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Home of the Gentry (4 Stars)

The serendipity of browsing library stacks brought me to this Ivan Turgenev masterpiece. At less than 200 pages it is readable on a long plane flight.

Home of the Gentry is the tale of a middle aged man Fyodor Lavretsky returning to his roots. His marriage to the beautiful, yearning Europhile Varvara is a wreck. “The waltz which she had played rang in her head and excited her; no matter where she was, she had only to imagine to herself lights, a ballroom, and rapid circling to the sound of music for her soul literally to catch fire, her eyes to become strangely glassy, a smile to hover on her lips and something elegantly Bacchanalian to pervade her whole body.” (pp 173-4)

He is soon eager for another life with the pure Russian maiden Liza. This is not just a rebound relationship for the ages. Lavretsky wants reconciliation  with Russia itself. “…the whole of this picture of Russia, which he had not seen for so long, evoked in him sweet and simultaneously anguished feelings and oppressed his heart with a kind of pleasant sadness. His thoughts took a slow wandering course; their outlines were as vague and troubled as the outlines of those high and also seemingly wandering clouds.” (p. 82)

Russia and Lavretsky are both torn between native traditions and the pull of Europe. Dostoevsky is in my top three writers (or was, in college, while particularly susceptible to the pull of philosophical drama) but he’s never subtle about this theme the way Turgenev is. Home of the Gentry pulls off a rare feat in literature:  characters so finely drawn to effectively serve as both archtypes and believable individuals. I was even rooting for the villains to get what they want, were it not for the conflict with our protagonist(s).

The pulls of cosmopolitan and native instincts is familiar politically to us today of course. I’m not sure there is an instructive lesson in the work, other than to remind oneself that these are not new questions people wrestle with. All that is an after effect reading Turgenev. I was absorbed rooting for Fyodor and Liza.

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