Ivan Turgenev – The Three Portraits

I don’t read many short story collections. The main reason is that the format is too limited. Often either the story is unsatisfactory or it is so interesting that it is wasted on not having been extended (although I know examples of a sequence of short stories that were closely related). One could say it is too good or more a fragment of a greater whole. Only at times the story provides satisfaction and closure at the same time. Any way, I do still try at times. Some years ago I bough a box set of (mainly 19th century) Russian writers which contained several story collection sets. One of those was The Three Portraits (2006) by Ivan Turgenev. As the collection is a specific Dutch translation there is no other language equivalent to it and although the stories were written in the 19th century this specific publication isn’t, hence the difference in date, which I only add for reference. So for this review I will focus on the more general style and elements used by Turgenev and not go much into detail about the stories themselves as finding them together in an edition of your own will be complicated.

Most of the stories are around 20 pages long except Torrents Of Spring, which is over 100 pages long, and thus is more of a novella than a short story. It is at the same time also different from the other stories so I will give some separate comments on it.

As the other stories are quite short they fall into two categories. Either they contain a lot of events or focus more on characterization, usually in giving background stories for the characters. What I felt was that they were of an anecdotal nature. In several cases someone was relating to past events to others or really telling about it. So one could call it a story withing a story, of which the encompassing story is only the framework to tell the main story. Because of that setting Turgenev uses a simple, uncomplicated and straightforward style, which can be seen a fitting as a regular person is telling it, not the writer himself. The prose itself give an almost neutral atmosphere while reading it, so it is all to the story. Most of the stories are somewhat peculiar. In every story I had a strange feeling about something, while it should not have been so. So that is something one has to like to appreciate it. Also typical is the rural setting, which is different from an urban one, where life is more complicated.

The main story is Torrents Of Spring. It formed quite a bottleneck for me to complete the novel. It is quite different from the other stories, being set in cities and outside Russia. It is also not anecdotal in style and the prose thus more stylized. In essence it is a romance. Here it also seems that Turgenev likes to use somewhat weak and timid male protagonists. He does manage to portray them quite well, but in this case it somewhat irritated me. I also am not much a fan of romantic stories (being male), although (like most people) I don’t mind them if they are part of a greater story. Alas there was not much else to this story so I got stuck in it, just not finding the motivation to continue. Perhaps others will love this story, but not me.

So to me Turgenev is not a writer I enjoyed. The short stories were doable, but left not much of an impression, and the main large story was no to my taste at all. I do can see that other types of readers can enjoy these more mundane 19th century stories a lot, just count me out. Well, quitting the book I don’t like. It must be really horrible for me to do so. Still, it has stood a long while on my Currently reading list. Almost too long for a not that long collection. At least I managed to make it.

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