Surviving Unrequited Love with Ivan Turgenev


Arts & Culture

I found out about Ivan Turgenev’s existence at a crucial moment. There had been a very small leap for me between obsessing over Anna Karenina in my midteens and deciding that learning Russian was my destiny. There was, unsurprisingly, an even smaller leap between becoming obsessed with learning Russian and becoming obsessed with unsuitable men who spoke Russian. This culminated in my acquaintance with a man whose name—Bogdan Bogdanovich—translated as “God’s Gift, Son of God’s Gift.” In many ways, he lived up to his name.

He was a man whom I loved with the passion that Anna Karenina first feels for Vronsky, but he regarded me with as much affection as Levin holds for the ladies who stink of eau de vinaigre. This is where Turgenev comes in. No one writes better about unrequited love. Real life is about quiet, slow, awkward moments of humiliation. And what greater humiliation is there than loving someone far, far more than they love you? This is the kind of embarrassing, self-inflicted fever that Turgenev is brilliant at describing.

In August 1994, I was twenty-one years old and spending the summer by the Black Sea in Odessa, Ukraine. It was the last few months of my year abroad. That summer was a blur of strong cigarettes, black bread, tea and jam, and whispered invitations on a Saturday night. I spent a lot of time drinking samogon (moonshine), eating pig fat, and being in love. He was in a rock band. They played songs in terrible English with titles like “I’m Not Drunk, It’s Only Fucking Funk.” I was his groupie. He was my world. We went everywhere together. We kissed. We laughed. We ate pig fat. I was drunk a lot of the time, but I was never too drunk to know that God’s Gift, Son of God’s Gift, did not love me in the same way that I loved him.

Luckily, while I was plowing my way through Tolstoy with a dictionary, I also happened to be reading in translation Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country. It is a cruel and hilarious cautionary tale about unrequited love. Turgenev himself experienced this unhappy state for more or less the entirety of his sixty-four years. From around the 1840s to the end of his life in 1883, Turgenev adored the married opera singer Pauline Viardot. The exact nature of their relationship is hotly debated. But it seems to me to be one of the most extreme examples of one-sided love in history. Turgenev represents his complicated feelings about this state of being through the mournful, resigned, comically self-pitying character of Rakitin. 

No character illustrates Turgenev’s state of hopeless anticipation better than Rakitin. He is described as a thirty-year-old friend of the family. You have to wonder if Turgenev was making his own little joke here, as he frequently referred to himself as a friend of the family when explaining his connection to Viardot. I now can’t hear the expression friend of the family without thinking that the person is trying to intimate that they are having an affair with someone in the family. Which is awkward, as it’s a fairly common expression to describe a completely innocent relationship, and now, whenever I hear it, I adopt an involuntary expression that says, Oh, no one believes you. There is clearly something else going on here. Friend of the family, indeed.

Written as a comedy in five acts, A Month in the Country is set at the country dacha of the Islayev family. The husband, a wealthy landowner, Arkady, is thirty-six. His wife, Natalya Petrovna, is twenty-nine. Yes, Turgenev lists the exact ages of the protagonists. It’s common to give age guidelines for characters in plays (Chekhov does it, too) but it’s unusual to do it for every single one, as Turgenev does. It makes you feel like he’s making a bit of a point. He wants to underline the age differences and generational rivalries.

This is already a mildly disastrous love triangle between two old friends (Islayev and Rakitin) and Islayev’s wife, Natalya. Largely indifferent toward her husband, Natalya is not interested in Rakitin either, although she toys with him a little, as he’s better company than the man she is married to. There can’t just be one pocket of misery, though. With two men already pining for a woman who doesn’t return their affection, why not even things out with an attractive twenty-one-year-old tutor, Alexei Belyaev, imported into the house to teach the Islayevs’ ten-year-old son, Kolya? Of course Natalya is going to fall in love with him. And he won’t love her back. Or will he? This is the dramatic tension in the comedy. Naturally, Natalya needs a rival: seventeen-year-old Vera, the family’s ward, taken in as an orphan and so close to marriageable age that a proposal is imminent from Bolshintsov (age forty-eight), a neighbor and friend of the family’s doctor, Shpigelsky (age forty). (Turgenev really does give an age to every single person on the cast list. This is either very annoying or very helpful to casting directors.)

More instances of unrequited love are added into the mix so that in the end, it’s a merry-go-round of people sighing over people looking the other way. Islayev and Rakitin love Natalya. She doesn’t love them. Natalya and Vera love Belyaev. He probably doesn’t love either of them. Bolshintsov loves Vera. She does not love him. Even the servants are caught up in this, Shakespeare-style: the German tutor has an eye for Katya, the maid, who is really not that into him.

Reading this play helped me enormously, as I could see the comedy of my own situation. It’s horrible when you love someone madly and they just think you’re vaguely tolerable. And yet, somewhere deep inside me, I did realize that the situation was funny on some level. It was hard to know which one of us was more ridiculous. Was it me, loving someone who clearly thought very little of me, or him, wasting his time with an English girlfriend he didn’t like that much and who frequently wore an oversize Aran sweater knit by her Northern Irish grandmother because she thought it made her look like Debbie Harry? (In fact, it made me look like a bag lady. You can see now why the passion of God’s Gift, Son of God’s Gift, was not ignited.)

Turgenev combines the horror and the comedy of this situation like no one else. There is little in the play to indicate Rakitin’s physical state, but you can imagine him making big saucer eyes at Natalya, looking at her like a puppy and generally behaving like a lovesick teenager. (Put him in an oversize Aran sweater and he could be me.) Most of his scenes are with Natalya, so we get to see him almost exclusively in this state, as if he’s incapable of existing in any other way. Being the victim of unrequited love defines his identity. In the scenes where Natalya isn’t present, Rakitin behaves and speaks much more like a normal, rational person. This is Turgenev’s idea of self-parody: he knows that love, especially unrequited love, makes fools of us all. And he knows what it’s like to be one of those fools.

Reading the play, I realized that Rakitin’s unrequited love is so extreme that it represents the best-ever argument for not bothering with this miserable one-sided state. “You wait!” Rakitin says in a rant to his rival Belyaev in the final act of the play. “You will know what it means to be tied to a petticoat, to be enslaved and poisoned—and how shameful and agonizing that slavery is! … You will learn at last how little you get for all your sufferings … ” We have to remember, of course, that this is a comedy. And it’s possible to get a laugh out of Rakitin’s condition. But there’s also something poignant here. Is this Turgenev talking? Is this how he felt all his life, up against Viardot? If he was writing this character to parody himself or to convince himself to change, he didn’t succeed. He wrote this play only several years into his acquaintance with Viardot. He had another three decades of it to go.

The reader knows the truth, though, whether about Turgenev or Rakitin. A mysterious force has not tied them to the petticoat. No. They have tied themselves there. And they rather like it. Realizing this made me blush. I also liked loving someone who did not love me that much. It was safe. I knew where I stood. There would be no unpleasant surprises. It was one of those moments where you feel a writer has seen straight into your soul.

Much later on in life, I learned that I needn’t have identified with Turgenev so readily. There’s no point in feeling sorry for him. Although he was madly in love with the on-off mistress who would never give up her other life for him, this didn’t stop him from having plenty of other ladies on the go. Not a bit of it. As Avrahm Yarmolinsky writes in his biography, Turgenev thought he was a better writer “when the page was warmed by the glow of a casual affair.” Maybe this is where I went wrong. I could have loved God’s Gift, Son of God’s Gift, and felt tortured and unloved but still had loads of other boyfriends. It didn’t occur to me for a second that variety might have solved my problem. I would have assumed it would make it worse. That’s possibly why I’m not a Russian playwright.

The more I learned about Turgenev, though, the more I understood that I very much liked him as a person. As well as Pauline Viardot never loving him as much as he wanted, he didn’t really get that much love back for his work either. A Month in the Country had a reception that can best be described as lukewarm. The great director Konstantin Stanislavsky called the play “boring and unstageable” even after he had cast himself in it as Rakitin. How insulting is that? You’re in a play you’ve chosen to stage, and you’re playing the lead, but you still think the play is awful. This was to be Turgenev’s lot in life: never quite appreciated for the talent he had.

However, there was a moment of sublime recognition, and it came during his lifetime. As the biographer and translator Rosamund Bartlett has pointed out, there was a time when Turgenev was known as the one and only great Russian writer. In the 1880s, Turgenev was more popular in translation and more famous a name than Tolstoy. Bartlett quotes from the British literary periodical the Saturday Review in 1905: “We remember mentioning his [Tolstoy’s] existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to realize the greater power of Tolstoy.” The novelist cited was almost certainly Henry James. To underline what’s being said here: Turgenev is more worth reading than Tolstoy. That’s a pretty good recommendation. Soon, though, both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky overtook Turgenev’s reputation both at home and abroad.

Nowadays, he’s not entirely reviled. He’s well known as a dramatist: his plays are popular onstage and adapted for the screen. But he’s not what you would call “up there” for everyone. The seeds for this fate were sown in the latter part of his career, when Turgenev, the writer first known abroad as the one and only voice of Russia, suddenly became seen as “too Western.” This was code for being too caught up with the aesthetics of the novel and not enough with the moral and spiritual principles of the characters. Virginia Woolf writes that he was appreciated “more for his formal artistry than for his political or social commentary.” “Formal artistry” is code for writing about human nature and the natural world and love and flowers, instead of writing about God and why the serfs should be emancipated. (This is slightly unfair, as Turgenev did believe the serfs should be emancipated and wrote about it, too.) Basically, Turgenev became more closely associated with the style of Henry James, Hemingway, and Flaubert. He was supposedly not enough like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to be properly Russian. This was—and is—both his charm and his downfall.

He was extremely entertaining and eccentric. He once said that the actress Sarah Bernhardt reminded him of a toad. He threw an inkwell at Pauline Viardot one time when she annoyed him. When he was suffering acutely from an undiagnosed, severe physical condition, only months away from death, immobile and miserable, he described himself as a “human oyster.” At the same time, he cheerfully undertook a “milk cure,” which, predictably enough, consisted of drinking nine or ten glasses of milk a day and not much else. He reported that it made him feel much better. He sat in bed and dictated his last short story, entitled, appropriately enough, “The End.” Later, it turned out that he had cancer of the spinal cord. No amount of milk is going to cure that.

I like to think of Turgenev as being charming and a bit bonkers. Virginia Woolf reviewed a biography of him under the title “A Giant with Very Small Thumbs.” This was not an unreasonable description. Woolf saw him as a literary giant. And he did have very small thumbs—by his own account, at least. In one account of Turgenev’s time in England, Anne Thackeray (eldest daughter of the Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray and stepaunt of Virginia Woolf) tells of the time she invited the Russian author to tea and he didn’t turn up. “I am so sorry I could not come,” he said later. “So very sorry. I was prevented. Look at my thumbs! … Yes, my thumbs! See how small they are. People with such little thumbs can never do what they intend to do, they always let themselves be prevented.”

Tolstoy was always wary of stating too much appreciation for Turgenev, although they had a cautious friendship for most of their lives, with occasional upsets. The two once had a huge falling-out when they disagreed over whether it was a good thing for Turgenev’s daughter to take in “the poor clothing of the paupers” for mending. Turgenev considered this a generous act of charity. Tolstoy thought it was pretentious and hypocritical. Turgenev uttered an unrecorded swear word. There’s also a suggestion that Tolstoy disapproved of the illegitimacy of Turgenev’s daughter, who was the child of a serf. (Which is silly in itself, as Tolstoy had also fathered a child by a serf, telling his wife about it just before they got married, which upset her immensely.) They later exchanged letters, variously demanding and requesting apologies, which culminated in Tolstoy challenging Turgenev to a duel. They both managed to wriggle out of this by sending more letters, and Tolstoy, during one of his religious phases, eventually apologized. Tolstoy writes that Turgenev “lives in luxury and idleness” but that he was “the most likable of pagans.”

Tolstoy and Turgenev did have some good times together, though, with Turgenev visiting Tolstoy at his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. He was well known among Tolstoy’s children for impersonating a chicken while eating soup. When Turgenev visited friends, he would make a great show of checking the two watches he carried at all times, one in the pocket of his (usually dark green velvet) jacket, one in the pocket of his waistcoat. He would get them both out and make certain they showed the same time. There’s a sense that he sometimes got a bit carried away with his own japes. He told Tolstoy’s children stories about Jules Verne, referring to him as “a stay-at-home and a frightful bore.” He was also happy to dance for them, just to amuse them, and to amuse himself. That night, in his diary, an unimpressed Tolstoy writes, “Turgenev’s can-can. Sad.”

I’m not sure I was directly influenced by A Month in the Country to take the course of action I took that summer in Odessa. But it must have played some part. There are several scenes of confrontation in the play where the person who is tragically in love decides to challenge the object of their affections directly. It is the moment of the greatest folly and the purest bravery. It is the moment of ultimate knowledge: love me or reject me. It was a moment I decided would happen on a beach in Odessa.

I was coming to the end of my time in Ukraine (where I was on holiday, at the end of my university year abroad in Russia) and would soon be facing my return to England. I needed to know whether God’s Gift, Son of God’s Gift, wanted to be with me or not. I wanted a commitment or, at the very least, an indication. Most Saturday nights, we would hang out on the beach with a group of people drawn from the band and its many hangers-on. The alcohol would run out at around ten P.M., and the party would move on to someone’s house. That night, I made sure it ran out more quickly than usual, by drinking as much of it as possible myself and discreetly pouring away plastic cupfuls of portvein (port wine—actually more like cough syrup) into the sand. Soon, the cry went up for beer, and most of the party headed up the sand dunes to the alcohol kiosk.

Ostanem’sya. Razdenem’sya,” I said, in the direction of God’s Gift, Son of God’s Gift—“Let us remain here and undress ourselves.” As soon as the last straggler had disappeared out of sight over the sand dunes, I began to take my clothes off. I had decided. On this night, I would not be English or Russian or anything. I would be myself. And I would do something reckless, just because I felt like doing it. (And also because I was really quite drunk.) I left my clothes in a neat pile on a slope above the waves and ran screaming into the foam—just as I remembered that I never went swimming in Odessa because the water was too polluted. When the water got up to my belly button, I started as something floated past me. It was an ice-cream wrapper printed with the word Eskimo. My reading speed in Cyrillic is equal to my reading speed in English now, I thought to myself, pleased.

Before my shoulders were under, I turned back—God’s Gift, Son of God’s Gift, was long gone, miles away up the beach. Unrequited love is painful and humiliating. Avoid it at all costs if you possibly can, while acknowledging that it’s almost impossible to avoid. Sometimes we have to do stupid things because we are inherently foolish. If Tolstoy had been around to write in his diary that day, he would have put: “Viv’s skinny-dip. Sad.”


Viv Groskop is a journalist, comedian, and author of The Anna Karenina Fix.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from The Anna Karenina Fix, by Viv Groskop, published October 23 by Abrams Press.