Subterranean work

In 1877, Nikolai Nekrasov wrote an epigram, To the Author of Anna Karenina:

Tolstoy, you have proven with patience and talent
That a woman should not have affairs
Either with a sub-chamberlain or with an aide-de-camp
When she’s a wife and a mother.

There’s still some bite in this because of Tolstoy’s ineradicable moralizing, and it’s a good enough summary for a literophobic cynic. Fortunately, Tolstoy’s inordinate talent and patience forced readers to accept his novel on its own terms. Turgenev’s late works were denied not only that but even a basic understanding of the plot.

The setting for most of the action in Smoke is Baden-Baden, the famous German resort where Turgenev lived in 1863-71 and Dostoevsky gambled away his young wife’s jewelry in 1867. (Jane Austen lived in Bath and Turgenev in Baden: everything fits.)

The principal protagonist is introduced at the very beginning: Litvinov, a Russian landowner nearing thirty who had been studying agriculture and “technology” for more than four years in Germany, Belgium and Britain, in order to better manage his Russian estate.

The story begins on August 10, 1862, a year and a half after the emancipation of the Russian serfs, on the eve of the other great reforms of the 1860s which would radically change Russia’s military, legal system and local government.

Towards the end of the novel, early in the fall of 1862, Litvinov returns to his manor and works hard to pay off the debts that had piled up while his elderly father was in charge. In the next two and a half years, Litvinov has little use for the practical education he has received in Europe. He rents out most of his land to sharecroppers, “a miserable, primitive arrangement.” On the other hand, he also restarts the factory built on the land by its previous owner and sets up a “tiny” farm on the remaining land with only five hired hands, having gone through forty.

In May 1865, his affairs improved, Litvinov travels to visit the young woman who was once his fiancée. We are given to understand they will marry shortly thereafter.

Almost all the action in the novel occurs in Baden-Baden between August 10 and some point late in the same month or early in September. It also includes flashbacks to Litvinov’s student years in Moscow, about ten years earlier. This inner part can be roughly described as a love story or the tale of a dark temptation that nearly ruined Litvinov. It is On the timeline of his life, up to his early thirties at least, Litvinov’s passions in Baden-Baden are only a painful episode. He completes his studies abroad and returns home to a joyless life of daily management chores.

At the plot level, Turgenev’s sympathies are with Litvinov the stoic. If Turgenev still had a dim hope for Russia, it was that Litvinov’s and his fiancée’s patience and diligence would bear fruit over time. “…I believe it is the only sensible and useful piece I’ve wrote,” Turgenev wrote to Fet in July/August 1867, referring to Smoke. Russian critics wrote dozens of pages refuting Sozont Potugin’s maxims, as if he had been a new Chaadayev, but this one can’t be refuted, only rejected or accepted:

Here’s the thing about it: today’s young people have made an error in their calculation. They imagine the time of old, dark, subterranean work has passed: “it was all right for the old folk to keep burrowing like moles but this part is humiliating for us – we shall act in the open air; we shall act…” My dear fellows! It won’t even be your kids’ turn to act, and you are welcome back to the hole – into the hole, in the steps of the old folk.

With this, I feel we’ve tunneled to the bottom of the story.

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