On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev is a love story, the plot of which most of us today would find commonplace. When the novel first appeared, however, this story of a young upper class Russian lady falling in love with a Bulgarian revolutionary caused quite a stir among its readers.
With the novel’s publication in 1861, the book’s translator Gilbert Gardiner commented in the introduction, “People argued about the heroes of the story as they might have done about the real people – their characters, their conduct and their importance to Russia.”
It is midway into the 19th Century. Bulgaria is under Turkish rule. On the eve of the Crimean War, Insarov, a poor Bulgarian student secretly working for the Bulgarian independence movement, is in Moscow. He is introduced by his friend, a Russian student named Bersyenev, to the beautiful Elena Stahov.
Among the Stahov’s household lived another friend of Bersyenev, the eccentric young artist Shubin, who with the former is in love with Elena. The rest is predictable enough. The two are bested by Insarov, the revolutionary who, concerned only with the cause, does not pay attention to Elena. When he does realize his reciprocal feelings for the young lady, he tries to leave the company of his Russian friends, saying, “I’m a Bulgarian… I don’t need the love of a Russian woman.” But of course the two get past that stage. They secretly marry, earn the ire of Elena’s parents, and leave for Bulgaria, which all lead to a tragic ending.
Insarov’s unswerving commitment for the emancipation of his native country’s independence gives him a romantic aura in the eyes of Elena. Insarov’s singleminded devotion to his cause sets him apart from the seemingly meaningless lives of the aristocratic Russians, as exemplified by his father’s infidelities and epitomized in Russian literature by the figure of the superfluous man. Contrasting Insarov to one of Elena’s sleek aristocratic suitors, Shubin observes:
[I]n one case there’s a genuine, living ideal inspired by life itself – whereas here there’s not even a sense of duty, but simply an official honesty and superficial, practical ability… p. 153
The novel gives one a glimpse of the themes of generational conflicts and social upheavals that Turgenev will explore more fully in Fathers and Sons, which I read late last year, and his last book Virgin Soil, which I am also presently reading. One can see a hint of this, for example, in the complaints of Elena’s father:
[N]ow a young lady talks to whom she likes and reads what she likes. She sets off across Moscow without a footman or maid just as they do in Paris – and it’s all taken for granted… p. 186
Turgenev is seen as a precursor to his more famous heirs, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.* On the Eve is based on a memoir written by a friend of Turgenev’s. Reading the novel, with its combination of brevity and depth characteristic of Turgenev’s light but insightful prose, is simply a pleasure. ■
* Also, Turgenev’s novels are way shorter than any of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy’s thicker tomes. My copy of On the Eve is only 234 pages long, Virgin Soil is 320 pages long, while Fathers and Sons is only 244 pages long.