Monday, January 19, 2009

A Sportman's Notebook, by Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich

Another recommendation from our Adult Fairy Tales display: A Sportman's Notebook, by Ivan Turgenev. Sherwood Anderson once called A Sportsman's Notebook "the sweetest thing in all literature."

The narrator of “Bezhin Meadow,” my favorite story in this collection, is a lost hunter, traveling in the Russian countryside. Turgenev incorporates long descriptions of nature and folk legends to create the foreboding mood and foreshadow Pavlusha’s fate (one of the village boys).

The story begins with a lyrical description of a beautiful summer day, of the landscape enveloped in lilac mist, where towards evening “ a scarlet radiance lingers for a short time over the darkened earth and, flickering softly, like a candle that is carried with great care, the evening star twinkles faintly in the sky." The hunter looks for a way out of this enchanted place, while a quail cries and a small night bird “shied away in alarm.” The sensation created here is of desolation and loneliness of a man against vast nature, a sensation similar to Chekhovian view of nature insensitive to human suffering. As if bewitched by the beauty of this fairyland, the hunter finds himself in a low-lying hollow that resembles a cauldron. He keeps walking until he comes to the edge of “a terrible precipice.”

Right below, the hunter sees campfire by the river and five peasant boys sitting around it. As he lies down to rest and pretends to be asleep, the boys begin to talk openly. The narrator singles out Pavlusha, “He was an uncouth lad, there is no denying it, and yet I liked him for all that: he had an intelligent, frank look, and in his voice too there was a note of authority."

The night is long and the boys tell eleven local folktales populated with different mythical deities. The unifying theme of all the stories is death. A goblin lives in the old paper-mil and walks about at night. Gavrilo, the village carpenter, after getting lost one night in the woods, encounters a water nymph, sitting on a branch and beckoning to him. Old Yermil crosses the haunted dam where the grave of a drowned man lies. One night Yermil sees a white lamb on the man’s grave and takes the pretty lamb with him on his horse, only to find out that the lamb is not as innocent as it appears! In another legend the ghost of a dead master walks about looking for a magic herb for his grave that presses too heavily on him. Ulyana, a woman from their village, envisions her own death after a white dove appears out of nowhere, the symbol of the lost dead soul. Pavlusha goes to the river to fetch water and upon returning, tells the boys he heard drowned boy Vassily’s voice calling him from under the water to join him.

Each folktale is just another take on a sudden, violent death. By telling the stories of goblins, water nymphs, evil water spirits and lamenting souls, Turgenev foreshadows the inevitability of Pavlusha's fate and human mortality.

I read somewhere that this was Hemingway's favorite book which he had read over and over again.

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