I’m not entirely sure that this edition is the same as others and so, from the get-go, I should say that the three stories I am reviewing here are The Torrents of Spring, First Love, and Mumu.
The first of these, and the longest, along with the second not much shorter, resemble one another markedly in their themes of love and a femme fatale. Both have the same feel, being written in the third person from the point of view of the main character in the first instance, in the second in the first person, (if you get my drift), thus both presenting the perspective of the victims of sexual allure. However, the two stories are different in many of their aspects.
The Torrents of Spring has the feel of a novel, packed with incident and with a complex storyline. I don’t want to introduce spoilers, so it suffices to say that the central character is the victim of the machinations of a less-than amiable woman who uses her beauty to wreak havoc amongst those around her. In spite of the dramatic theme – see my summary at the end of this review for more on that – there’s an almost painterly feel to the story as Turgenev, intentionally or otherwise, presents us with descriptive vignettes that might be used as portrayals for some commissioned artist. These begin as watercolour still-life, but by the end take on the air of oil paintings in the more acute style of romanticism. It makes for vivid writing, and yet the style overall is easy and relaxed for all the thematic drama. Of the three stories, this is the most intense and yet that intensity is far-from blatant.
First Love presents us, at least for a while, with something of a mystery, rather spoiled for me personally as I guessed the outcome early on. The painterly feel is not so much in evidence. Instead, with a sparse story arc, we tend to get a better feel for the narrator here, a sixteen-year old who falls for the seductive wiles of a woman of 21. However, this woman is more amiable than her counterpart in the first story, playful and without ill-intent becoming, in the end, the victim of her own allure rather than making others the victim of it.
Mumu is a short short story, at least compared with the other two, and as with the first the writing is more dense having a higher level of incident packed into it than in First Love. In many ways it is markedly different from its companions with an omniscient narrator and a different theme, that of a man trapped in the feudal system, his life commanded by a capricious – and somewhat neurotic – elderly mistress, first in his being denied marriage to the woman he loves, (not that he was ever likely to be her husband), and then in his being denied his pet dog which gives its name to the title of the story.
The three stories (vaguely) described (for fear of spoilers), it’s worth returning again to their most important commonality. All three are inconsequential. Turgenev sets up the potential for great drama in terms of the things endured by his main characters, but the drama never reaches any significant heights. Even a duel in the first story becomes a non-event. There’s a sense here of stoicism in the face either of fates that the characters have no control over, or that they spoil through their own folly, or both. Where another writer may have piled on the emotion and had his or her characters standing windswept at the edge of some abyss contemplating their own ends at the unfairness of life, Turgenev has his getting on with the hand they’ve been dealt. Far from this being negative, it’s refreshing in its naturalism and tends to make other writers seem vaguely hysterical in contrast to Turgenev, perhaps rightly so. All three stories have their ‘Oh no, not that!’ moment for the reader nonetheless – particularly the third for me, given my own predilections – and so the stories are far-from entirely relaxing.
In their lyrical stoicism, then, these three stories make for seemingly easy reading. They are packed with drama to be sure, but the melodrama that all too often accompanies it in fiction is absent, leaving us with writing which is somehow more powerful in retrospect than it seems at the time, a tonic in considering how literature tends, all too often, to present us with quite the reverse.