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.