Reflections on Reviewing, Reading and Turgenev

Around fourteen years ago, I began writing in this space about what I’ve come to think of as my experience of reading. The books written about here reflect less of a personal canon than those that offered sufficient satisfaction that I read the book from cover to cover. I make this statement without being certain of who  I am, the “I” that is writing, or what I mean by satisfaction. Both are shortcuts offered to me by my language,

Writing reviews interests me because however much I attempt to avoid the personal, every review becomes, however impersonal, a reflection on what matters to the reviewer. Writing what I am calling a review, while not seeing myself as a reviewer, often helps me discover something of what matters to me. I don’t particularly like to read literary criticism, but some critics I do read with interest, for instance: Steve Mitchelmore, Merve Emre, Ryan Ruby and Dustin Illingworth. I read their reviews less for their subject matter, as intriguing as it always is,  and more for what they lay bare about themselves, however masked, in their concerns for the internal worlds of fiction. What their writing has in common with the books in which I find what I am calling satisfaction is voice. To offer a further example, one of my favourite blogs about books, an eudaemonist – the single-line reviews add up, however wrong my impression, to a particular barometer reading of the writer’s internal weather that compels me to keep reading.

Believe it or not, when I decided to use a window opened up by early morning insomnia, it was to offer a few thoughts on Ivan Turgenev’s Father and Sons and why for a while at least I intend to return to my practice of reading books with ten years or more of age, For every Septology, there are at least fifty contemporary novels I  have not read cover to cover and rather abandoned to the pile to go to the local bookshop. I feel like reading against the grain and those books that have weathered time interest me.

The satisfaction of Fathers and Sons (I read Richard Freeborn’s Oxford translation, aware that all later translators revert to Fathers and Children), is how Turgenev uses his characters to reflect on the supposed wisdom that comes with age. Maturity is more frequently a learned caution not to repeat past mistakes that have opened one up to revelation and embarrassment. The freshness of youth expressed in the younger members of Turgenev’s cast of characters comes from their willingness to expose their vulnerabilities. Staying young, if such a state is desired, is less a question of vitamins than a continual opening up to opportunities to be vulnerable.

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