Du Malone writes: In my review of A hero of our time, I quote from Lermontov’s description of the mountainous Caucasian environment. My point that there was an alignment between the landscape and the Byronic temperament of the literature.

By way of contrast, a thousand kilometres or more to the north, lies Spasskoye, where the nineteenth century novelist Ivan Turgenev owned an estate.

The passages that I find most memorable — and which made the greatest impact at the time of¬† publication — are the vivid portraits of the peasants and landowners that Turgenev encounter.

But Turgenev is good too at description of the natural environment. He has a hunter’s eye for the ecology of his surroundings:

The entire wood consisted of some two or three hundred enormous oaks and ash trees. Their stately, powerful trunks used to stand out in magnificent dark relief against the golden transparency of the green-leaved rowans and nut trees; rising on high they composed their fine proportions against the lucid blue sky and there spread out the domes of their far-reaching, angular branches; hawks, merlins, kestrels, all whistled and hovered above their motionless crests and colourful woodpeckers tapped away loudly at their thick bark; the resonant song of the blackbird suddenly rang out amid the thick foliage in the wake of the lilting call of the oriole; below, in the undergrowth, robins, siskins and chiff-chaffs chirruped and sang; finches darted to and fro across the paths; white hares ran along the edge of the wood in cautious stops and starts, and nut-brown squirrels leapt friskily from tree to tree, suddenly stopping with tails raised above their heads. In the grass, around tall ant-hills and in the mild shadiness offered by the beautiful fretwork of ferns, violets used to flower, and lilies of the valley, and reddish mushrooms grew, russula, emetic agaric, fairy clubs and red fly agaric; and in the meadows, among the widespread bushes, wild strawberries would grow crimson.

Turgenev is particularly at changes of atmosphere in the evening and especially, as here, mornings:

You drive past a church, downhill and to the right across a dam; a mist is just beginning to rise from a pond. The air chills you slightly and you cover your face with your coat collar; you are pleasantly drowsy. The horses’ hooves squelch in the puddles and the driver whistles to himself. By the time you’ve travelled two miles or so the rim of the sky is beginning to crimson; in the birches jackdaws are awakening and clumsily fluttering from branch to branch; sparrows twitter about the dark hayricks. The air grows brighter, the road clearer, the sky lightens, suffusing the clouds with whiteness and the fields with green…In the meantime dawn has burst into flame; stripes of gold have risen across the sky and wreaths of mist form in the ravines; to the loud singing of skylarks and the soughing of the wind before dawn the sun rises, silent and purple, above the horizon. Light floods over the world and your heart trembles within you like a bird…You can see for miles. Here a village glimmers beyond the woodland; there, farther away, is another village with a white church and then a hill with a birchwood.

The delicacy of Turgenev’s sensibility transfers to his writing about human affairs.


PS Translation by Richard Freeborn, published by Penguin Classics (1967).