Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Goethe and Turgenev anew

Turgenev memorial in Baden-Baden

Not even a day after my last post, I must add an addendum. I went to midtown today and stopped at the Graduate Center of CUNY for an event. The GC once had a German program, but no more, but there is still the same collection of books as when I was there writing my dissertation on Goethe. So, before the event, I browsed and came across The Russian Image of Goethe by André von Gronicka, the second volume of which concerns the second half of the 19th century. The volume opens with the chapter "I.S. Turgenev: A Study in Ambivalence." We learn from the start that Turgenev was accomplished in the German language, learning it already as a child with tutors, and the most knowledgeable of all Russians in German philosophy and letters. Turgenev even visited Weimar, where he was disappointed in Goethe's domestic taste. He was a visitor at the salon of Bettina von Arnim who, according to von Gronicka, was “the eloquent transmitter of G’s pantheistic world view which so enraptured young Turgenev.” His letters are replete with Goethe references and quotations. Of the Roman Elegies he wrote: “What life, what passion, what vitality breathe in these verses. Goethe in Rome, in the embrace of a Roman woman."

A.N. Wilson, in the review I discussed in my previous post, mentions that Turgenev's greatest work was in his profound insights into nature, "not in the novels where he regurgitated what he had read in western newspapers about his country." In this connection, von Gronicka mentions Turgenev's studies at the universities in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Berlin in the years 1833 to 1843, from which he emerged confirmed in his "Westernism." In an autobiographical sketch, Turgenev himself wrote of his stay in Berlin: "I threw myself headfirst into the German sea ... and when I finally surfaced from its waves I reappeared as a 'Westerner' and have always remained one."

Turgenev spent seven years in Baden-Baden in the late 1860s to be with the famous soprano Pauline Viardot, where he also wrote the novels Smoke, Ghost, and The Dog. There were also other Russians there, including Tolstoy, who had a passion for roulette.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Goethe and Turgenev

I am sure that the title of this post is surprising, but as I have written on many occasions Goethe turns up in the most surprising places. Turgenev is a writer I like. His short works remind me of late-19th-century German Novellen. Think Eduard von Keyserling, a Baltic German poet (1855–1918). Never heard of him? Well worth reading: about the last days of the German aristocratic families in the Baltic provinces. They too are set in the countryside among the landed class. One of my favorite novellas of Keyserling's is Am Südhang, about which there are actually some online blogposts. It has even been made into a movie. (If anyone knows how I can view it, please let me know. Although, on the other hand, it might spoil my pleasure in the story.) Recently I read Keyserling's novel The Waves (Die Wellen). Keyserling has often been compared to Theodor Fontane. Those late-19th-century German works were my favorite reading when I became good enough to read German prose. And back then I also liked Turgenev, although in English translation.

So, today, Goethe and Turgenev, prompted by a review in the TLS (9/30/22) by A.N. Wilson of some new translations. Wilson begins right off the bat by writing "No one can really translate Shakespeare or Dante or Goethe, which is why it is worth learning their languages if you want to appreciate their essence." I guess I am fortunate to be a native English speaker, but it doesn't make understanding Shakespeare any easier. Goethe writes such beautiful poetry that I am really fortunate to be able to read it in the original. I feel bad that most people I know can't appreciate its "essence."

Turgenev, ca. 1850

Wilson's long review sums up a lot of critical reaction to Turgenev: there is something incomplete about his gift. For instance, instead of developing a character, he rounds off his stories "with arbitrary deaths." This is on view in Fathers and Sons, when the radical Bazarov doesn't come to terms with his radicalism in the end. Instead, he simply dies. Wilson also feels let down by the denouement in Love and Youth. But alongside this criticism of the newly translated editions, Wilson also reviews the book Hunting Nature: Ivan Turgenev and the Organic World by Thomas P. Hodge, which Wilson finds the "best analysis of Turgenev yet written." This is where Goethe comes in, namely the 1783 essay Die Natur, which was once attributed to Goethe and, so Wilson, "made a lasting impression on Turgenev."

Wilson, quoting from the essay, says that Goethe saw nature "as a goddess-like figure." This is the quote from the essay with She/Her referring to "nature":

We are surrounded by her and locked in her clasp: powerless to leave her and powerless to come closer to her ... She creates new forms without end: what exists now, never was before; all is new yet always the old.

This is indeed a correct translation of the German, although the essay does not use the terms "goddess," but speaks of "Natur!"" In any case, Wilson writes that Turgenev assimilated Goethe and Schelling's notion that "nature is unitary, monistic, and inclusive of humanity." The English words have so little heft compared with the "essence" of the German:

Wir sind von ihr umgeben und umschlungen -- unvermögend aus ihr herauszutreten, und unvermögend tiefer in sie hineinzukommen. ...  Sie schafft ewig neue Gestalten; was da ist war noch nie, was war kommt nicht wieder. Alles ist neu und doch immer das Alte.

It should be added here, however, that Goethe did not actually write the essay in question, although it was attributed to him. When asked about it in 1828, he wrote that he could not remember having written it, but that the ideas contained in it reflected an early stage of his scientific development. That is of course beside the point in the present case, as most people in the 19th century, including Turgenev, thought it was by him.

Turgenev hunting

In any case, Turgenev, according to the review, believed "in the epic wholeness of nature and also recognized, as who cannot, nature's indifference to humanity." The novels reflect nature's pitilessness, often expressed comically. Wilson finds Fathers and Sons to be a "book of profound empathy with nature and a deeply intelligent awareness of why farmers, peasants, landowners, and, yes, even hunters are aware of what nature is, an awareness that living in a town will numb and eventually kill."

Since Goethe sort of owned the essay "Die Natur," we might as well accept that it represents his ideas to some extent. And, yet, Goethe did not have the world-weary late-19th-century awareness that living in a town "numbs and kills." That is the insight of a later day. Turgenev, it seems, was a great hunter, which is not something that present-day intellectuals expect of a great writer, detached as we are, as Wilson writes, from the land and regarding the hunting of animals for pleasure as abhorrent. For Wilson, by not accepting that aspect of Turgenev, we get his writing "fundamentally wrong": "we shrink from realizing that his greatest work ... was in his profound insights into nature itself."