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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Turgenev And The Misplaced Idea That The Russians Are Hard To Read

One thing I recall when reading Tolstoy's biography was that when he wrote War & Peace he intended it to be able to be read by children and adults alike. He was obsessed with the subject of pedagogy and in fact built a school on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. If any of this is incorrect spelling I apologise but I am writing on the fly.

But somehow, because War and Peace is so long and with so many characters, somehow people feel that they won't be able to tackle it. The same could possibly be said for The Brothers Karmazov by Dostoyevsky, which I myself had to tackle by audio book because I no longer had the time nor patience as I did in my university days.

But the other night, and potentially it will be the first book in my newly formed book club with local Vaucluse residents, I began reading Turgenev's 'First Love' and I managed to knock it over in two sessions of reading. And it reminded me that you don't need to fear the Russians. They write eloquently, convey story well, and in the case of First Love, you get in and out rather quickly.

And, as is often the case, and perhaps the title was sub consciously what got me to pick it up from my book shelf, the topic was most relevant.

As I approach forty next month I am looking back on both the bliss and carnage I created out of my thirties. It started with a wham at the Closerie De Lilas in Montparnasse one night in Paris and it will conclude, well, I don't yet quite know how it will conclude, but it will be concluded if all goes to plan, with a roasting from my good friends at an all male dinner. My closest cousin will moderate with a gong in case anyone gets out of hand.

But looking back on the last decade has been a difficult process, notwithstanding that I have had some, what I consider, minor mental health issues to have to deal with concurrently. I am wired to swing sometimes like a pendulum, from either an all out assault on designing and cutting silks, to great lethargy and a malaise of 'what's it all about'. And certainly in that regard, I must consider the women that have played their part in the last decade and I assume this is why I picked up Turgenev's First Love.

In the final pages Turgenev writes a wonderful passage between father and son.

On the morning of the very day on which he had his stroke, he had begun a letter to me, written in French. 

'My son he wrote' , 'beware of the love of women; beware of that ecstasy - that slow poison' . My mother, after his death, sent a considerable sum of money to Moscow. 

The son had been jilted after finding out his father had been conducting a clandestine affair with the daughter of a financially desperate aristocratic woman who had rented the house next door, that his own son had fallen in love with.

And so, there I lay in bed, crooked neck, sore back, wondering about my own lot and where it had all seemed to go so wrong. I had a wonderful life, so much to be grateful for, but on the subject of women I felt not too dissimilar in sentiment to the father's last thoughts. It is an ecstasy, but it is also a slow poison.

It reminded me of another wonderful moment I had when running the sands of Bondi one morning some months ago and listening to the beautiful lyrics of Tim Buckley, the folk singer and father of Jeff Buckley. In his song 'Once I Was' he says that he once was a soldier, once a hunter and then he goes on to say more poignantly, 'once I was a lover, and I searched behind your eyes for you, and soon there will be another, to tell you I was just a lie' .

And about that I feel a certain nostalgia mixed with gratitude, joy, ecstasy, terror, pain, suffering and vulnerability all assembled in one ball, with each feeling inseparable to the other. One ball.

If you are feeling like you have time up your sleeve or a free night to yourself, might I recommend First Love and may it conjure up in you the same emotions I felt.

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