That’s the envy-inducing note I got from a friend who stayed away from work on Wednesday. Cruelly, she torments me with her reader’s paradise – home alone on a workday morning, good book in hand. Devoted friend, I suggested she try “The Torrents of Spring,” “First Love” and that rare Turgenev venture into journalism, “The Execution of Tropmann.” On my bedside table, in the unread stack, sits Fathers and Children in a new translation by Michael Pursglove (Oneworld Classics, 2010). I haven’t read the novel since it was called Fathers and Sons. Melissa’s note reminded me of an anecdote related by V.S. Pritchett in The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Ivan Turgenev (1977).
In 1861, Turgenev and Tolstoy, the latter on the eve of yet another spiritual crisis, had a violent quarrel and didn’t speak for seventeen years. In 1878, Tolstoy, then fifty years old, wrote a conciliatory note to Turgenev, age sixty. That summer, when Turgenev returned to Russia from Paris, the writers met in Tula and traveled to Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana. They discussed religion, “this dangerous subject,” for hours without incident. Turgenev played chess with Tolstoy’s eldest son. Pritchett writes:
“Turgenev towered in height above Tolstoy but his legs, Tolstoy’s eldest son wrote, looked flabby. He was wearing wide-toed soft boots, a velvet jacket and, with his usual elegance, a silk shirt and cravat. He amused the young people with his tricks; he mimicked a chicken, one of his favourite comic turns. Tolstoy tolerated this, but afterwards said that charming though Turgenev was, `he was a fountain spouting imported water and gave one the feeling that the jet might cease playing.’”
I haven’t read Pritchett’s book in years but I remembered Tolstoy’s priggishness and Turgenev’s chicken shtick. Think of him clucking and flapping his arms the next time you read A Sportsman's Sketches. This is the same Turgenev who befriended Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, George Eliot and Henry James (who called the Russian “the first novelist of the day”). Turgenev died five years after his poultry routine, in 1883. In a memorial article about his friend published the following year, James writes: “His humour exercised itself as freely upon himself as upon other subjects.”