Thursday, 7 October 1999

Ivan Turgenev: On the Eve (1860)

Translation: Gilbert Gardiner, 1951
Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 353

Turgenev's short novel is based around a memoir written by a friend, who suggested he might like to turn it into a novel. It tells the stories of a small group of upper class teenagers in Russia on the eve of the outbreak of the Crimean War. Elena comes from a home troubled by the infidelities of her father, and this has hardly given her a taste for any kind of marriage that might be arranged by her parents. She is loved by one of a small group of friends, Pavel Shubin, who introduces her to the Bulgarian revolutionary Dimitry Insarov. (Bulgaria was at this time ruled by Turkey, whose oppression of the Slavs in its domains was one of the major causes of the Crimean War.) Shubin thinks Insarov an interesting person, but not one likely to arouse the passions of a woman, and he is very upset when he becomes a favoured rival for Elena's love.

It is Insarov's patriotic devotion which makes him a romantic figure to Elena; no matter how passionate he may be about her, his duty to his country must come first, and this is what fascinates her. It is a total contrast to the meaningless lives of the upper class Russians she sees around her.

Though Turgenev's writing pointed the way to the psychological dramas of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, his work is far more mild and serene in the effect it has on the reader. This is especially true of On the Eve, despite the potential for melodrama in its plot. The title is in fact most apt, for it gives the impression of great things eagerly awaited around the corner, and this is the emotion that Turgenev seeks to produce in his readers throughout the novel.

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