I have just finished reading this work of some 160 years ago. Why have I been doing this? Well, I had so much enjoyment reading Tolstoy’s The Cossacks I decided to go with another of the great Russian writers, besides it was right next to Tolstoy on one of our bookshelves. Also, it has become much warmer now than it was so by about 10:30 a.m. I can no longer work outside. What better way to spend some time in the afternoon reading in the relative cool of the house. But, you may ask, isn’t such a book badly “dated?” Yes, in many ways it is, but when you consider that human nature seems not to change much, we still experience many of the same passions, conflicts, life experiences, and follies that people always have, certain themes have changed very little. Besides, great literature never truly goes out of style, which is why books like this rarely go out of print for long.
I had not read this particular work previously and I must say I found it rather fascinating for a number of reasons. First, Turgenev is a fine writer and reading his prose is a pleasure. It has been said that of all the Russians he is probably the most difficult to translate because of the nature of his prose and the fact that he sometimes wrote in the manner of speech characteristic of the “lower classes” (serfs and peasants). Turgenev was a member of the Russian upper class, owning villages and serfs. He was also an avid hunter (mostly of birds). With his various hunting dogs and a serf to aid him he apparently spent a great deal of time at this pursuit. This book is an account of the people and places he encountered. As one of the first Russian “realists” he presents pictures (in prose) of what life was like during the 1850’s in Russia. This can be seen in the fact that the pieces collected in this book are difficult to characterize. They are not short stories but, rather like vignettes, little descriptions of encounters he had with different characters and locales. They have no plots, no morals, no condemnations, no analyses, they just present the reader with what it is the author saw and heard without commentary. They are truly “notes.” What I found of the most interest, being an anthropologist (or at least an ex-anthropologist), was that the books could almost as easily have been titled “An Ethnographer’s Notebook.” Ethnography, the description of other ways of life, was the main preoccupation of American Anthropologists beginning with Boas and lasting until the time of Sputnik. The early great American Anthropologists, following the lead of Franz Boas, believed it was their responsibility to record the different “ways of life” of cultures that were quickly disappearing, and they did so often in excruciating detail. After Sputnik the government immediately poured huge sums of money into scientific research of all kinds. Some of this money made it to anthropology which quickly strove to become “scientific” as that’s where the money was. “Mere ethnography” came to be frowned upon. In order to get grants one had to have a (scientific) “problem” of some sort. “Problem-oriented research” was the fashion of the day. Traditional ethnography was commonly badly written, pretty dull stuff, of interest only to specialists in the field, but the turn to the more scientific approach did little or nothing to improve the writing of anthropological materials.
Some anthropologists, aware of the limitations of ethnographic reportage (which continued in spite of the change in orientation, because even those with problem-oriented projects still had to describe “their” tribes or peoples), began to try to write in a more novelistic style (they wanted to appeal to the public, not just to other anthropologists). Probably the most important and earliest contribution to what is sometimes referred to as “ethnographic fiction” (an existant but little known genre) was the book The Delight Makers, by Adolf Bandelier, but there were others as well (Elsie Clews Parsons edited a book on American Indians that consisted of fictional accounts by a large number of well-known anthropologists of that period). Later there were other attempts, some quite fine, like Return to Laughter by Laura Bohannan (under a pseudonym as such attempts were frowned on by the profession), The High Valley by Kenneth Read, and many others not so well known. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were often criticized for being too “novelistic” (and by implication not scientific enough).
Anyway, this raises some interesting questions for ethnography and anthropology. Namely, what is the real difference between ethnography and fiction, a subject far too complex for this blog, but interesting in the case of Turgenev and some other fine writers. Turgenev was writing notes that were realistic descriptions of what he saw and experienced, precisely what ethnographers had always done. But unlike ethnographers, Turgenev was a brilliant and exceptional author whose descriptions far surpassed anything one would find in anthropology. Interestingly, it is because his writing is so descriptive and beautiful at the same time that one does not perceive it as ethnographic description. It appears that it is the writing itself that was Turgenev’s goal, or at least was of equal or more importance than merely factual reporting. So one might ask, what is the proper writing style to convey other ways of life? Anthropologists were not trained in writing and just muddle along as best they could. Balzac said at one point that his goal was to describe “the manners and customs of the France of his time,” and in fact did so in many volumes. There is, I know, a tremendous amount of ethnography in fiction if you take the trouble to look for it. This is especially true in the genre of literary realism, take Truman Capote’s much touted “Non-fictional novel,” In Cold Blood, for example. Thus if you wish to know what life was like in Russia of the 1850’s, before serfdom was abolished, read A Sportsman’s Notebook (in fact this book was partly responsible for the end of serfdom in Russia).