Starting Fathers and Sons… Is it any good?

Sorry for the week-long hiatus, but we’re back and picking up the next book on the list, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

This is the first non-20th century novel in the Letters Republic project. Admittedly, that was done intentionally as 19th and 18th century novels (Jane Austin almost universally excepted thanks to her perpetual dominance of the movie-going and genre-bending worlds – see examples 1 and 2) don’t sell as well to the modern reading public.

But we have to get there sometime. Fathers and Sons is, to recap the previous post, the most famous novel by the third most famous novelist of the Russian literary golden age. (Side note, saw the word aetataureate in Kavalier and Clay last night… Chabon can be such a dweeb.)

What does that mean? Well, there are the two heavy hitters, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky who constantly duke it out for primacy in the academic and public spheres. Then, less the poets and playwrights, there is Turgenev. So if you’ve read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and (finally) Fathers and Sons, you can boldly make the statement that you’ve read every 19th century Russian novel worth reading. This is sort of the equivalent of EGOTing in literary circles, though not as exciting.

So I read the first few pages of Fathers and Sons with interest in whether it deserves its reputation. The answer, again initially, is no. Why? Well, it fails to match the best qualities of other Russian works I’ve read. What I love about the great Russian writers is, first, the immediacy and potency of the language. The writing is frank, brutally frank sometimes. Compare the subject of any of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky’s great works with the content of a Henry James novel and you’ll be amazed. In the Russian novel 1) the characters are compelling 2) their problems are worth reading about and 3) there is a plot where things  happen.

These criteria are not met in the first few pages of Fathers and Sons. It reads, instead, like something I’d pick up in a high school class and endure through. Hopefully as the book continues I am wildly wrong in these first impressions.

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