Ivan Turgenev and his Birds

Turgenev knew nature very well and certainly knew his birds. Part of the reason for this was that he liked to rise early of a morning and blast them to pieces with guns – and so we kill the things we know so well and love.

The following examples are all from Fathers and Sons (Oxford edition, translated by Richard Freeborn), but the list could be extended considerably by including references from his Sportsman’s Notebook (also published in English under the title Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook.) And I have to admit that the list is not complete – I have omitted the reference to an ornamental bird of paradise found on a lady’s hat.

I particularly like the intervention of a chaffinch deflating the balloon of a declaration of love. Such declarations should be deflated wherever possible.

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If it is open to dedicate a post, I dedicate this one to elizabethm. Here is a link to her latest post which takes Turgenev as its subject.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/

And if you are a native speaker (Hi there, Gerard!)  then this post is also available in Dutch.

1 Chicken

A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.

2 Dove

A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.

3/4 Skylarks and Rooks

Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.

5 Snipe

‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’

6 Long-tailed Siskin

From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.

7 Quail

Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.

 8 Swallows

Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;

9 Nightingale

And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’

10 Telling a bird from its flight

‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.

11 Fledgling Hawk

Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.

12 Falcon

‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.

13 Sparrows

He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.

 14 Chaffinch 

‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’

15 Jackdaw

‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’

16 A wee grouse hen

Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.

17 A Crowing Cock

Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.

 

 

 

Love and Survival in the Gulag

Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag

This book, by Orlando Figes, tells the story of two people, Lev and Svetlana, forcibly kept apart because Lev is serving ten years in the Soviet Gulag.

How did this come about? He was captured by the Germans, escaped to the Americans, then chose to return to Russia. At which point he was charged with being a spy and sent to a labour camp. The fact that he could speak German didn’t help, but it didn’t make him a spy either.

Once separated, they communicated by letter. Most of the letters have survived – over 1,240 of them. As is well known, letters were censored, so in some cases reading between the lines was necessary. But since it proved relatively easy to smuggle letters in and out of the camp, they soon became more candid.

Although this huge cache of letters needed to be translated for this book, Lev and Svetlana helped the author in his task by numbering them. This was not with an eye on posterity, but a method of alerting each other to the fact that a letter had gone missing, or that letters had arrived but in the wrong order. This betrays a methodical approach befitting two people both of whom were scientists.

The letters left an unexpected impression on this reader. The fact that the regime was run on inhumane and paranoid lines did not come as a surprise, but both Lev and Svetlana were in some ways supportive of it despite having inside knowledge of some of its worst horrors and stupidities. This attitude is hard to explain, but since it didn’t trouble the authors they make no attempt to account for it.

One aspect of the Gulag system which did not occur to me was why it was bound to fail. In the years immediately after the war, show trials resulted in a good supply of prisoners to the Gulag. But as the trials reduced in number at the input end and prisoners were released when they finished their sentences, the population of slave labourers started to fall off dramatically.

So what are we to make of our lovers? This can be well illustrated by an observation Figes makes about Svetlana.

She was a practical person, emotionally generous, often warm in her affections, but far too honest and plain-speaking to succumb to romantic illusions.

Or as she puts it herself:

Sentimental words about love (both lofty and cheap) produce the same effect on me as commerce. Mine to you, just as yours to me. From them stem never-ending grievances. P70

If I had to summarise this book in a word, that word would be ‘worthy’. It is worthy because Lev and Svetlana were worthy. Good people who were put in a horrendous situation by a corrupt system and wrote to each other over a period of ten years about their feelings and their lives.

I am reminded of other books dealing with life in repressive regimes, such as Wild Swans.The people who rise to positions of power in these regimes like to bend everyone to their will, for example, by killing them in their millions. And in extreme cases they may try to bend things to their will as will.

Wild Swans, Chang's first international bestseller

Wild Swans, Chang’s first international bestseller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mao declared war on grass and flowers – which should be hard to believe but is not.