Turgenev’s significance

AN Wilson’s review of recent translations of Turgenev, and a book about the Russian author (September 30), seems a strange mélange of faint praise and self-contradiction. Turgenev’s supposedly “ironic” view of the peasantry and their “superstitious world view” is surely not substantiated by his Sketches from a Hunter’s Albumwhich Wilson dismisses as “minor fiction”, despite its containing what he later claims most to admire in Turgenev’s work, namely “his profound insights into nature”.

Describing him as “a lazy storyteller” whose “greatest work was not in the novels” and dismissing them as “novelettes”, Wilson turns his admiring attention to Hunting Nature, Thomas P. Hodge’s recent book on Turgenev’s relationship to the organic world. Here he appears to qualify what he sees as the novels’ overall shortcomings and hails them instead, less for their social and political importance than for their “profound empathy with nature”.

However, one needs to insist on the political and cultural significance of Turgenev’s writing, precisely those elements that disappointed the reviewer. Wilson is critical of the novel On the Eve on several counts, including the absence of any background reference to the Crimean War. That is because the “eve” in question is not that of that particular conflict, but rather of the Bulgarian April Uprising against the Ottoman yoke of 1876, which the book may be said to anticipate. Wilson’s characterization of Insarov, the Bulgarian revolutionary who is emotionally diverted from his cause, as a “self-absorbed leftie lover” cannot be considered serious criticism.

Central to an understanding of Turgenev’s (especially male) characters is his essay “Hamlet and Don Quixote”, which establishes archetypes in whom there is a permanent tension between Reason and Emotion, Thought and Action. A classic instance can be found in the eponymous hero of the novel Rudinomitted from Wilson’s discussion, who is also a direct descendant of Pushkin and Lermontov’s lishniy chelovekor “superfluous person” via their Onegin (Eugene Onegin) and Pechorin (A Hero of Our Time). Also of relevance is Turgenev’s quarrel with the philosophical rationalists, represented by Nikolai Chernyshevsky and featured in the latter’s novel Chto delat’? (What Is to Be Done?), which was written in prison in 1862 and intended as a political antidote to the depiction of a flawed positivist, Bazarov, in Fathers and Children.

Nick Worrall
London N13

Basil Bunting

William Wootten, reviewing the Letters of Basil Bunting edited by Alex Niven (October 7), tell us that the Northumbrian poet tended “to denigrate perceived enemies”, Ian Hamilton Finlay being named as one. Denigration is hardly the tone I would associate with the letter to Finlay of August 26, 1969. That letter ends: “It is quite possible for people to tolerate each other, and even to be friendly, in spite of extreme and violent differences … I dont [sic] see why you and I should not go each his own way without more collisions…” (p319). That sounds pretty generous and conciliatory to me.

Wootten says there are noticeable gaps in the correspondence, especially in the 1920s, 1940s and in the years 1953–64. Although there may be a dearth of private correspondence in these periods, Bunting wrote letters in the public domain, some of which are very enlightening in regard to his poetic practice. There is an especially interesting letter of 1927 (in The Nation and Athenaeum), which argues that “Mr Lawrence [D. H.] is ready at any time to sacrifice truth for force, to forgo the just epithet in favor of the momentarily more effective one” (see Basil Bunting:Man and poet, edited by Carroll F. Terrell, University of Maine, 1980, p284), a concise criticism of Lawrence’s style that simultaneously highlights Bunting’s own approach to writing as a craft. This critical acumen was demonstrated throughout Bunting’s career in letters printed in the public domain. In an open letter to Sherry Mangan, for example (“Lettera aperta a Sherry Mangan, Esquire”, printed in the Italian newspaper Il MareNo 1223, August 20, 1932, p3), Bunting writes: “Art for the love of the continued and not the disintegrated existence of man” (translated from the Italian, Basil Bunting: Man and poet, p231), a crucial clue to the cultural background that enabled him to write some of the finest long poems in English since the Second World War. There are many more letters of this kind to be discovered, I am sure. Perhaps Alex Niven is to bring them together in later volumes? Bunting may have had “his shortcomings as a correspondent”, but it has to be recalled that not all of his letters were reserved for the private domain.

Sam Milne
Claygate, Surrey

Holes

I don’t know whether Leibniz ever feared becoming “all hole”, as Neil Cooper suggests (Letters, October 7). I know that Sartre did. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre hopes that the In-itself (roughly, unconscious matter) might vengefully “absorb” the For-itself (roughly, self-conscious creatures). He imagines the For-itself as a hole that must be plugged with his “own flesh”. If the sexual overtones are almost comically overt, the misogyny is explicit. “The obscenity of the female sex is that of every gaping thing”, he writes. Paranoia makes women into objects and intercourse an ontological necessity.

Rachel Fraser
Exeter College, Oxford

Chandler, Hammett and Shakespeare

David Lehman knows the difference between Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and so do I (Letters, October 7); that was just a stupid mistake on my part (September 23). But I don’t see what the second mistake is. Have Gun – Will Travel, a TV western series that I watched long ago, featured a gunman named Paladin (clearly derivative of Spade and Marlowe) who sometimes came out with similar quotations in confrontations with some thug. He would add, in world-weary tones, “That, pardner, is Shakespeare”. Shakespeare, in this context, was obviously slumming. Spade is certainly quoting a famous phrase out of context, and getting the wording slightly wrong, but I think this is the film’s way of trying not to sound too literary.

Lois Potter
London EC1V

Babyn Yar

The otherwise excellent article by Askold Melnyczuk unfortunately misquoted the title of the book by Marianna Kiyanovska as Voices from Babyn Yar (September 30). The English translation actually has the title The Voices of Babyn Yar. More significantly, reading the article reminded me of the book about this infamous ravine outside Kyiv by Anatoli Kuznetsov, Baby Yar, first published in English in 1970. As well as buying Kiyanovska’s book, I now intend to re-read Kuznetsov’s, despite the horrors there. As Melnyczuk concluded, books like this will “forever serve as a reminder of the human capacity for evil”.

Bill Chrispin
Bristol

Don’t forget the Motor City

The Detroit of the West Midlands was Coventry, not Birmingham (Maxine Berg’s review of Second City by Richard Vinen, October 7). In 1968 an audit calculated that around 40 per cent of the city’s male workforce was employed in the automotive industry. The report contrasted Coventry’s heavy dependence on the likes of Triumph, Standard, Rootes and Jaguar with Birmingham’s wider range of manufacturing and its growing service sector. The Austin plant at Longbridge was vital to volume car output across greater Birmingham and the UK as a whole, but it didn’t define the conurbation’s identity in the way that car-making did Coventry. Young assembly workers, fresh off the track on a Friday night and dancing to Tamla Motown in the spanking new Locarno Ballroom, knew for certain that this side of the Atlantic there was only one “Motor City”, and it wasn’t Brum.

Adrian Smith
Lymington, Hampshire

Withernsea

Reviewing Cold Fish Soup by Adam Farrer, Andrew Martin tells of bodies being “washed up in Withernsea after jumping off the Humber Bridge” (In Brief, October 7). The appearance of such human flotsam was not a new phenomenon in the area. In the spring of 1934, the writer and activist Winifred Holtby stayed in Withernsea. One of her aims was to give herself the time and freedom to progress with what would be her final novel, South Riding: An English landscape, in which Withernsea appears as Kiplington. In her tribute to Holtby, Testament of Friendship, Vera Brittain writes that “many of the incidents of the story … arose out of her life in Withernsea”. “Wandering alone one day over the miles of brownish-purple mud where the Humber looks across to Lincolnshire”, she met an old man who told her of “the corpses washed to the foot of the breakwater”. “It’s the finding bones by lamplight does it for me”, the old man concluded. In South Riding the body of the farmer Robert Carne is discovered in just such a location. The Holly children, who find it, were suggested by Holtby’s discovery of a “forlorn ex-servicemen’s settlement”, the Cold Harbor Colony of the novel.

Of her stay in Withernsea, Holtby wrote:

Whenever I approach these people and find their hidden lives, I find sorrow and loss and cancer and debts and fear of old age or penury. However, meanwhile, there are the fried fish-and-chip shops, the pierrots and small babies who appear, in this part of the world, to be regarded as undiluted entertainment, taken round from house to house, tossed into the air, chucked under the chin, wheeled home at all hours; Every rule of the Chelsea Club is broken – and they are adored!

Neil Cooper
Ruskington, Lincolnshire

Agatha Christie

Like Keith Jewitt (Letters, October 7) I was a little bemused by the assertion that Poirot and Miss Marple were “unambiguously queer”, as revealed by Kathryn Hughes in her review of Lucy Worsley’s biography of Agatha Christie (September 9). Reviewing the same book in the New York Review of Books, Frances Wilson attributes this to Worsley’s having read JC Bernthal’s Queering Agatha Christie. Worsley acknowledges that it is “inspired the approach” of her own book. Wilson quotes Bernthal’s assertion that being queer means, in part, that in respect of the society in which her protagonists are placed, Christie “holds that norm up for interrogation”. I had rather hoped that being critically curious about the society of which they write is a commonplace among writers or, better still, all of us.

Alan Jessop
Barnard Castle, Co Durham

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