Virgin Soil, Ivan Turgenev's sixth and final novel, is a comedy of despair. It's hero, Alexey Dmitrievich Nezhdanov, proceeds, in the course of the novel, from revolutionary chit-chat among educated urbanites to revolutionary incitement of the rural peasantry. Turgenev might have made a satirical fiasco of this story, for Nezhdanov is unsuited in every way to political action. Instead, he treats the boy with a profound kindness that gives the novel a distinctive tone.
Given his intelligence and desire to do something in the world, Nezhdanov is in a fairly impossible situation. As the illegitimate son of an aristocrat (who has given him an allowance as well as a surname meaning "unexpected"), he is suited only for life among wealthier people. At heart, he's a dreamy poet, subject to the swellings (and sudden evacuations) of his feelings. But he has come to regard his artistic leanings as bourgeois and useless. The only alternative - and in the world that Turgenev sets forward, there really don't appear to be other choices - is to commit himself to a cause. In his case, it's Populism, a movement whose primary objective was to convince the recently liberated serfs to rise up against their landlords. From the start, it is clear that Nezhdanov has doubts about the movement, as well as about his own commitment.
He was terribly nervous, terribly self-conscious, impressionable, and even capricious; the false position in which he had been put from his very childhood had made him irritable and quick to take offense; but his inborn magnanimity had saved him from becoming suspicious and mistrustful. This same false position of Nezhdanov's was the explanation of the contradictions to be met in his character. Daintily clean and fastidious to squeamishness, he forced himself to be cynical and coarse in his language; an idealist by nature, passionate and chaste, bold and timid at the same time, he was as ashamed of his timidity and of his purity as of some disgraceful vice, and made a point of jeering at ideals. His heart was soft and he shunned his fellows; he was easily enraged, and never harbored ill-feeling. He was indignant with his father for having made him study "aesthetics"; ostensibly, as far as anyone could see, he took interest only in political and social questions, and professed the more extreme views (in him they were more than a form or words!); secretly, he reveled in art, poetry, beauty in all its manifestations ... [sic] he even wrote verses.
Whereas Dostoevsky's young men always strike me as somewhat disordered, Nezhdanov is a universal Western figure and instantly recognizable. Every traditional ruling class used to produce a crop of Nezhdanovs in every generation - which is not to take away from our hero's plight. He is not vain enough to see that he has probably been inducted into the movement because he is handsome as well as "aristocratic." It's for those reasons, in any case, that he is offered a post as tutor to the son of Sipyagin, a rising "councilor," or budding statesman, who flatters himself on his liberal views. Nezhdanov somewhat fatalistically accepts the offer, and accompanies Sipyagin to his country estate, where love will precipitate his attempt to resolve the puzzle of his character.
At the estate, we find Valentina Mihailovna, Sipyagin's beautiful and extremely vain wife. She has the eyes of a madonna, we're told, and she knows how to use them. Then there is the conservative dandy, also rising in affairs of state, Semyon Petrovich Kollomyetsev. This man professes a profound attachment to his country's old ways, but he does so almost exclusively in French. Finally, there is Marianna Vikentyevna Sinetsky, Sipyagin's penniless niece. Marianna and Nezhdanov eventually find that they have a great deal in common - outsider status, outrage at the landowners, and a sense of meaninglessness - and this, coupled with mutual attraction, leads them to believe that they're in love. Eventually, they decide to run off together.
They run to the local town, where there's a factory ably managed by Vassily Fedotitch Solomin. Solomin is also a recognizable fellow: the equable, gifted man who knows what he can do and does it well. He belongs to the movement, but he does not believe that it will accomplish anything. He expects that something will drive off the landowners in thirty years, and his contributions to the movement are laconic and far from enthusiastic. Summoned by Sipyagin to discuss the problems that the landowner is having with a paper mill on his property, Solomin pays a perplexing visit to the country house.
Sipyagin was far more perturbed than his visitor. Repeating once more, "But where is my hat" he, the great dignitary, bustled out of the room like a frolicsome schoolboy. While he was talking Solomin, Valentina Mihailovna was looking stealthily but intently at this "new young man." He was sitting calmly in his easy-chair, with his bare hands (he had not, after all, put on the gloves) lying on his knees, and calmly , though with curiosity, looking about at the furniture and the pictures. "How is it?" she thought, "he is a plebeian ... an unmistabable plebeian ... but how naturally he behaves!"
Solomin did certainly behave very naturally, and not as some do, who are simple indeed, but with a sort of intensity, as though to say, "Look at me, understand what sort of many I am," but like a man whose feelings and ideas are strong without being complex. Madame Sipyagin wanted to enter into conversation with him, but, to her amazement, could not at once find anything suitable to say.
"Good heavens!" she thought, "can I be impressed by this workman?"
It is after this that Solomin offers, with warm generosity, to shelter the lovers if they decide to abandon Sipyagin.
Once installed in a couple of rooms at the factory, the lovers, who do not sleep together, settle down the serious business of not getting married. Meanwhile, Markelov, Valentina's brother and a rejected suitor of Marianna, stirs up some popular unrest, faute de mieux. The upshot is that he himself is chained by his peasant audience and hauled off to jail. Catching fire, Nezhdanov runs off on an ill-considered spree - ranting at the people from a cart - from which he returns dead-drunk, having been obliged to down pots of vodka as a sign of his solidarity. In the hangover that follows, he accepts what he has suspected for some time: that Solomin is also in love with Marianna and would in fact be a better husband for her. Declaring that he can no longer live his divided life, Nezhdanov shoots himself.
Turgenev's handling of Nezhdanov's suicide is extremely gentle, in a way that characterizes the entire novel. We have known from the beginning that Nezhdanov is unhappy, possibly irremediably so. Now, his maiden voyage into political action having resulted in total fiasco, he finds that his worst suspicions about the enterprise have been confirmed. He also sees that he can never be like Solomin. Hence his despair. About to be arrested for a political action in which he no longer believes, Nezhdanov makes up his mind to efface himself from the planet. He burns his notebook of verses - Marianna doesn't much care for them - and then takes a revolver out into the garden and shoots himself in the chest. The shot is witnessed, and Nezhdanov is quickly carried inside, where Marianna rather pointlessly cleans his wound. Nezhdanov's end is charged with gentle pathos. He leaves behind two moving letters of explanation. It is impossible to judge him harshly.
With regard to most of the other characters in the novel, Turgenev is lightly satirical. Sipyagin's affable self-importance, Valentina Mihailovna's egotism, and Marianna's ungrateful severity are held up, if not to laughter, then to smiling, throughout.
Between the husband and wife there existed a genuine harmony and confidence; they did really live "in love and good counsel," as they used to say in old times; and when Sipyagin, on completing his toilet, asked Valentina Mihailovna in chivalrous fashion for "her little hand," when she gave him both, and with tender pride watched him kissing them alternately, the feeling expressed in both faces was a fine and genuine feeling, though in her it was reflected in eyes worthy of a Raphael, in him in the commonplace "peepers" of a civilian general.
In the middle of the novel, Turgenev interposes a delightfully satirical set piece. Nezhdanov and his friends are entertained by an elderly couple - Fomushka and Fimushka - who have never quite moved into the Nineteenth Century. These souvenirs of the ancien régime - the time when it seemed that Russia just might progress peacefully beyond autocracy - have preserved their Queen of Spades style of life, at least to the extent that the decay of their fortune permits. They're both highly polished and extremely dim.
Then Fomushka began talking of the French of to-day, and expressed the opinion that they must all be very wicked!
"Why so, Foma Lavrentyevitch?"
"Why, only see what names they have now!"
"What, for instance?"
"Why, such as Nozhan-Tsent-Lorran (Nogent Saint Lorraine), a regular bandit's name!"
Fomushka inquired incidentally, "Who is the sovereign now in Parks?"
They told him "Napoleon," and that seemed to surprise and pain him.
"Why, he must be such an old man," he began, and stopped, looking round him in confusion."
Virgin Soil is framed by conversations of a sort between Mashurina and Paklin. Paklin is an undersized fellow whose frustration with his own physical shortcomings, or at least with the consequences of those shortcomings, drives him to affect an incessant facetiousness that only renders him more annoying. Mashurina is a heavy-set woman of thirty, actively involved in the cause, who is also hopelessly in love with Nezhdanov. She despises Paklin, but accepts, in the final chapter, his offer of tea just to have the chance to hear him talk about Nezhdanov. Her strangled affection for the dead youth ends the novel as a distillation of Turgenev's frustration with Russia. (April 2007)
Virgin Soil, translated by Constance Garnett and reprinted by New York Review Books in 2000.
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press