“It was his book that had irritated me”

Himadri C., the Argumentative Old Git, is taking another look at Turgenev’s Smoke, a short novel from 1867. (Old Smoke links: Erik McDonald; yours most humbly.) Back in 1830, Pushkin had Tatiana tell Onegin, at a point when it was too late for anything but regrets: “And happiness was so possible, // So close!” A kindred might-have-been is at the core of some of Turgenev’s fiction, such as Asya and The Torrents of Spring. In Smoke, the central character, Litvinov, gets a second chance at proposing to a young woman who loves him. The other major male character, Potugin, has chosen voluntary servitude to a woman he loves, who is kind and sensible enough to take him in as a loyal domestic.

Readers familiar with Turgenev’s relationship with Pauline Viardot were tempted to assume an affinity between Potugin and his creator. Turgenev did little if anything to disown Potugin’s views. Expressed in poignant diatribes, these views predictably put certain writers and critics into a fighting mode.

Privately, both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky disapproved of Smoke. The former did not bother to explain his reasons clearly. In a letter to Afanasy Fet, he wrote of a lack of love for anything but lightweight promiscuity, and an absence of poetry in Smoke, but admitted a personal dislike for its author. Tolstoy and Turgenev had fallen out in 1861 and did not reconcile until 1878.

Dostoevsky hated Turgenev with all the intensity of a slighted underground man, and Potugin’s outpourings could only rekindle the old animosity. In the summer of 1867, in the midst of a ruinous gambling spell in Baden-Baden, Dostoevsky went to see Turgenev and made an ugly scene fit for a D-novel. Turgenev put it down to his visitor’s illness, but, as Dostoevsky made it clear in a private letter, “mainly it was his book, Smoke, that had irritated me.” Dostoyevsky went on to call Turgenev, literally, a traitor. Four years later, Turgenev claimed that his visitor had declared Smoke worthy of being burned by the executioner’s hand.

Criticism of the novel in the Russian press did not quite reach the same childish intensity but was partisan and schematic. “Is this a love story or social satire? If satire, is it fair or slanderous? Is Potugin talking sense or nonsense? If a love story, is it worth taking seriously at all? Is Litvinov a strong man? Is Irina a quintessence of passionate womanhood or essentially a courtesan?” So went the analysis.

It’s a wonder that ten years later, when Anna Karenina appeared, not all Russian critics started asking the same questions: “Is it a love story or social commentary? Can you forgive Levin for not supporting fellow Slavic nations?” Actually, Dostoevsky was very much displeased with Levin’s contempt for Pan-Slavism but this time around, he made no ugly scenes and limited his dissatisfaction to the pages of A Writer’s Diary.


  1. I read about about Dostoyevsky’s tantrum regarding “Smoke” in David Magarshack’s introduction to his translation of Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” (he titled it “The Devils”). This is why I was so surprised when I came round to reading it that it was essentially a love story. Even on re-reading it recently, I found myself bemused that something so seemingly inoffensive should have given rise to such high feelings.

    Tolstoy’s views of this novel I hadn’t known of. But it is indeed strange that “Smoke” should have aroused such high feelings when novels with (as it seems to me) far more contentious content (“Demons”, “Anna Karenina”) didn’t!

    • I’ve just noticed that your comment got marked as spam. I apologize for this. It’s not the first time, unfortunately, but without the spam filter, I get overwhelmed by junk comments in no time at all.

      Smoke is a mature work by a grown-up artist but, judging by the tone of the criticism back home, one feels it was mostly read by adolescents. Western critics tended to think of it as a love story above all. (It was published in French with a preface by Mérimée.) But in Turgenev’s Russia, the personal is political: the two are always intertwined in his novels, in Smoke more masterfully, perhaps, than in his earlier work.

  2. Oh, don’t worry about that – I have a similar problem sometimes with my own spam filter!

    It’s the bit about the personal being the political that non-Russian readers such as myself find difficult. But I agree – I think the novel is masterly, and its relative neglect seems odd.

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