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Discover the Beautiful, Cruel World in Turgenev's A Hunter's Album

Updated on October 23, 2016

Disturbing compositions, rendering striking images

Contemplating an old masters paintings: first, a boy and his bird. An expression of fear and shock forever imprinted on that bird. Alas, a cat attacked it and though it survived, later a rat bit off its beak.

This is a disturbing composition, rendering striking images. Still, there is elegance in the rendering and an intricacy not immediately perceived.

Surviving in a hut, a formerly healthy and beautiful girl, whose joy was dance and song. Now in her 30s, on her own, paralyzed and atrophied. In spite of tragedies, serenity settled on that fate tested face.

Another one: in a clearing a wealthy young man acting cruel towards his conquest, a village girl. The hunter and the hurting pray. Her helplessness is remarkably vivid. One fantasizes a way of helping her, envisions a happier resolution to her story.

These are crumbles of the profoundness that Sketches from a Hunter's Album: The Complete Edition (Penguin Classics) offers. This is Turgenev’s collection of short stories, not actual paintings, works of art nonetheless.

"When I was a child I had a little bird, which had once been caught by the cat in its claws; it was saved and tended, but the poor bird never got right; it moped, it pined, it ceased to sing.."
"When I was a child I had a little bird, which had once been caught by the cat in its claws; it was saved and tended, but the poor bird never got right; it moped, it pined, it ceased to sing.."

Beyond its politics and social injustices, the world is a beautiful one

Similar to one of the characters mentioned, the narrator is a huntsman. In spite of his position, he is a sympathetic witness of nature. This huntsman glances under the veil of a troubled world. 19th century Russia, when nearly all villagers were childlike and all their lives - dependence. A place in time when simple people were serfs on a lord of the manor's land. What today are ones peers or neighbors, appeared as underdeveloped and under-capable beings. The mind blocks such realities.

This is not an up worthy nor a depressing read. It’s an effort of raising consciousness on a reality: it is what it is, actually, it was what it was.

The album numbers 25 sketches. Stories of serfs, professionals from that time (a miller, a doctor), neighbors, and lords of the manor. Day and night, danger and happiness. Turgenev muses over a community of friendly and pleasant people, their children, also over the bad lots - poor and rich alike.

There are circles inside circles in his depictions. The circle of personal stories and details is found inside one displaying the community. These also become absorbed into an implicit one presenting societal and political norms. The last one, including all mentioned before and shading a warmer light on them, the background circle of nature and fauna. Beyond its politics and social injustices, the world is a beautiful one.

“the deep, pure blue stirs on one’s lips a smile, innocent as itself; like the clouds over the sky, and, as it were, with them, happy memories pass in slow procession over the soul”
“the deep, pure blue stirs on one’s lips a smile, innocent as itself; like the clouds over the sky, and, as it were, with them, happy memories pass in slow procession over the soul”

One still finds restorative power in Turgenev's world

There is a deep love for nature in these sketches. Turgenev describes the environment amazingly. The hunter is never a usurper nor a destroyer, he appears as a pursuer of beauty. He does profit from this world, but with respect.

People and societal representations are complex in their detail, emotionality and diversity. They converge towards one vision: realism.

However, the complexity of nature's depiction resides in the bigger tableau. Imagined as paintings they do not form a thread leading towards a purpose. They are a gallery of longings and belongings.

The imagined gallery displays realistic paintings - Courbet comes to mind. Also romanticist ones (Turner) and it even finds space for impressionism luminosity. It is a skillful achievement. Realism in social and political descriptions and on the other hand, an uplifting, expanded vision for nature.

The landscape sustains the human life. There, human life can escape in order to recover. It is compelling that with the distance of years passed and the distance of social advances, one still finds restorative power in Turgenev's world.

The starting point in approaching Turgenev's stories ought to be the need for knowledge and historical accuracy. Its importance prevails. One starts a journey into the hunter's world to gain a more valuable understanding of his times. Yet, what digests is this world's beauty and the arresting character descriptions.

How do a beakless bird and an abandoned invalid find a place in the world transformation process? How did a hunter innovate reality? In real life Turgenev was “the hunter”, born into a landowner's family. As already remarked, he is one sympathetic towards his characters. That is to say not empathetic.

The storyteller is never someone else than himself, but he stays detached. Perhaps, stories immersing completely in such cruel experiences would have been unbearable to read. As it stands, this book had major impact, being linked with the serfdom abolition. It was also Turgenev's first remarkable work.

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