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Turgenev's The Torrents of Spring and Eliot's The Waste Land.

Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), with his exotic subject matter, graceful prose and acute perception, was the first Russian writer to attract European readers and establish an international reputation. The charming giant of a man, the most westernized, accessible and companionable Russian author of his time, was universally admired for his devotion to literature. T.S. Eliot, writing about Turgenev thirty-four years after his death, saw him as a kindred spirit, a cosmopolitan expatriate (like Henry James) who had an exemplary artistic career while living in exile in Germany and France. In his essays Eliot identified with Turgenev and used him to create a rationale for remaining in England during and after the Great War instead of returning, as his family wished, to take up his promising career in America. Ezra Pound, writing to Eliot's father in June 1915, pleaded on his friend's behalf, contrasting European culture with American provinciality: "Henry James stayed in Paris and read Turgenev and Flaubert, Mr. Howells returned to America and read Henry James" (Letters of T.S. Eliot [Lon: Faber, 1988]: 102). But the question of remaining in Europe was not the only conflict in Eliot's life that connected him to Turgenev. He was also desperately anxious and unhappy about his difficult marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, and thought the Russian novelist, more than anyone else, had "understood and described his own emotional and sexual anguish."

The epigraph to the The Torrents of Spring suggests Turgenev's theme, the sweet intensity and inevitable loss of youthful passion: "The laughter-filled years, / The happiest days--/ Like the torrents of spring / They've all rushed away!" (Ivan Turgenev, Five Short Novels [NY: Bantam, 1961]: 297). In the story the elderly Sanin, remembering his disillusioned youth in Germany, describes how he had fallen in love with an Italian girl, Gemma Roselli, after saving her brother from a serious illness. He even fights a duel for her, shooting at and missing his opponent, who then honorably fires into the air. Gemma, realizing her love for Sanin, and intending to marry him, breaks her engagement to a German shopkeeper. Sanin hopes to sell his Russian estates to Maria Nikolaevna Polozov, a rich and beautiful married woman from a peasant background, who's living in Germany. But the sexually voracious, even insatiable Maria is determined, merely to amuse herself, to corrupt his virtuous love for Gemma and transform it into a sexual passion for herself. After the animalistic excitement of a ride into the mountains and through a dark forest, Maria seduces Sanin in a woodman's hut. Like a succubus, Maria enslaves and degrades him, and amuses her gluttonous, complaisant husband with an account of her conquest. At the end of the story she cruelly discards the bitterly deluded Sanin, who lives to regret his lustful aberration.

All the principal characters in this novella--Sanin, Gemma, Maria and her husband--are expatriates. Turgenev characteristically contrasts the pure, strong-hearted woman and the weak-willed, indecisive man. Though Sanin admires Gemma's virtue and beauty, he betrays her by yielding to sexual passion, a powerful force that overwhelms his reason. Just before they ride into the mountains, Maria associates their sexual adventure with freedom and exclaims: "Well, now we're free as the birds! ... Where shall we go--north, south, east, west? ... It's all ours! No, you know what: see how wonderful the mountains are--and that wonderful forest! Let's go there, to the mountains! In die Berge, wo die Freiheit thront! [In the mountains, where freedom reigns]" (410). But Sanin's freedom is a delusion. He enjoys the pleasure of passion, but loses his freedom by submitting to degradation with Maria. By doing so, he also loses his true love, Gemma Roselli.

Eliot specifically mentions Sanin and Maria in his review of the novel and was influenced by the novella. As he wrote in 1920, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal" (Eliot, Selected Essays [NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1932]:182). The opening of The Waste Land, which repeatedly portrays the failure of love, transfers Turgenev's German scene from the Taunus mountains near Frankfurt to the Bavarian Alps near Munich. As in Torrents, the poem mixes "memory and desire." An expatriate Lithuanian, insisting that he's not a despicable Russian, claims that he's really a German. Marie, a well born woman, recalls her childhood fear when sledding precipitously in the "forgetful" yet memorable snow of the mountains. Eliot gives his heroine the same name as Turgenev's Maria and boldly lifts the German line right out of the Russian story, while making "In the mountains, there you feel free" more colloquial, personal and dramatic than "In die Berge, wo die Freiheit thront!" (Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays [NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1958]: 37). Marie's freedom, like Sanin's, is both illusory and ironic. She claims to feel free in the mountains, but remembers her childhood fear and escapes to the south, to the Mediterranean, in the winter.

Eliot saw an emotional as well as an artistic parallel between himself and the great Russian. Like Turgenev with his Spanish mistress, the married opera singer Pauline Viardot--and like Sanin, whose lustful encounter with Maria perfectly exemplifies what Eliot in The Waste Land calls "The awful daring of a moment's surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract" (49)--Eliot had been enslaved by passion, and was now condemned to suffer with his sickly and extremely neurotic English wife. Turgenev was a personal and artistic model for Eliot, as well as the direct inspiration for the opening lines of The Waste Land, one of the most famous passages in modern poetry.

Jeffrey Meyers, Berkeley, California
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Title Annotation:Ivan Turgenev and T.S. Eliot
Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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