Monday, February 13, 2017

`Mouldering in the Archive'

Another blogger wrote a little guiltily to confess she could never “get” the work of Ivan Turgenev. I eased her mind a bit by admitting that the Russian had always left me chilled if not cold. When I was young and easily swayed by fashion and reputation, I assumed the failing was mine. Henry James called him “adorable.” Sherwood Anderson claimed A Sportsman’s Notebook as a decisive influence on Winesburg, Ohio, and Nabokov savored the purple patches he found in the same book, though his final judgment in On RussianLiterature (1980) was more dismissive:

“Incidentally, Turgenev, as most writers of his time, is far too explicit, leaving nothing to the reader's intuition; suggesting and then ponderously explaining what the suggestion was. The labored epilogues of his novels and long short stories are painfully artificial, the author doing his best to satisfy fully the reader's curiosity regarding the respective destinies of the characters in a manner that can hardly be called artistic.”

That confirms my experience as a reader. Over-explicitness is always annoying in a writer. It implies a condescending lack of trust in the reader’s abilities, an assumption that the reader is too dim to fend for himself. I’ve just found an unexpected source who backs me up on this. Here is Chekhov in Yalta on this date, Feb. 13, in 1902, writing to his wife, Olga Knipper-Chekhova:

“I’ve been reading Turgenev. Only one eighth or one tenth of what he wrote will survive; in twenty-five to thirty-five years’ time all the rest will be mouldering in the archive.”

[See Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Penguin, 2004.]  

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