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Time for classics.....Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Sons (book review and recommendation)

Fathers and Sons (sometimes translated as Fathers and Children) is widely regarded as Turgenev's best work. Not without a reason, for it is masterfully written. It is certainly a very successful novel. It was first published in 1868. Supposedly, upon publication it caused quite a sensation. It was the first Russian modern work of literature to be highly praised in the West. Among the authors who praised it were Henry James, Gustav Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant.  Turgenev wrote this novel as a response to the growing popularity of the nihilist movement. The novel itself can be read as a critique of it, but not a harsh one. Despite the fact that the novel focuses on certain historical place and time, it is not dated because its theme of generation gap is something that is still very relevant.

This novel’s plot unfolds with a son returning to his father, perhaps to draw a biblical connotation. The son in question is newly graduate Arkady Kirsanov, who returns home accompanied by his nihilist friend Bazarov. Arkady’s father Nikolai welcomes his son and his friend Bazarov with open arms. Nikolai is naturally quite content to have his son back, doing his best to make these young men feel welcome. However, the new philosophical system these young man advocate causes Nikolai to feel uneasy. What kind of philosophical system is it? Well, that is nihilism and these young men are very anxious to advocate it. As anxious and willing to prove they can change the world with their ideas as only young men can be.

Their actions are not always in accordance with their beliefs, as the novel will show. In many instances, their belief in nihilism would be put to test. If Candide was a critique of a philosophical system that is unrealistically positive, Fathers and Sons is a critique of one that is overly negative. This ideology of negative will be questioned in this novel. The ideological advocate of this negative system in this novel is Bazarov. He is a nihilist, a person who does not believe in anything. It is obvious that Arkady Kirsanov is heavily influenced by him. Moreover, Kirsanov is not the only one since Bazarov seems to possess a fair amount of charisma. People react strongly to him, either positively or negatively.

The title of the novel ‘Father and Sons’ captures very well the essence of this novel. This novel describes the unavoidable gap that exists between parents and children. Moreover, it describes the gap caused by time itself, the gap between different time periods that is not always as easy to cross as we might think. Tennessee Williams said that time is the greatest difference between two places and in many ways, he was quite right. At different times in our lives, we carry a different energy with us and even when we see things in the same way, we don’t approach them in the same way- if you know what I mean. Anyhow, the gap tackled in this novel is not only the one existing between generations but also between different levels of society. I might even say that it is about the gap between the sexes. This novel is all about differences, how we perceive them, what do we do about them and why. It The differences that inevitably exist between classes, between sexes, between characters, between souls and even the differences between the beautiful and complex land that Russia is.

We learn about these things by following these two young men, both of them are, because of their views (and possibly also their youth) coming into conflict with their parents and the world that surrounds them. They are very different but in many ways, also quite similar. The joys of youth! Don’t we all miss it sometimes? That nervous energy? That constant urge to set things going, to make a difference, to change the world? It is as revitalizing as it is tiring, youth is, perhaps that is why it can’t hold its balance forver. Youth has its charms and so do these two. Both young men are complex and well developed characters. However, in novel, just like in their relationship, Bazarov is the one that dominates and sets things in motion. Kirstanov keeps us, he has his personality and ideas, but in terms of philosophy, it is clear that he is mainly copying his nihilist friend. If nothing, Bazarov has a great influence over him! No wonder, for as I said, there is something attractive about this character. It is clear that Bazarov is the one that really tries to live by his not-beliefs (or should I say beliefs?).

Not believing in anything is also a kind of belief, isn't it? An atheist believes that there is no God and what is that but a belief? If you have a belief, then you have a dogma…and before you know it, there comes a belief system. We have all changed our belief systems over time. We believe one thing, that something happens that makes us see things in a new light. Bazarov is so sure of his no- belief system, but he is falling into his own trap. If you have dogma then you have a religion or something similar to it. Take for example communism, it is a sort of religion (or ideology if you will), in many counties it even mimics religious rituals. To know something for sure is very difficult, so people cling to beliefs- and beliefs are dangerous for obvious reasons- they may and may not be true. However, what other choice do we have? Anarchism? We all develop our belief systems, whatever we might call them, and often they’re not as constant as we would like them to be…. but really why we are so stubborn in instating that answers to changeable situations must be constant? Human nature, I guess.

There was a lot of philosophical unrest (or searching for an ideal philosophy) in the recent history of mankind and this novel is really wonderful at capturing that. It really has some lessons to teach us, the modern readers. Many of its topics are something that I still find just as fascinating as when I first read this novel and I’m sure they will continue to fascinate me. In that sense, the novel really feels relevant and up to date. The way this novel is written really appeals to me. It asks rather than answers questions. I liked that the writer does not want to lead us to any conclusion, but rather just presents questions that we can answer for ourselves. He does that in an intelligent and easy way. Truly, this novel is a joy to read.

The novel is excellent when it comes to portraying the clash of philosophies, but it does not end there. The gap between the generations and its consequences is well described as are the difficulties and complexities of parent- child relationship. Well, as the title would suggest, a connection between father and son is an important theme. It could also symbolize the relationship between various philosophies, one of constant challenge and dispute.

There is another kind of relationship that is part of novel’s plot and that is one between a man and a woman. So, romantic love finds its way into the story and it is not out of place there. It is fortunate that the women showed in this novel are not stereotyped. They are as well portrayed as man. In particular, I liked the character of Odintsova. In addition, the way the writer portrays all the various social groups reminds me of other great Russian novelists. This is not an action-packed novel; it is a philosophical one. Hence it is more oriented towards the characters and their psychological development. In addition, it is a social study of sort, portraying the society as well as the individual. Fathers and Son is a novel that is meant to make you think.

There is a sense of subtle sadness that is present throughout the book that I found very appealing. The writing is fairly simple, yet there is something quite poetic about it. So, if other Russian classics frighten you with the number of pages, try this one. In my opinion it is just as wonderful as the other well-known ones; full of philosophy, moral dilemmas, soul searching and deep thoughts, it just comes in a smaller package. Seriously though, this novel is truly times. It is a beautiful and touching classic that lives up to its reputation. 

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