Khor And Kalinich by Ivan Turgenev, 1852
The magic trick:
A narrator who operates from a point of view of naiveté about the peasants he meets; while also assuming that the reader shares his ignorance
As noted yesterday when we featured “The Singers,” the narrator in A Sportsman’s Notebook is very much a journalist for us. “Khor And Kalinich,” the collection’s first story, establishes this role.
He’s a landowner who likes to go hunting every day in the nearby country. Each story in the book describes the things he sees and the people he meets. Today, we’d likely frown on this kind of tourist approach; his observation style akin to studying a new species of animal. At the time, though, it was a revolution of progressive literature.
Similar to what Dickens was doing at the same time with the poor of London, Turgenev imbues his peasants with a childlike goodness that borders on condescension. But still, what a fascinating look into that world.
Crucially, the narrator assumes a naïve point of view; at least naïve to the ways of the peasants he’s writing about. And maybe even more crucial, the narrator assumes his reader will be ignorant of these people too. He trusts that he is introducing us to a set of customs and cultures that we know nothing about.
It’s a fascinating and effective way to tell a story.
And that’s quite a trick on Turgenev’s part.
We went into the cottage. Not a single cheap glaring print was pasted up on the clean boards of the walls; in the corner, before the heavy, holy picture in its silver setting, a lamp was burning; the table of linden-wood had been lately planed and scrubbed; between the joists and in the cracks of the window-frames there were no lively Prussian beetles running about, nor gloomy cockroaches in hiding. The young lad soon reappeared with a great white pitcher filled with excellent kvas, a huge hunch of wheaten bread, and a dozen salted cucumbers in a wooden bowl. He put all these provisions on the table, and then, leaning with his back against the door, began to gaze with a smiling face at us. We had not had time to finish eating our lunch when the cart was already rattling before the doorstep. We went out. A curly-headed, rosy-cheeked boy of fifteen was sitting in the cart as driver, and with difficulty holding in the well-fed piebald horse. Round the cart stood six young giants, very like one another, and Fedya.
‘All of these Khor’s sons!’ said Polutikin.
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