In studying the Russian novel it is amusing to note the childish attitude of certain English men of letters to the novel in general, their depreciation of its influence and of the public’s ‘inordinate’ love of fiction. Many men of letters today look on the novel as a mere story-book, as a series of light-coloured, amusing pictures for their ‘idle hours,’ and on memoirs, biographies, histories, criticism, and poetry as the age’s serious contribution to literature. Whereas the reverse is the case. The most serious and significant of all literary forms the modern world has evolved is the novel; and brought to its highest development, the novel shares with poetry today the honour of being the supreme instrument of the great artist’s literary skill.
To survey the field of the novel as a mere pleasure-garden marked out for the crowd’s diversion — a field of recreation adorned here and there by the masterpieces of a few great men — argues in the modern critic either an academical attitude to literature and life, or a one-eyed obtuseness, or merely the usual insensitive taste. The drama in all but two countries has been willy-nilly abandoned by artists as a coarse playground for the great public’s romps and frolics, but the novel can be preserved exactly so long as the critics understand that to exercise a delicate art is the one serious duty of the artistic life. It is no more an argument against the vital significance of the novel that tens of thousands of people — that everybody, in fact — should today essay that form of art, than it is an argument against poetry that for all the centuries droves and flocks of versifiers and scribblers and rhymesters have succeeded in making the name of poet a little foolish in worldly eyes. The true function of poetry! That can only be vindicated in common opinion by the severity and enthusiasm of critics in stripping bare the false, and in hailing as the true all that is animated by the living breath of beauty. The true function of the novel! That can only be supported by those who understand that the adequate representation and criticism of human life would be impossible for modern men were the novel to go the way of the drama, and be abandoned to the mass of vulgar standards. That the novel is the most insidious means of mirroring human society Cervantes in his great classic revealed to seventeenth-century Europe. Richardson and Fielding and Sterne in their turn, as great realists and impressionists, proved to the eighteenth century that the novel is as flexible as life itself. And from their days to the days of Henry James the form of the novel has been adapted by European genius to the exact needs, outlook, and attitude to life of each successive generation. To the French, especially to Flaubert and Maupassant, must be given the credit of so perfecting the novel’s technique that it has become the great means of cosmopolitan culture. It was, however, reserved for the youngest of European literatures, for the Russian school, to raise the novel to being the absolute and triumphant expression by the national genius of the national soul.
Turgenev’s place in modern European literature is best defined by saying that while he stands as a great classic in the ranks of the great novelists, along with Richardson, Fielding, Scott, Balzac, Dickens, Thackeray, Meredith, Tolstoi, Flaubert, Maupassant, he is the greatest of them all, in the sense that he is the supreme artist. As has been recognised by the best French critics, Turgenev’s art is both wider in its range and more beautiful in its form than the work of any modern European artist. The novel modelled by Turgenev’s hands, the Russian novel, became the great modern instrument for showing ‘the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ To reproduce human life in all its subtlety as it moves and breathes before us, and at the same time to assess its values by the great poetic insight that reveals man’s relations to the universe around him — that is an art only transcended by Shakespeare’s own in its unique creation of a universe of great human types. And, comparing Turgenev with the European masters, we see that if he has made the novel both more delicate and more powerful than their example shows it, it is because as the supreme artist he filled it with the breath of poetry where others in general spoke the word of prose. Turgenev’s horizon always broadens before our eyes: where Fielding and Richardson speak for the country and the town, Turgenev speaks for the nation. While Balzac makes defile before us an endless stream of human figures, Turgenev’s characters reveal themselves as wider apart in the range of their spirit, as more mysteriously alive in their inevitable essence, than do Meredith’s or Flaubert’s, than do Thackeray’s or Maupassant’s. Where Tolstoi uses an immense canvas in War and Peace, wherein Europe may see the march of a whole generation, Turgenev in Fathers and Children concentrates in the few words of a single character, Bazarov, the essence of modern science’s attitude to life, that scientific spirit which has transformed both European life and thought. It is, however, superfluous to draw further parallels between Turgenev and his great rivals. In England alone, perhaps, is it necessary to say to the young novelist that the novel can become anything, can be anything, according to the hands that use it. In its application to life, its future development can by no means be gauged. It is the most complex of all literary instruments, the chief method today of analysing the complexities of modern life. If you love your art, if you would exalt it, treat it absolutely seriously. If you would study it in its highest form, the form the greatest artist of our time has perfected — remember Turgenev.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01