After a week in grey St. Petersburg with the murky Dostoevsky, I headed back to the plains of Russia to read one of Ivan Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, “Byezhin Prairie.” The Sketches are apparently generally about serfs, their condition, their Romanticization perhaps. This one is about serfs too, but the fact of their oppression is very much in the background. Still, the glorification of the “Russian peasant” is certainly an element.
A hunter gets lost in the woods and before long finds himself quite disoriented. By the time he realizes where he is, night is falling and he must sleep outside. He spots a campfire in the distance and goes to sleep among five peasant boys who are spending the night with the grazing horses of the village. The main part of the story consists in the narrator describing the boys and eavesdropping on their ghost stories. Not quite ghost stories, but talk of superstition and daily village life.
You can tell right away what Turgenev does really well. The setting is beautiful: “On such days all the colors are softened, bright but not glaring; everything is suffused with a kind of touching tenderness.” Or later, “the night had crept close and grown up like a storm-cloud; it seemed as though, with the mists of evening, darkness was rising up on all sides and flowing down from overhead.” The portraits of the boys as well—Turgenev is a bit of a cameo artist:
The second boy, Pavlusha, had tangled black hair, gray eyes, broad cheek-bones, a pale face pitted with small-pox, a large but well-cut mouth; his head altogether was large—“a beer-barrel head,” as they say—and his figure was square and clumsy. He was not a good-looking boy—there’s no denying it!—and yet I liked him; he looked very sensible and straightforward, and there was a vigorous ring in his voice.
Still, even reading it you get the feeling that these portraits are what he can do, that is, they are too large a part of what he can do, and where is the rest? Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, notes Turgenev’s “mellow colored little paintings—rather watercolors than the Flemish glory of Gogol’s art gallery.” He sums him up as “not a great writer, though a pleasant one.” “Byezhin Prairie” is not a great story, and it is a pleasant one. I admired its use of foreshadowing, in multiple layers, several aspects of the children’s silly stories. And I enjoyed the contrast of the Russian serf’s Orthodoxy and superstition, which basically amounts, at the end of each supernatural rumor, to: “‘Ugh!’ said Fedya after a brief silence; ‘but how can such an evil thing of the woods ruin a Christian soul….'”
With this ode to the prairie and its inhabitants I will leave Turgenev for now, but I’ll be back someday.