A Sportsman’s Notebook (also called A Sportsman’s Sketches) contains short vignettes and stories by Ivan Turgenev, written in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of the Russian classics we’re familiar with in English, this collection is not packed with Sturm und Drang. Rather, Turgenev’s narrator takes along on his travels around the Russian countryside, from forests to marshes to meadows, inviting us into his conversations with the strange people he meets while hunting.
The “stories” in A Sportsman’s Notebook are rarely complete stories in the way we’re used to. Most of them center on a conversation the narrator has with landowners and serfs. (The stories are all set before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.) As the narrator rambles around the Orel Oblast in western Russia, he is frequently invited into the ramshackle manors of down-at-their-heel gentry. Sometimes darkness or bad weather lead him to seek shelter in sheds and offices with the lower classes and serfs. These are some of my favorites in the collection because the narrator often pretends to be asleep, so that he can listen in. My absolutely favorite story in the collection is one where the narrator “sleeps” under a bush near some teenaged serfs as they swap knowledge, half of which is folklore but treated as useful woodlore by the group.
While the narrator provides a bit of authorial distance, the introduction to this republished edition of Turgenev’s stories explains that they are based on the author’s own life at Spasskoye, where he lived with his tyrannical mother. It’s not surprising, then, that many of these stories show the bleakness of serfdom. Many of the serfs the narrator meets have been subject to bizarre acts of autocracy: sudden transfers, dictated clothing, refusals to allow them to marry, constant attempts to change how they work and farm with disastrous consequences. And yet, the narrator only finds one person who is willing to help right wrongs in the hinterlands—and he’s only willing to do so for a fee. Everyone else the narrator talks to falls into two camps. There are the ones who are, if not content, unwilling to change things. The others, thankfully more rare, take advantage of the stagnation and bewildering bureaucracy to make little kingdoms for themselves where they can skim off any profits. The system is so broken in rural Russia it was no surprise to me how fatalistic everyone was.
I can understand the affection that this collection still has for readers, even more than a century. Unlike so many of those Russian classics that we know of without having read them, with their high drama and philosophy, A Sportsman’s Notebook is a slice of life in a vanished world. As I read it, I was charmed by the descriptions of the wild places the narrator visits. It’s clear that the narrator and Turgenev loved nature. I was less charmed by the people, who are rarely shown to their advantage, but I feel like I learned a lot about the conditions that lead to the terrible upheavals of the twentieth century. The men that the narrator meets are the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of revolutionaries. There’s so much more that can be said about A Sportsman’s Notebook, but I don’t want to blather. I’ll simply say, if you’re looking for something that will show you the real, vanished Russia of the Tsars, give this book a try.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.