At the banquet in the Corn Exchange on Edinburgh's Grassmarket, the guest speaker rose to his feet. 'Of all that sacred legion of great men,' he declared, 'who, though foreign to its soil, have taken part in the intellectual development of Russia, no-one perhaps has earned more gratitude, has gained more affection, than Walter Scott, and proud and happy am I to be this day the interpreter to Scott's compatriots of that affection and that gratitude'.
The audience cheered, but the speaker felt that all was not well. He had been uncertain and nervous in his delivery. English, after all, was not his native tongue (and the above text is based on a newspaper report which he later corrected). Was that crowd before him really all that interested in Russian literature? When the toastmaster had announced him as 'Mr Turkeynuff', it felt ominous.
For Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818-83), the distinguished Russian novelist, the Scott Centenary of 1871 ought to have been an occasion of unalloyed delight. He was staying at the Caledonian Hotel and from his room could have enjoyed the view of his literary hero's city. The train journey from King's Cross, however, had worn him out, the heat was oppressive, he felt lonely and anxious as he made his way to the Grassmarket.
If only he could have found comfort in the thought that his English was likely to be better than his audience's Russian.
His masterpiece Fathers and Children
(1862) is one of the key works of Russian literature. As the title suggests, it concerns tensions between the young and the old, and how those relate to the conflicts in society as a whole: the private sphere is a microcosm of the public sphere. In this novel, the older generation guards its romantic idealism, its taste for the arts; the younger, represented by the brisk and intense Bazarov, holds equally fast to a hard-headed practicality and to scientific solutions to social ills – 'A decent chemist,' he insists 'is 20 times more useful than any poet'. The fathers are too sentimental and nostalgic; the children look to a drastically transformative future.
Walter Scott's historical novels had set the standard for fictional characters who were at once convincingly individualised and at the same time representative of their class in times of great upheaval. Their personal trajectories, however unique in details, were still true to type. In Rob Roy
(1817), the eponymous hero – or should that be ex-hero – is of the waning clan system and is memorably confronted by his kinsman Bailie Nicol Jarvie, the quintessential member of the rising urban bourgeoisie.
The parallels with Fathers and Children
are clear, but Turgenev may not necessarily have been conscious of them: Patrick Waddington in his misguidingly titled Turgenev in England
(1981), to which I'm indebted for his account of our man's Scottish séjour, argues that Turgenev's understanding of Scott was too romantic, naïve, insufficiently ironic. (It was, one might add, a quite un-Bazarovian response).
Following the Edinburgh débâcle, Turgenev headed up to Pitlochry. 'Nowhere in the world is there such an air,' he wrote, 'as in the north of Scotland; it is a joy to breathe it'. He proceeded to Loch Tummel and to the glorious Twelfth: one wonders if in his gun sights, as he blasted away, he would have had a vision of his Edinburgh audience. Even the shoot, however, was a disappointment to someone from a country where it was part of the rural culture.
His book of short stories, Sketches from a Hunter's Album
(1852), with its compassionate treatment of the country folk (if not of its wildlife) is believed to have contributed to the mood which led to the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The lyricism of the stories, and their evocation of the Russian landscape, look forward to short fiction of Anton Chekhov and to the paintings of Chekhov's friend Isaac Levitan.
As for that later writer's reception in Scotland, it has proved to be more successful than Turgenev's experience of his own welcome. Nevertheless Alan Bennett reports, in his Untold Stories
(2005), an actor friend's witness when playing Chekhov in Edinburgh, and afterwards overhearing a lady member of the audience, who remarked: 'There was a lot of laughter at the end of the first act, but I soon put a stop to that'. Moreover, the same actor was appearing at Perth in Chekhov's best-known play, and noted an unawareness of its inexorably doomed trees: the production was billed as The Cheery Orchard
. Perhaps the Russians could be conceded the last laugh at such insularity.
Dr Tom Hubbard is a Scottish poet, novelist and retired professor who has worked in France, the USA, Hungary and Ireland