A writing acquaintance recommended this book as one of the best at providing a sense of place. I have to agree with that assessment. Here the place is the Russian countryside where Turgenev grew up. A member of the gentry just prior to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, Turgenev's concern with the plight of the peasants he encounters fuels these stories.
Even though a journeyman writer—these are his earliest published writings—Turgenev succeeds brilliantly at writing fiction that reveals a political slant while preventing the politics from overwhelming the story. This is always a difficult task. As Orwell said, “All art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.” How Turgenev does it is twofold. First, influenced by Gogol and Dostoevsky, he writes in a realist manner, depicting the peasants, their meagre huts, and the injustices they suffer in a straight-forward manner. Secondly, his narrator is simply an observer, rarely taking an active role or even commenting on what he sees or is told. He lets the peasants and their circumstances speak for themselves.
I guess they spoke pretty loudly: after the book was published in 1852, Turgenev was arrested and then exiled to his estate.
Prior to being collected in book form, these stories were published in The Contemporary, a Russian journal. They do read a little like writing exercises—a character sketch here, a nature description there—so I could almost see him preparing to write a novel. I'm not interested in hunting—I agree with the peasant nicknamed Flea who says of undomesticated beasts and birds, “and a sin it is to be killing such a one, it should be let to live on the earth until its natural end . . .”—but there's actually very little about that. Mostly Turgenev writes about people and places.
The injustices, recounted in a matter-of-fact tone by peasants who expect no more, infuriated me. For instance, there's the farmer Ovsyanikov who when prompted by the narrator as to whether the old days weren't better, says he has no reason to praise the old days. The narrator, he says, is a landowner but not the kind of man his granddad was. Ovsyanikov mentions a patch of land and says, “Your granddad took it off us. He rode up, pointed, said: ‘That's my property,' and took it.”
There are other fascinating characters: two friends, one blustery and one shy, who support and care for each other; an older woman with simple tastes who indulges her artistic nephew; Old Knot whose masters kept moving him from job to job: coachman, cook, fisherman, shoemaker, pageboy, even an actor in his mistress's theatre. Most touching of all is Lukeria, whom the narrator finds in a shed when sheltering from a storm. She had once been a maid in his mother's household, the most beautiful and lively of them all. But now she has fallen prey to a wasting disease, cannot move, can barely eat. Yet she does not complain, but speaks gratefully of the kindness of the villagers who care for her and feed her. She dreams and prays and, when she has the strength, she sings.
Most of all I love the descriptions. As promised I found myself walking through the woods with the narrator, among the “wispy pink runners” of wild strawberries and mushrooms in “tight family clusters.” We lie on our backs and watch the peaceful play of the entwined leaves against the high, clear sky . . . and then suddenly . . . these branches and leaves suffused with sunlight, all of it suddenly begins to stream in the wind, shimmers with a fugitive brilliance, and a fresh, tremulous murmuration arises which is like the endless shallow splashing of oncoming ripples.” Or we go driving on a country road under newly washed willows with larks rising by the hundreds overhead. “On an upland beyond a shallow valley a peasant is ploughing. A dappled foal with short little tail and ruffled mane runs on uncertain legs behind its mother and one can hear its high-pitched neighing. We drive into a birch wood . . .” I could linger here for a long time.