Facts to know before you face the committee

When the late poet Maxine Kumin had to defend her Radcliffe thesis, the committee asked questions about the thesis – “Amorality and the Protagonist in the Novels of Stendhal and Dostoevsky” – and also questions to test her general knowledge. She called it “torture.” Professor Harry Levin asked what Turgenev and Tolstoy quarreled about. Kumin, who had NO IDEA, “smiled sweetly and asked ‘Did they quarrel?’” She figured that was why she didn’t pass magna cum laude (with great honor) but only cum laude (with honor).

Photo: Ken Billington. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

I like the fox family in Kumin’s The Word. (Photo by Ken Billington.)

If this happens to you, please remember that it didn’t stop Kumin from becoming a successful poet, named at one time Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. (I really like her poem “The Word.” It has wild animals in it.)

Still, why put yourself through “diabolic horror”? SorryWatch looked into the Turgenev-Tolstoy rift, because it turns out there was apology.

Back in the 19th century, Russian writers Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy once hung out a lot. I bet they talked about Russian literature. They admired each other; they annoyed each other. When Tolstoy lost all his money playing roulette in Baden-Baden, he wrote to Turgenev, who sent him more. Tolstoy lost that too. Turgenev borrowed some more money to rescue him, and gave him a talking-to. “Vanichka… was very severe with me,” Tolstoy journaled.

Photo: A.I. Denier. Public domain.

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, 1859.

It so happened that Turgenev had gotten one of the serfs on his family’s estate pregnant. (Being a serf had a lot in common with being enslaved. It was not a position of power. This was not the only serf Turgenev sexually exploited. He wasn’t unusual in this. Sound familiar?)

The child was a girl called Pelagea. Turgenev’s mean crazy mother used the kid to torment her son. Sometimes Pelagea was allowed to mingle with the family, sometimes she was sent to the servants’ quarters. Her mother was eventually sent to Saint Petersburg to be a servant there. When Pelagea was eight, Turgenev got so upset by this that he arranged to have her sort-of-adopted by dear friends in France. He renamed her Paulinette and shipped her off to Paris.

The two writers quarreled about Paulinette’s education at least once, when Turgenev burbled that she’d become so French that she’d forgotten her Russian. Tolstoy hated that.

Photo: Pavel Biryuvov. Public domain.

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, in 1860, thinking about the way some people educate their children.

But the big blow-up came in 1862, when they were both visiting the poet Fet and his wife Maria.

It may be relevant that Turgenev, who had just written Fathers and Sons, gave it to Tolstoy to look at. Tolstoy started reading and fell asleep. Turgenev left the room (stalked out? flounced out? Your call). Or that Tolstoy was cross because Turgenev had flirted with Tolstoy’s sister Masha.

The next day Maria Fet asked Turgenev what he thought of an English governess he had gotten for Paulinette, now 18. He called her excellent, though very English in her precision. The governess had asked exactly how much money Paulinette should give to charity. Also she had Paulinette “mend[ing] the tattered clothes of the poor.” Cool, right?

Tolstoy didn’t seem so enchanted. “And you consider that good?” he demanded.

Why yes, Turgenev thought it “places the doer of charity in touch with everyday needs.”

Oh really? In Tolstoy’s opinion, “a well-dressed girl with dirty rags on her lap is acting an insincere and theatrical farce.”

Turgenev asked him not to say that.

“Why should I not say what I am convinced is true?”

“Then you consider I educate my daughter badly?”


Photographer unknown. Public domain.

The Fet and Polonsky families. That’s Fet, seated, with the luxuriant beard. Not sure which one is Maria.

Furious, Turgenev jumped up, threatened to punch Tolstoy in the head, rushed out of the room, rushed back in, apologized to Maria Fet for his “improper conduct which I deeply regret” and rushed out again.

They both flung out of the house. Turgenev called his carriage. Tolstoy, having no carriage, walked to a post station and rented something. He wrote Turgenev: “I hope that your conscience has already told you how badly you behaved toward me, especially in front of Fet and his wife. Therefore, write me a letter which I can send to the Fets. If you find my demand unjust, let me know. I shall wait at Bogoslov.”

See, if you let someone threaten you without striking them down, your honor was besmirched unless you got an apology. And the Fets SAW EVERYTHING so they knew Tolstoy had been insulted.

Getting this letter, Turgenev wrote right back:

My dear sir, Lev Nikolayevich!

In reply to your letter I can only repeat what I myself considered it my responsibility to tell you at Fet’s: carried away by a feeling of involuntary hostility, the reasons for which I need not go into now, I insulted you without any definite cause on your part—and I begged your pardon. I’m prepared to repeat the same thing now in written form—and I beg your pardon for second time.–This morning’s incident has proved clearly that any attempts at closeness between two natures as opposite as yours and mine cannot lead to anything good; and therefore I all the more gladly fulfill my obligation to you, since the present letter is probably the last manifestation of any relations between us whatsoever. I hope with all my heart that it has satisfied you—and I announce in advance my consent to any use that you may see fit to make of it….

However, he sent it to the wrong place. It was brought back and he sent it again with a note explaining and saying:

I most humbly beg your pardon for this involuntary unpleasant blunder.

It doesn’t seem this one got through either. The offended Tolstoy borrowed some pistols and wrote challenging Turgenev to a duel – “a real fight and not the sort of formality with champagne to follow, usual in military circles.” He sent it by a servant who told Turgenev that Tolstoy wanted an answer (which the servant would carry). Turgenev replied:

…I do not see what I could add to what I’ve already written.

Perhaps just that I recognize your perfect right to demand satisfaction with hand weapons: you preferred the satisfaction of my stated and repeated apology—that was in your power. I’ll tell you frankly that I would willingly have withstood your fire in order by so doing to make amends for my words. That I uttered them is so at odds with the habits of my whole life that I cannot attribute them to anything other than irritation produced by the extreme and constant antagonism of our views. That is not an excuse, I mean to say—not a justification, rather an explanation. And therefore, in parting with you forever—such incidents are inexpiable and irreparable—I consider it my duty to repeat once more that you are right in this affair, and I am at fault. I add that the question is not one of courage—that I want or don’t want to demonstrate—but of the recognition that just as you have the right to call me up to a duel, in the accepted manner, of course (with seconds), so you also have the right to forgive me. You chose what you pleased—and all I can do is submit to your decision.

I again beg you to accept the assurance of my complete respect.

Tolstoy was peeved by the formality of Turgenev’s apologies, but the duel was not pursued. It’s complicated – letters kept being misdirected, and one or the other kept thinking they were being insultingly ignored. Tolstoy apparently wrote something “conciliatory,” which sat around for months at a bookshop without getting to Turgenev. Turgenev wrote to Tolstoy “accusing me of telling people that he’s a coward and of distributing copies of my letter to him” – and challenging him to a duel when he got back from Paris. Tolstoy complained “to fight with anyone, especially him, when he’s 2,000 versts away, is just about as impossible for me as dancing in Tverskaya Street dressed up as a savage.”

Whether it was the vexing logistics, a change of heart, or even an attack of rationality, a few months later Tolstoy wrote to Turgenev:

Dear Sir,

In your letter you call my conduct dishonourable, and furthermore you said to me personally that you would punch me in the face, but I ask your pardon, acknowledge myself to blame and decline the challenge.

They stopped speaking. Tolstoy told Fet never to mention Turgenev or his “precious utterances,” since Turgenev was a “scoundrel who needs thrashing.” If Fet persisted, Tolstoy wouldn’t open his letters. Turgenev told Fet that he would watch Tolstoy’s career from afar with sympathetic interest, but that they “must live as though we inhabited different planets…”

Painting by Ilya Repin. Public domain.

Tolstoy in 1887, over it.

SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER (1878), Tolstoy wrote to Turgenev:

Ivan Sergeyevich,

Lately, when recalling my relations with you, I felt to my great surprise and joy that I bore no hostility towards you. God grant that the same is true of you. To tell the truth, knowing how good you are, I am almost certain that your hostile feeling for me disappeared even before mine did.

If this is so, then please let us extend our hands to each other and, please, forgive me once and for all for everything for which I was to blame towards you.

It is so natural for me to recall only what is good about you, because there was so much that was good in your relations with me. I remember that I owe my literary renown to you, and I remember how you loved both my writings and myself. Maybe you will also find similar recollections about me, because there was a time when I sincerely loved you.

Sincerely, if you can forgive me, I offer you all the friendship which I am capable of. At our time in life, there is only one good—affectionate relations with people. And I will be very happy if such relations can be established between us.

Turgenev was very happy to get this letter, and wrote “I’m more than willing to renew our former friendship and I clasp firmly the hand that you extend.” They resumed correspondence. Mostly about Russian literature. And their health. They visited. They still irked each other, but it wasn’t awful.

Also, Fet got to talk to Turgenev again.

Photographer unknown. Public domain.

Turgenev, 1870s.

Near the end of Turgenev’s life (“I’ve been and am on my death bed…. I’m a finished person—the doctors don’t even know what to call my disease, névralgie stomacale goutteuse”), he wrote to Tolstoy with a dying request. “My friend, return to literary activity!”

How good are these apologies? The first 1861 apology from Turgenev isn’t very good – “I insulted you without any definite cause on your part” [italics added] suggests there’s some vague cause. Maybe so, but an apology isn’t the place to bring it up. Plus there’s all this I SAID I WAS SORRY I BEGGED YOUR PARDON TWICE I HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY nuance going on. Plus “I’m never talking to you again.”

The second one is better, though more complicated. Still with the “never talking to you again.” But there’s a lot less I SAID I WAS SORRY, and a lot more indicating real sorrow. The idea of a vague offense has been dropped. Turgenev basically says ‘I was wrong and you were right,’ which is nice and clear. Although there’s a hint of ‘Good God man, that’s not how you fight a duel! There have to be seconds!’ Which a touchy man might resent.

Then we have Tolstoy’s terrible apology declining the challenge. It’s short, but Tolstoy finds room to restate what Turgenev did to show how horribly he was treated. Then he puts in a “but,” and sweepingly blames himself and asks pardon. It doesn’t seem sincere: “You did two bad things, yet see! I am the one who takes the blame and apologizes!’

Things weren’t fixed up by these lousy apologies. No wonder there was a 17-year silence.

But then we get the 1878 apology from Tolstoy. Ordinarily SorryWatch is critical when apologies lack specificity – ‘forgive me for everything’ – but the lapse of time makes a difference. After so long, digging up the details might be unhelpful. We’re calling this one good. This time he says he’s to blame without listing Turgenev’s misdeeds.

Those Russian writers! Mr. DeMille, I’m ready to defend my thesis now.

This entry was posted in Bad Apologies, Belated Apologies, Good apologies, Historical Apologies, Literary Apologies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Facts to know before you face the committee

  1. Susan Oliver says:

    And perhaps a “Not Boba Fett” tag?

  2. Pingback: A roundup of GOOD celebrity apologies! | SorryWatch

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