Liza by Ivan Turgenev

The copy of this book which I read was one which had originally belonged to my husband’s grandfather. It’s one of many books which we inherited from him and so is very old. I think that the title was changed to A Nest of Nobles at some point.

Although this is a very old translation, dating from 1869 I think, it’s a very good one as the book is really easy to read and doesn’t seem to be stilted or clunky in any way.

The only Russian authors I’ve read previously are Dostoevsky, Sholokov and Solzhenitsyn so I didn’t know what to expect with Liza. However, on one level this was a very straightforward read, the only difficulty is the number of variations of names which the characters are known by, but when I think about it, I am called by lots of different names, depending on who is speaking to me. I found the book to be a bit predictable but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it.

Liza is a pretty and charming 19 year old, the daughter of a widow, Maria Dmitrievna Kalitine. They live in the town of O. and she has attracted the attention of an ambitious 28 year old, Vladimir Nikolaevich Panshine who works in the Ministry of the Interior and is already a chamberlain.

Fedor Ivanovich Lavretsky arrives unexpectedly in the town of O. He is a relation of Maria Dmitrievna and is estranged from his wife Varvara Pavlovna Korobine who is the subject of gossip all over Europe. Lavretsky had met his wife in Moscow where he had enrolled as a mature student after the death of his father. Whilst there he had seen Varvara in a theatre box and had instantly fallen for her.

He arranged to meet Varvara and her parents and as Lavretsky was wealthy they were keen on a match with him. Varvara’s father soon took over the running of Lavretsky’s estate as he wasn’t interested in business.

Meanwhile Varvara and Lavretsky travel around Europe with Varvara becoming a society hostess, eventually reaching what was her idea of success – Paris, where her drawing-room was frequented by a variety of social climbers and ne’er-do-weels including a newspaper gossip columnist.

Eventually Lavretsky discovers the true character of Varvara, and for him the marriage is over.

He meets up with his distant relations again after deciding to take up residence in his nearby estate and sees Liza whom he hasn’t seen since she was a small girl.

So, you see what I mean about it being predictable.

The most interesting thing about this book is Turgenev’s attitude to what was normal behaviour in high society. He was at least two generations ahead of the times, even for people who weren’t ‘high-born’.

Turgenev describes how Lavretsky’s father had been educated abroad and had become an Anglomaniac “everything in him breathed, so to speak Great Britain.

The young Lavretsky had been dressed in Highland costume, with bare legs and a cock’s feather in his hat. (Poor wee soul)

This would have been around about the time that Sir Walter Scott’s books were wildly popular throughout Europe and there was a mania for all things tartan and Scottish.

The upshot of such behaviour is that the rich people have no knowledge of what should have been their own culture and return to their homeland as strangers with no feelings for or experience of the natives. Not even able to speak their mother tongue properly.

This still happens in Scotland, the landed gentry, clan chiefs and such like habitually send their sons to be educated in England, most usually at Eton. So you have the ludicrous mixture of a man in a kilt and sporran and yes a feather in his hat, but speaking with the plummiest English accent imaginable. They have absolutely no idea of real Scottish culture as the only thing they do is hunting, shooting and fishing on their estate.

Turgenev also comments on the plight of foreign workers, something else that hasn’t changed much.

Liza’s piano teacher is a German called Lemm and when he was young he decided to travel to Russia to make his fortune and name as a composer there. However after working for seven years in the household of a nobleman who hasn’t paid him for his services he discovers that the nobleman has squandered all of his money so Lemm has to depart penniless. He is too embarassed to go home and stays on in Russia as a poorly paid and under-rated teacher.

It’s quite depressing that nothing seems to have changed in all the years since Liza was written, but such is human nature and life.

I’ll definitely be reading more Russian literature now, thanks to The Classics Circuit and everyone involved with it.

12 thoughts on “Liza by Ivan Turgenev

  1. It may have been predictable, but it sounds pretty good. What is it with Russia and the Germans? In Oblomov the German character in that book is generally disparaged. I think this Classics tour is going to get me to read more Russian lit but also some history too because I am realizing I don’t know much about the country at all.

    • It’s definitely worth reading. I think I’ve just read too many books about unfaithful wives recently, all written by men of course! The Classics Circuit has definitely encouraged me to widen my reading experience. I’m going to be reading Laclos soon but I want to read Oblomov too.
      Russians and Germans have always been at each others throats, but I’ve only studied the Russian revolution at school and WW1 and 2. I’ll get around to going further back sometime I hope.

  2. Katrina,
    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this read. I’ve read a bit of Turgenev, but that was decades ago. I think my absolute, all-time favorite Russian novel is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, who won the Nobel Prize in 1957.

    Have you seen the David Lean-produced and directed movie of 1965? It’s my all-time #1 favorite movie. I first saw it with my older brother when I was 14 years old, and from that moment, I was immediately hooked on Russian literature and history.

    I have seen the movie a grand total of 8 times, and have read the novel once, the summer that I was 15. I adored it. Yes, I own the DVD and every now and then my husband and I shut the shades and watch it on a sultry summer afternoon.

    Reader in the Wilderness

    • Judith,
      I’ve seen Doctor Zhivago quite a few times, it’s one of my favourites too. I’ve had a paperback copy of the book for about 30 years. It was published in 1961 by Fontana, the cover reminds me of a Mondrian. The 540 pages have been putting me off all this time. Recently I’ve discovered that I can get through thick books fairly quickly, strange because I don’t skim read, so I hope to get to it soon.

      I used to read a lot of Russian history, all very tragic.

  3. That is one cool looking book! Is that a picture of the copy you read?! So beautiful. I haven’t read much Turgenev, thanks for telling about this one, even if it predictable!

    • Rebecca, We’re lucky enough to have quite a few of these lovely old books by Gogol, Turgeniev and Dostoieffsky as they were spelled in the early 1900s. The title pages are lovely, I was holding this one open but managed to crop out my thumbs.

      I still enjoyed reading the book, it’s just that I’ve been reading similar themes recently. I’m going to read more Russian lit. in general now.

  4. That’s so cool that you got read an antique book. I’ve only read Fathers and Sons by Turgenev and I did not love it. This sounds much more interesting — thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ve started The Brothers Karamazov and I’m very intimidated by the length, but will press on.

    • Karen, Hefty books are very off-putting especially when you have so many waiting their turn to be read. I recently bought War and Peace in hardback, I had it in paperback already but decided that I couldn’t stand the stress of avoiding breaking the spine. I think it’s going to be a Russian lit. summer! I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with The Brothers K.

  5. I think I’m going to add this one to my Russian TBR now. I’d like to try some more authors instead of just reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (talk about predictable).

    • Michelle,
      It’s worthwhile reading Liza especially as it is fairly short when compared with most Russian Lit. and it’s nice to get another Russian under your belt – so to speak. I think I’ll try Pasternak soon. Thanks for visiting.

  6. … I urge everyone to check out the Russian Film Hub and enrich their literary experience by viewing Russian interpretations of their own classics. The outstanding one being Bondarchuk’s seven hour version of War and Peace which is beyond outstanding. I have enjoyed movie versions of Anna Karenina, Resurrection, the Lady with the Little Dog, Oblomov, Liza (less successful), Boris Godunov, Gogol’s Dead Souls (5 episodes). These authentically Russian presentations of their OWN classics have added an extra dimension to the original works. Try it, you will be delighted and yes most of them have proper subtitles, the others have the close captioned titles – better than nothing but requiring familiarity with the originals …

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