Saturday, 27 November 2004

Ivan Turgenev: Smoke (1867)

Translation: Uncredited
Edition: Alan Sutton, 1985
Review number: 1275

Earlier in 2004, it was announced that the United Kingdom divorce rates had risen quite sharply, and one of the causes suggested by commentators was the way that the Internet has made it easier to trace old lovers, causing people to abandon their current partners in something of an attempt to recover lost youth. Though meeting someone from the past after a long time can cause something of a jolt, and people do tend to romanticise their past affairs (because they didn't suffer from the specific flaws that mar current relationships), it is likely that whatever it was that made it not work out the first time will still be there in some form, which means that picking things up where they were left off is probably doomed.

Shorn of the digs at Friends Reunited, this is basically the idea behind Smoke. Many years ago, the central character Litvinov was engaged to the young and beautiful Irina Osinin. Her family was aristocratic but impoverished, but she was offered a single chance to make her name in society. Urged to do so by her father and by Libinov (persuaded by her father that she should take the opportunity), she becomes a great success, and this proves the end of the match between the two young people. Now, ten years later and again on the verge of marriage, Litvinov is visiting the fashionable German spa of Baden-Baden, seemingly populated entirely by Russians, when he meets Irina again. Irina is now married, but clearly despises her husband, and she is still extremely beautiful. Litvinov is tempted to renew their relationship, but is torn by his duty and his desire to remain true to his fiancée - a sincere desire, despite the resurgence of all his old feelings for Irina.

The plot serves more as the hook for a series of satirical portraits of the Russian upper classes abroad, particularly in the first half of Smoke; these seem to be the main point of the novel. They are variously revealed as stupid, provincial, vulgar, superficial and vain - or as combinations of these qualities. The two main characters are more fully fleshed out than this, and much more sympathetically portrayed - and yet Turgenev is careful to make them flawed as well.

Smoke is the novel which first made Turgenev's name outside Russia, though today the earlier Fathers and Sons and the play A Month in the Country are deservedly far better known. This anonymous (and, I suspect, early and hence out of copyright) translation has obvious flaws (details such as the consistent use of the word "thrashing" rather than "threshing" to describe the processing of grain suggest to me that the translator was not a native English speaker, and some phrases use idiomatic expressions which are no longer current), but it does possess a certain liveliness which is presumably derived from the atmosphere of the original.

As a Russian novel about illicit love, Smoke is overshadowed by Anna Karenin - but that is of course true about most novels. It is one of the most accesible nineteenth century Russian novels, with none of the problems cited by some as reasons to avoid them - it is short, has a smallish number of characters with distinct names, and avoids dullness through the use of satire.

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