If Dostoevsky would later mock Ivan Turgenev as a vain westernizer and sycophant, then part of it might have to do with a feeling of guilt over a literary debt.
Take The Diary of a Superfluous Man, a model for Notes From The Underground, which was published 14 years later in 1864. For me, a Twenty First Century American, Turgenev’s short novel feels contemporary, not in spite what his younger contemporary would have labeled its shortcomings, but almost because of them. Tchulkaturin, a relatively young man, only 31, is dying of unspecified natural causes. We never quite learn what’s killing him, but, since it’s the 19th Century, I suppose tuberculosis would do just as well as anything. Tchulkaturin is not only dying young. He’s dying without ever quite having lived. The “superfluous” man of the title, he’s a petty government official who has fallen out of the upper-middle-class. Decades before, his proper but emotionally withholding mother, and weak, dissolute father had been unable to hold onto the family fortune. All he has left is a modest little house and a few scraps of clothing. His only companion is his elderly, well over 80, nurse.
Tchulkaturin decides to use the time he has left to write a diary. In spite of his self-deprecatory tone, he’s clearly a gifted writer. He not only displays a flair for melodrama. “Death looked me in the face that day and took note of me,” he remarks in a brief description of his father’s funeral. His descriptions of his icy, soul-killing mother are powerful in their restrained malice.
“She was crushed beneath the weight of her own virtues, and was a source of misery to every one, from herself upwards. In all the fifty years of her life, she never once took rest, or sat with her hands in her lap; she was for ever fussing and bustling about like an ant, and to absolutely no good purpose, which cannot be said of the ant. The worm of restlessness fretted her night and day. Only once I saw her perfectly tranquil, and that was the day after her death, in her coffin. Looking at her, it positively seemed to me that her face wore an expression of subdued amazement; with the half-open lips, the sunken cheeks, and meekly-staring eyes, it seemed expressing, all over, the words, ‘How good to be at rest!'”
Tchulkaturin has a way with words, but what does he have to write about? There’s nothing about him that would distinguish from 1000 other men of his class. “My life has not been different in any respect from the lives of numbers of other people,” he says. “The parental home, the university, the government service in the lower grades, retirement, a little circle of friends, decent poverty, modest pleasures, unambitious pursuits, moderate desires–kindly tell me, is that new to any one?” He decides to talk about how he suffered a case of unrequited love back in his early 20s.
Kirilla Matveitch Ozhogin is the biggest landowner and most important citizen in the provincial town of O. He owns 400 serfs. He has the best house. His family is the center of attention for the local gentry. He also has a 17 year old daughter named Elizaveta Kirillovna. Tchulkaturin, in town on government business, of course, falls in love with her. We never really learn whether Elizaveta Kirillovna is worth falling in love with. Tchulkaturin has a way with words, but only when he talks about himself. His descriptions of other people are generic, superficial. Elizaveta Kirillovna, we can imagine, is pretty and sociable. That’s about it. It’s clear that Tchulkaturin has fallen in love with the distant memory of his mother in the body of a younger women. Feminists be at ease. Tchulkaturin isn’t “friend zoned.” He doesn’t even get there. Elizaveta Kirillovna doesn’t manipulate him. She barely even knows he exists. What’s more, she is an unrequited lover in her own right, becoming infatuated with a “Prince N,” a pleasant, charming aristocrat who casually pulls her into his orbit, then just as casually abandons her. Tchulkaturin fights a dual with Prince N, and wins, but the Prince, who only gets a minor cut on his head, is so skilled socially, and so fawned on by the local snobs, that he’s able to manipulate Tchulkaturin’s victory to his own advantage. Even after he dumps her, Elizaveta Kirillovna still loves him. Tchulkaturin’s victory in his dual with Prince N also turns Elizaveta Kirillovna’s feelings towards him from indifference to outright hatred. Just to spite him, she marries Bizmyonkov, another member of the petty gentry who’s been hanging about in the actual friend zone waiting for his chance. Sorry feminists, you can’t win it all. Kirilla Matveitch Ozhogin is glad to get a husband for his daughter, now clearly “damaged goods.” Tchulkaturin leaves town,and that’s pretty much that. There’s nothing about his mid 20s or his late 20s worth talking about. The only thing left for him is to die. He never even mentions what eventually became of Elizaveta Kirillovna. He really doesn’t care.
So what is Turgenev trying to do here?
On the surface, a story about unrequited love is the most cliched of all literary tropes. But Turgenev is no fool. Tchulkaturin tries to convince himself that his romantic failure the decade before was the most momentous incident in his life, but he’s too intelligent to believe it. The story about unrequited love — call it Werther without Ossian and without suicide — is so uninteresting that it becomes eloquent in its very banality. If this is the event an intelligent, clear-thinking man like Tchulkaturin has decided to focus on in the final weeks of his life, what does it say about the rest of his life?
Turgenev, I suspect, knows that romanticism has played itself out. The language of Byron, Pushkin, young Goethe, Walter Scott, none of it is adequate to express the reality of the nation under the reactionary Czar Nicholas I. Russia’s educated, enlightened “intelligentsia” has no purpose in life. They’re “superfluous.” The Russian Revolution, that titanic event where these same educated, alienated young Russians would shake the whole world, is far off in the future. Young men in Russia can perform a colorful role on stage, fight duels, fall in love, talk in high-flown, romantic language, “cut a dashing figure” like Prince N, but, in the end, the only reality is the one Tchulkaturin sees so clearly, their own uselessness, their own “superfluousness.” For Dostoevsky the purpose in life would be to “suffer.” For Lenin, it would be to overthrow capitalism. For Turgenev? The only honorable thing to strive for is a clear eyed consciousness of your own irrelevance. To will yourself into oblivion at the age of 31? It’s as good a fate as any.