What Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel Fathers and Sons was doing on my high school English reading list is beyond me. I taught English myself for more than a dozen years and never included that particular Russian, nor even saw Fathers and Sons in the book room of any school where I ever worked.
But there it was in 1987, on Mr. Shinkle’s syllabus, tucked in with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Madame Bovary. I loved Kesey, read Flaubert, and never cracked the cover of Turgenev.
Over the years, particularly when I was teaching English, I thought about that.
For a long time as an English teacher I believed that I needed to curate my students’ reading list. I was the one with the college education after all. I had ideas about what books were important, what books mattered.
Sometimes I think I was almost right.
I marshaled my kids through The Odyssey, Hamlet, Huck Finn, all the classics. Frankenstein I came back to year after year, and I had a unit that swung like a gate on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That one took me a long time to get right.
As a more veteran teacher my tastes expanded, and I was happy to add Haruki Murakami, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison to my reading list, but it was still my reading list.
A few more years in I allowed myself to let the kids choose. They did, and what they did broadened my own understanding. We were way past The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter by then, and the kids were excited about what they were reading.
I could still introduce them to Virginia Woolf or John Barth, pull back the curtains on Tennessee Williams or share a plum with William Carlos Williams, but the students were showing me authors I’d never heard of and more important than that they were talking with each other about the literature that brought to life a spark in them.
I’ve been an administrator now long enough that I almost forgot about that.
Then, last week, walking in the hallway outside the library of the school where I’m now the principal I spotted it on the rolling cart of library discards. Fathers and Sons.
The sign on the cart read:
Please take one
Never bring it back to ACMA
If you decide you do not want it, give it to a friend, or leave it somewhere, like a waiting room. Thanks!
The ghost of Mr. Shinkle whispered for me to pick it up. I did.
Over spring break I spent some time with Bazarov, a staunch nihilist I hadn’t really been introduced to when I was seventeen; Arkady, his friend, too nice to be a true misanthrope; Nikolai Petrovich, a patriarch and decent man; and Odintsova, the powerful woman whose charisma wound through so many lives.
Fathers and Sons is a novel with lots of big ideas and contemplation on youth and age. At the risk of sounding like that book report my teenage self never turned in, the novel follows two sons, just out of college and at the start of their adult lives, and two fathers (along with assorted wives, lovers, uncles, and hangers on) who carry with them the scuffs and scars of lives long lived.
It is a book that wrestles with romanticism, questions meaning, and ultimately shows (in a more realistic way than I’d expected) the tension between generations.
Early in the story a son is prompted to take his father’s book of poetry away and replace it with something more sensible. “A couple of days ago I saw him reading Pushkin,” the son remarks. His young friend replies: “Please tell him that’s no good at all. He’s not a child any longer and it’s time he gave up that childish nonsense. Fancy being a romantic at the present day! Give him something worthwhile to read.” So the father allows his book to be replaced with something modern and German. It works as well as a rubber anvil.
That’s not to say nihilism wins in the end; Pushkin looms large throughout the book, and I was pleased to see that those characters who fared best in the end were the ones who had been kindest throughout the narrative. I might have thought that trite a few decades back. I appreciate it all today.
Literature has a way of finding us when we need it. The providence of a falling sparrow Hamlet talked about and all that, another book Mr. Shinkle taught me.
I’m the father now, not the son, and the book I dodged as a teenager felt different on my nightstand as an adult. Those passages where Turgenev talks about the simultaneous folly and power of youth mean something different to me now than they would have if I’d read them thirty some years ago, when instead I was thinking about the 80s version of what high schoolers still think about today: love, belonging, one’s place in the world …and socializing, eating cheap pizza, and having fun after school.
I’m more patient now as a reader, embracing the tangents and loose focus of the narrative, the familiarity of the author, and the pauses for history lessons. As a fellow approaching fifty, I appreciated Turgenev’s non sequiturs like the line: “It is a well known fact that our provincial towns burn down every five years,” offered without explanation and left behind as quickly as it came up.
I also dug those passages that just felt true: “Arkady was puzzled and watched her in the way that young people watch -that is to say, constantly asking himself what it all meant.”
Heavens, that was me at seventeen.
With gray in my hair, I empathize with a different cast of characters than I would have in 1987. Sure, I can smile at Bazarov’s youthful arrogance and Arkady falling in love, but those are not the fellows I relate to most. Instead, it is in the fathers, not the sons, that I find feelings that resonate.
Midway through the novel, when one young protagonist leaves home, tired of what he considers his tiresome parents and longing to return to a woman he finds interesting and world he sees as his to take, one of the fathers of the title bemoans being “given up” by his son. At eighteen I’m sure I would have identified with that son, headed off to conquer the world; a father now myself, I read this passage, where a wise wife comforts her husband, differently:
There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.”
My wife and I celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary over spring break, taking our kids out for dinner. More mushroom now that falcon, I hear in Turgenev something beautiful and true, something I couldn’t have understood in 1987 …not even if I’d read the Fathers and Sons.
I won’t take the book back to the rolling library cart; I’m enough of a rule follower not to do that. Though Bazarov would, I suppose. Instead, I’ll tuck it on the bookshelf in my office, a reminder that so much of our stories, and how we understand the stories around us, is a matter of perspective. Maybe that was the lesson Mr. Shinkle wanted me to learn.