In the late 1980s, as the air slowly went out of the Cold War, and as Francis Fukuyama prepared to ask outright whether History had reached its end, I found myself sampling the Russian masters, the most contemporary of whom (i.e., the one with the most modern sensibility) seemed to be Ivan Turgenev. This might have been because he was a secular and western-oriented writer to some degree, and was therefore more immediately relatable in a late-twentieth-century American context. But it was also because his themes meshed well with the times I found myself in — not just that particular point in history but that time in my life.
War? Peace? Crime? Punishment? Those words (those titles, to some extent those books) captured the more grandiose mood, and more grandiose adolescence, of the generation that had preceded my own. Superfluous, the word most associated with Turgenev’s characters, captured the mood and adolescence of my own, the more so if you were fool enough to be a liberal-arts major, as I was at the time. A typical Turgenev character, the so-called superfluous man (лишний человек), was often overeducated and under- if not unemployed. He was youthfully pessimistic, sometimes nihilistic, long on attitude and short on action, a shallow pool reflecting deep thoughts. That describes many in my cohort (to some degree yours truly), and I say that with a fair measure of retrospective affection. Nobody chooses his or her times. You get what you get, and you strike whatever poses seem appropriate.
The generation before mine had had passion and earnestness. Seeing what had come of it all, mine drifted instinctively into irony and detachment. They had waged and protested a lengthy, ill-advised war, and had revolutionized sex. Our wars, partly as a consequence, had the brevity of music videos, and their revolution had bequeathed us a dread venereal disease that forced standoffishness even into our would-be sexcapades. They had Easy Rider, with its star-spangled chopper and anthemic music. We had Bruce Craven’s novel Fast Sofa, which came with a single by a band called the Flesh Eaters — the whole combination of words evoking bedsores and inactivity. They had taken overweening pride in mocking the sound career advice to get into plastics, from Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. One could afford such derision at the peak of America’s economic might. Living in the inevitable Reaganomics recession, we were reduced to laughing at the character in Richard Linklater’s Slacker who was trying to make a quick buck selling what she swore was Madonna’s pap smear.
For reasons entirely our own (and far from triumphal), my contemporaries and I were half-inclined to agree with Fukuyama that History might have run its course. Superfluous men like Rudin and Bazarov were the right literary companions for the time.
My copy of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (Modern Library edition circa 1950) was originally sold by Paul Elder’s in San Francisco, a locale more foreign these days than anything you’d find in nineteenth-century Russian literature: a beautifully appointed, downtown book emporium. Here’s the storefront that someone passed through on the way to buying what is now my copy. (Courtesy of paulelder.org)