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Title: A House of Gentlefolk
Series: (The Russians)
Author: Ivan Turgenev
Translator: Constance Garnett
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
The novel’s protagonist is Fyodor Ivanych Lavretsky, a nobleman who shares many traits with Turgenev. The child of a distant, Anglophile father and a serf mother who dies when he is very young, Lavretsky is brought up at his family’s country estate home by a severe maiden aunt, often thought to be based on Turgenev’s own mother, who was known for her cruelty.
Lavretsky pursues an education in Moscow, and while he is studying there, he spies a beautiful young woman at the opera. Her name is Varvara Pavlovna, and he falls in love with her and asks for her hand in marriage. Following their wedding, the two move to Paris, where Varvara Pavlovna becomes a very popular salon hostess and begins an affair with one of her frequent visitors. Lavretsky learns of the affair only when he discovers a note written to her by her lover. Shocked by her betrayal, he severs all contact with her and returns to his family estate.
Upon returning to Russia, Lavretsky visits his cousin, Marya Dmitrievna Kalitina, who lives with her two daughters, Liza and Lenochka. Lavretsky is immediately drawn to Liza, whose serious nature and religious devotion stand in contrast to the coquettish Varvara Pavlovna’s social consciousness. Lavretsky realizes that he is falling in love with Liza, and when he reads in a foreign journal that Varvara Pavlovna has died, he confesses his love to her and learns that she loves him in return.
After they confess their love to one another, Lavretsky returns home to find his supposedly dead wife waiting for him in his foyer. It turns out that the reports of her death were false, and that she has fallen out of favor with her friends and needs more money from Lavretsky.
Upon learning of Varvara Pavlovna’s sudden appearance, Liza decides to join a remote convent and lives out the rest of her days as a nun. Lavretsky visits her at the convent one time and catches a glimpse of her as she is walking from choir to choir. The novel ends with an epilogue which takes place eight years later, in which Lavretsky returns to Liza’s house and finds that, although many things have changed, there are elements such as the piano and the garden that are the same. Lavretsky finds comfort in his memories and is able to see the meaning and even the beauty in his personal pain.
The “official” title of this book is actually The Home of the Gentry. If you search for A House of Gentlefolk on wikipedia, you end up on the page for Home. Obviously Garnett did a bang up job of translating back in the late 1800’s. Which of course makes the rest of the book completely suspect and while it didn’t ruin my read, it did make me cranky and suspicious the whole time that what I was reading wasn’t actually what I was supposed to be reading. I feel like I got gypped out of 99 cents from buying this “Complete Collection” on amazon.
This was ALL THE DRAMA! If you’ve ever seen a spanish soap opera, add a mega-dose of melancholy and nothing working out and you’ll get this story. Lavretsky gets cuckolded, then used by his wife, abandons his daughter, falls in love with a woman only to have his wife return from the dead, and gets cuckolded again. And then the woman he loves becomes a nun and his wife lives her life out in society in Paris or something and the kid either dies or is so sickly that you know she is going to die. And the book ends with Lavretsky returning to his village and having memories. Ugh.
With all of that it would seem that this should have been a 2star book for me. And this is where the power of the russian writing shows its power over me. I enjoyed every second of this book.
In many ways this seemed the opposite of Turgenev’s Rudin. Rudin is brash, impulsive, self absorbed and willing to fight anyone on any point and as such he dies in France in one of their many “revolutions”. Lavretsky on the other hand doesn’t want conflict with anyone, ever, under any circumstances, to the point where he gives his wife a massive amount of money to go live her life and to leave him alone when she first cuckolds him. Lavretsky SHOULD have killed her lover in a duel and then given her the choice of honorably taking her own life or casting her out into the streets ignobly. Then when his wife returns, he has no fire to fight her on any point and just lets her slide back into his life. It was a complete contrast in people and I rather enjoyed that contrast, as a study.
One thing I have noticed is that the russian writers tend to have their women be the ones who are religious and try to convert the men they are interested in. In this book, Lisa is very God oriented and while Lavretsky isn’t, she’s convinced she can lead him to God after they are married. Once again, a lack of knowledge about what the Bible says on a subject seems to form the majority of the religious in these books. They, the characters have an idea that is kind of Biblical, but not actually based on it and then go with it however it seems to fit the circumstances instead of using the Bible as their yardstick and plumbline. I guess that’s what one would expect to see if Christianity was just a cultural thing instead of a personal thing. It is very disconcerting to me though and I suspect it will continue to be that way through all the russian books I read.
I think that’s enough for me. I’m right around the 600 word mark and that seems to be my happy place, at least according to the statistics that wordpress supplies me.