixed modern and oriental fantasy which belonged
to his temperament. He suffered in youth, and suffered badly, from the
romantic malady of his century, and that other malady of Russia, both
expressed in what M. Haumand terms his "Hamletisme." But in Virgin Soil
he is easy and almost negligent master of his instrument, and though he
is an exile and at times a sharply embittered one, he gathers experience
round his theme as only the artist can who has enriched leis art
by having outlived his youth without forgetting its pangs, joys,
mortifications, and love-songs.
In Nejdanov it is another picture of that youth which we see--youth
reduced to ineffectiveness by fatalism and by the egoism of the lyric
nature which longs to gain dramatic freedom, but cannot achieve it.
It is one of a series of portraits, wonderfully traced psychological
studies of the Russian dreamers and incompatibles of last mid-century,
of which the most moving figure is the hero of the earlier novel,
Dimitri Rudin. If we cared to follow Turgenev strictly in his growth
and contemporary relations, we ought to begin with his Sportsman's Note
Book. But so far as his novels go, he is the last writer to be taken
chronologically. He was old enough in youth to understand old age in the
forest, and young enough in age to provide his youth with fresh hues for
another incarnation. Another element of his work which is very finely
revealed and brought to a rare point of characterisation in Virgin Soil,
is the prophetic intention he had of the woman's part in the new order.
For the real hero of the tale, as Mr. Edward Garnett has pointed out in
an essay on Turgenev, is not Nejdanov and not Solomin; the part is cast
in the woman's figure of Mariana who broke the silence of "anonymous
Russia." Ivan Turgenev had the understanding that goes beneath the old
delimitation of the novelist hide-bound by the law--"male and female
created he them."
He had the same extreme susceptibility to the moods of nature. He
loved her first for herself, and then with a sense of those inherited
primitive associations with her scenes and hid influences which still
play upon us to-day; and nothing could be surer than the wilder or tamer
glimpses which are seen in this book and in its landscape settings of
the characters. But Russ as he is, he never lets his scenery hide his
people: he only uses it to enhance them. He is too great an artist to
lose a human trait, as we see even in a grotesque vignette like that of
Fomishka and Fimishka, or a chance picture like that of the Irish girl
once seen by Solomin in London.
Turgenev was born at Orel, son of a cavalry colonel, in ISIS. He died in
exile, like his early master in romance Heine--that is in Paris-on the
4th of September, 1883. But at his own wish his remains were carried
home and buried in the Volkoff Cemetery, St. Petersburg. The grey
crow he had once seen in foreign fields and addressed in a fit of
"Crow, crow, You are grizzled, I know, But from Russia you come; Ah me,
there lies home!" called him back to his mother country, whose true son
he remained despite all he suffered at her hands, and all the delicate
revenges of the artistic prodigal that he was tempted to take.
"To turn over virgin soil it is necessary to use a deep
plough going well into the earth, not a surface plough
gliding lightly over the top."--From a Farmer's Notebook.
AT one o'clock in the afternoon of a spring day in the year 1868, a
young man of twenty-seven, carelessly and shabbily dressed, was toiling
up the back staircase of a five-storied house on Officers Street in
St. Petersburg. Noisily shuffling his down-trodden goloshes and slowly
swinging his heavy, clumsy figure, the man at last reached the very top
flight and stopped before a half-open door hanging off its hinges. He
did not ring the bell, but gave a loud sigh and walked straight into a
small, dark passage.
"Is Nejdanov at home?" he called out in a deep, loud voice.
"No, he's not. I'm here. Come in," an equally coarse woman's voice
responded from the adjoining room.
"Is that Mashurina?" asked the newcomer.
"Yes, it is I. Are you Ostrodumov?
"Pemien Ostrodumov," he replied, carefully removing his goloshes, and
hanging his shabby coat on a nail, he went into the room from whence
issued the woman's voice.
It was a narrow, untidy room, with dull green coloured walls, badly
lighted by two dusty windows. The furnishings consisted of an iron
bedstead standing in a corner, a table in the middle, several chairs,
and a bookcase piled up with books. At the table sat a woman of about
thirty. She was bareheaded, clad in a black stuff dress, and was smoking
a cigarette. On catching sight of Ostrodumov she extended her broad, red
hand without a word. He shook it, also without saying anything, dropped
into a chair and pulled a half-broken cigar out of a side pocket.
Mashurina gave him a light, and without exchanging a single word, or so
much as looking at one another, they began sending out long, blue puffs
into the stuffy room, already filled with smoke.
There was something similar about these two smokers, although their
features were not a bit alike. In these two slovenly figures, with their
coarse lips, teeth, and noses (Ostrodumov was even pock-marked), there
was something honest and firm and persevering.
"Have you seen Nejdanov?" Ostrodumov asked.
"Yes. He will be back directly. He has gone to the library with some
Ostrodumov spat to one side.
"Why is he always rushing about nowadays? One can never get hold of
Mashurina took out another cigarette.
"He's bored," she remarked, lighting it carefully.
"Bored!" Ostrodumov repeated reproachfully. "What self-indulgence! One
would think we had no work to do. Heaven knows how we shall get through
with it, and he complains of being bored!"
"Have you heard from Moscow?" Mashurina asked after a pause.
"Yes. A letter came three days ago."
"Have you read it?"
Ostrodumov nodded his head.
"Well? What news?
"Some of us must go there soon."
Mashurina took the cigarette out of her mouth.
"But why?" she asked. "They say everything is going on well there."
"Yes, that is so, but one man has turned out unreliable and must be
got rid of. Besides that, there are other things. They want you to come
"Do they say so in the letter?"
Mashurina shook back her heavy hair, which was twisted into a small
plait at the back, and fell over her eyebrows in front.
"Well," she remarked; "if the thing is settled, then there is nothing
more to be said."
"Of course not. Only one can't do anything without money, and where are
we to get it from?"
Mashurina became thoughtful.
"Nejdanov must get the money," she said softly, as if to herself.
"That is precisely what I have come about," Ostrodumov observed.
"Have you got the letter?" Mashurina asked suddenly.
"Yes. Would you like to see it?"
"I should rather. But never mind, we can read it together presently."
"You need not doubt what I say. I am speaking the truth," Ostrodumov
"I do not doubt it in the least." They both ceased speaking and, as
before, clouds of smoke rose silently from their mouths and curled
feebly above their shaggy heads.
A sound of goloshes was heard from the passage.
"There he is," Mashurina whispered.
The door opened slightly and a head was thrust in, but it was not the
head of Nejdanov.
It was a round head with rough black hair, a broad wrinkled forehead,
bright brown eyes under thick eyebrows, a snub nose and a humorously-set
mouth. The head looked round, nodded, smiled, showing a set of tiny
white teeth, and came into the room with its feeble body, short arms,
and bandy legs, which were a little lame. As soon as Mashurina and
Ostrodumov caught sight of this head, an expression of contempt mixed
with condescension came over their faces, as if each was thinking
inwardly, "What a nuisance!" but neither moved nor uttered a single
word. The newly arrived guest was not in the least taken aback by this
reception, however; on the contrary it seemed to amuse him.
"What is the meaning of this?" he asked in a squeaky voice. "A duet? Why
not a trio? And where's the chief tenor?
"Do you mean Nejdanov, Mr. Paklin?" Ostrodumov asked solemnly.
"Yes, Mr. Ostrodumov."
"He will be back directly, Mr. Paklin."
"I am glad to hear that, Mr. Ostrodumov."
The little cripple turned to Mashurina. She frowned, and continued
leisurely puffing her cigarette.
"How are you, my dear... my dear... I am so sorry. I always forget your
Christian name and your father's name."
Mashurina shrugged her shoulders.
"There is no need for you to know it. I think you know my surname. What
more do you want? And why do you always keep on asking how I am? You see
that I am still in the land of the living!"
"Of course!" Paklin exclaimed, his face twitching nervously. "If you had
been elsewhere, your humble servant would not have had the pleasure of
seeing you here, and of talking to you! My curiosity is due to a bad,
old-fashioned habit. But with regard to your name, it is awkward,
somehow, simply to say Mashurina. I know that even in letters you only
sign yourself Bonaparte! I beg pardon, Mashurina, but in conversation,
"And who asks you to talk to me, pray?"
Paklin gave a nervous, gulpy laugh.
"Well, never mind, my dear. Give me your hand. Don't be cross. I know
you mean well, and so do I... Well?"
Paklin extended his hand, Mashurina looked at him severely and extended
"If you really want to know my name," she said with the same expression
of severity on her face, "I am called Fiekla."
"And I, Pemien," Ostrodumov added in his bass voice.
"How very instructive! Then tell me, Oh Fiekla! and you, Oh Pemien! why
you are so unfriendly, so persistently unfriendly to me when I--"
"Mashurina thinks," Ostrodumov interrupted him, "and not only Mashurina,
that you are not to be depended upon, because you always laugh at
Paklin turned round on his heels.
"That is the usual mistake people make about me, my dear Pemien! In the
first place, I am not always laughing, and even if I were, that is no
reason why you should not trust me. In the second, I have been flattered
with your confidence on more than one occasion before now, a convincing
proof of my trustworthiness. I am an honest man, my dear Pemien."
Ostrodumov muttered something between his teeth, but Paklin continued
without the slightest trace of a smile on his face.
"No, I am not always laughing! I am not at all a cheerful person. You
have only to look at me!"
Ostrodumov looked at him. And really, when Paklin was not laughing, when
he was silent, his face assumed a dejected, almost scared expression;
it became funny and rather sarcastic only when he opened his lips.
Ostrodumov did not say anything, however, and Paklin turned to Mashurina
"Well? And how are your studies getting on? Have you made any
progress in your truly philanthropical art? Is it very hard to help an
inexperienced citizen on his first appearance in this world?
"It is not at all hard if he happens to be no bigger than you are!"
Mashurina retorted with a self-satisfied smile. (She had quite recently
passed her examination as a midwife. Coming from a poor aristocratic
family, she had left her home in the south of Russia about two years
before, and with about twelve shillings in her pocket had arrived in
Moscow, where she had entered a lying-in institution and had worked
very hard to gain the necessary certificate. She was unmarried and
very chaste.) "No wonder!" some sceptics may say (bearing in mind the
description of her personal appearance; but we will permit ourselves to
say that it was wonderful and rare).
Paklin laughed at her retort.
"Well done, my dear! I feel quite crushed! But it serves me right for
being such a dwarf! I wonder where our host has got to?"
Paklin purposely changed the subject of conversation, which was rather a
sore one to him. He could never resign himself to his small stature, nor
indeed to the whole of his unprepossessing figure. He felt it all the
more because he was passionately fond of women and would have given
anything to be attractive to them. The consciousness of his pitiful
appearance was a much sorer point with him than his low origin and
unenviable position in society. His father, a member of the lower middle
class, had, through all sorts of dishonest means, attained the rank of
titular councillor. He had been fairly successful as an intermediary
in legal matters, and managed estates and house property. He had made a
moderate fortune, but had taken to drink towards the end of his life and
had left nothing after his death.
Young Paklin, he was called Sila--Sila Samsonitch, [Meaning strength,
son of Samson] and always regarded this name as a joke against himself,
was educated in a commercial school, where he had acquired a good
knowledge of German. After a great many difficulties he had entered an
office, where he received a salary of five hundred roubles a year,
out of which he had to keep himself, an invalid aunt, and a humpbacked
sister. At the time of our story Paklin was twenty-eight years old.
He had a great many acquaintances among students and young people,
who liked him for his cynical wit, his harmless, though biting,
self-confident speeches, his one-sided, unpedantic, though genuine,
learning, but occasionally they sat on him severely. Once, on arriving
late at a political meeting, he hastily began excusing himself. "Paklin
was afraid!" some one sang out from a corner of the room, and everyone
laughed. Paklin laughed with them, although it was like a stab in his
heart. "He is right, the blackguard!" he thought to himself. Nejdanov he
had come across in a little Greek restaurant, where he was in the
habit of taking his dinner, and where he sat airing his rather free
and audacious views. He assured everyone that the main cause of his
democratic turn of mind was the bad Greek cooking, which upset his
"I wonder where our host has got to?" he repeated. "He has been out of
sorts lately. Heaven forbid that he should be in love!"
"He has gone to the library for books. As for falling in love, he has
neither the time nor the opportunity."
"Why not with you?" almost escaped Paklin's lips.
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