Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Diary of a Superfluous Man by Ivan Turgenev

(Diary of a Superfluous Man by Ivan Turgenev (1850-70 pages-read via

When I saw that there was going to be a Classics Circuit Tour on the Literature of Imperial Russia I knew I wanted to participate.   (The full schedule for the tour can be found at the link here.)    Last year I read a great book, Flaubert: A Biography by Frederick Brown.     Ivan Turgenev and Gustave Flaubert were very close friends for many years.    Brown sketched out some fascinating background information on Turgenev.   Turgenev  (1818 to 1883) was born in Oryal, Russian, about 360 kilometers southwest of Moscow.    He was born into a family of wealthy landed aristocrats that  owned over 5000 serfs.    Ivan's mother brought great additional wealth to the family.    According to Brown, and verified in other sources, Ivan's mother was abused by her parents and suffered at the hands of Ivan's father through his extreme philandering.    The serfs at this time were little more than slaves and it was common for aristocratic men to take serf mistresses and use any serf woman they desired and Ivan's father enjoyed his prerequisites.   His mother found this deeply humiliating and became an extremely cruel mistress to the serfs under the family control, having them whipped for the most minor offenses.   She also had numerous serfs hung.   I am going to assume here that serf women who were discovered to have been with her husband were subject to very harsh punishments and were considered to be to blame for what happened.    His mother was also abusive to Ivan and his brother, especially after their father died when they were sixteen.     In his early twenties he began to live largely in Western Europe, mostly in Paris.   Turgenev fell madly in love with a beautiful famous opera singer, Pauline Viardot and choose to live in Paris most of the rest of his life to be near her.   It is in Parisian literary salons that Turgenev and Flaubert met.    Turgenev never married, largely because of his love for the married Opera Singer.   He had one child by a serf mistress.   (This was a common more or less accepted practice.)

"Diary of a Superfluous Man" is a series of journal entries by an affluent middle aged Russian man seemingly of the very minor nobility.     The idea of a superfluous man was a common concept in 19th century literature. Here is how it is depicted in Turgenev's "Diary of a Superfluous Man".   A superfluous man is one with no place in society and no need to find a place or pursue a living due to the possession of some family money.   Perhaps he  might be the 4th son of a wealthy man or the illegitimate but still acknowledged child of an aristocrat.    Having no need to work he might often become highly cultivated in the literary arts, well traveled and in part because of this hypersensitive to his own emotional reactions to events and people in his life.   Often he would wander about near aimlessly and indulge in romantic liaisons with women in the preforming arts.    Much of his time might be spent brooding over his love affairs and the abusive ways the women he loved treated him.   Not to put too autobiographical slant on this but the opera singer that Turgenev was in love with all his life exploited him to support herself and her husband who was fully aware of an supported the affair for his own gain.    Because of the romantic sensibility of a superfluous man brought about in part by his leisure for self cultivation he is able to give a very self aware account of his life:

There passed in a flash before me my childhood, noisy and peaceful, quarrelsome and good-hearted, with hurried joys and swift sorrows; then my youth rose up, vague, queer, self-conscious, with all its mistakes and beginnings, with disconnected work, and agitated indolence.... There came back, too, to my memory the comrades who shared those early aspirations ... then like lightning in the night there came the gleam of a few bright memories ... then the shadows began to grow and bear down on me, it was darker and darker about me, more dully and quietly the monotonous years ran by--and like a stone, dejection sank upon my heart. I sat without stirring and gazed, gazed with effort and perplexity, as though I saw all my life before me, as though scales had fallen from my eyes. Oh, what have I done! my lips involuntarily murmured in a bitter whisper.

The superfluous man falls in romantic love with an inappropriate woman not worthy of the attentions of a man of his finely cultivated sensibility.   He comes near to a duel in it but some how avoids it.   Much of his time is spent brooding over this woman and the man she prefers to him.    Nothing really important happens in this diary, in fact how could it?    To me this short work is very much worth reading just so one may  ponder at leisure  reflections of its  self-absorbed narrator and to enjoy the beautiful descriptions of nature found in the work.    It is also a good look at life in Imperial Russia in the mid 19th century.

Turgenev is most famous for his Fathers and Sons (1862) which is on most lists of 100 greatest novels of all time.   I am currently being both edified and entertained by Ford Madox Ford's great over view of the world's literature The March of Literature (1938, 872 pages).   In the very opening pages Ford pays homage  to  Turgenev by placing him  in the company of Shakespeare,  Dante, Stendhal, and the best of the classic Greek poets.      There is another side benefit to Turgenev.   You can read a great Russian classic novel that is under 200 pages!

Mel u


Mel said...

Hi Mel. This is a great review. What I love when one starts reading about the writers lives is how different writers knew and were friends with each other. I am currently reading the novel "The Master" by Colm Toibin based on the life of Henry James and love the context it gives to so many of the other writers of the time. One of my all time favourite classics is Madame Bovary by Flaubert. So it is fascinating to learn he was good friends with Turgenev.

I will be sure to add Diary of a Superflous Man to my TBR list. It sounds fascinating. Thanks for your very interesting review :)

Nora said...

Fathers and Sons is on my list of classics to read :). I'm looking forward to it now :)
Great review, I particularly appreciated the extract. It was incredibly well written and poetic :).
I believe I have Ford Madox Ford on my list as well as one by Stendhal :)
Can't wait :)

Rebecca Reid said...

"Nothing really important happens in this diary, in fact how could it?"

I think this is the definition of the superfluous person. I'm reading an anthology of various classic Russian stories and that is the common factor: the stories are all about nothing, just "self-absorbed" people. This seems like the defining book about it...

Mad_In_Love said...

"Nothing really important happens in this diary" - you say?
Is it serious?! Come on, guys!
There is a sex, a gun fire, an
intrigue (with the line of the
second lover, which becomes the
husband of the girl). There is a
cruelty of the man from the big
city and a misgudged goodness of
the man from the countryside!
It's the story about morans and
the strangeness of provincial
society. Everyone understands
that the noble man from the
capital never married poor, but
beautiful, women from province
town. Everybody understands that,
but prefers not to think that
way, becouse thay had so
boooooring life, that every event
is a great fun for them.