Turgenev pulled a face - why must the curative waters taste of iron and shit? - and turned to the pale, thin young man at the next table. “Must a cure always be unpalatable?” he asked, semi-rhetorically, in Italian.
“I do believe it must,” the young man answered in the same language. With a crafty expression, he switched to Russian, obviously his native tongue. “After all, the waters of the Caucasus are only half so vile, thus they effect no cure at all.”
“Another Russian, thank god!” Turgenev’s light voice, rising with excitement, took on an almost braying timbre. “I shan’t have to make poor excuses to you. Do I really speak Italian so villainously?” He rushed ahead without a pause for the man to reply. “Ivan Turgenev.”
“Nicholas Stankevich. A Russian will always sound Russian wherever he goes because in our system, we are kept ignorant of the way men talk but are still expected to learn their languages.”
“Are we always to be ‘certain people’ when we go abroad?”
“Careful - the man at the next table could be an informant.”
“We are in Italy, you know.”
“Even in Italy. You know what Chaadaev received for his pains writing that article and Nadezhdin for publishing it. One dares to call us ‘certain people’, and one ends up either legally insane or in exile. I’m loath to join them. I do prefer the comforts of Italy to the certain death of the Urals.”
“The Urals are bears, Bushmen, and provincial governors. Only in Russia does exile take place within one’s own country. They manage to leach all the romance from the very word. It is no wonder we have no literature - the tsars have leached the meaning from our very words! But I suppose one could do very good genre work in exile - tales of country life and peasant mores. But one can’t be a poet, not a real one. Any idiot who can count syllables can write a poem in the country, or even in prison,” Turgenev added.
“You have read too much of Belinsky.”
“Hardly! There isn’t enough to read, the Observer is so infrequent, even more so than the Telegraph was.”
“He’s ill, and alone.” Stankevich paused to cough into a linen handkerchief, a hard, wracking cough.
Turgenev waited until he was finished. “You know him?”
“Everyone in Moscow knows him. Most of them don’t know he lives alone, above a blacksmith’s, next door to a laundry, killing himself through overwork, cold, hunger, and pride. And genius. We mustn’t forget the decaying power of genius.”
“I suppose I’m immune to that Moloch myself, not being one of his children. I was a wretched poet.”
“So was Belinsky.”
“Did you ever read the infamous verse?”
“With 5,000 souls to my father’s name? He never let anyone read it. I think he burned it,” Stankevich added regretfully. “Everyone is rubbish at eighteen, but he still should have known better. The censor is the only person of whom he is not terrified.”
“That lack of fear is what makes him such a beacon. He could have students at his feet if he wanted them. Paying students. I could arrange it, if he is as hard up as you say.”
Stankevich shook his head. “It would never do. Russia’s first middle-class intellectual. He wouldn’t stand the adulation. It’s not fitting. Besides, he speaks as coherently as he writes.”
“That’s a shame.”
“We called him ’Raging Vissarion’ at the philosophical circle, and it had nothing to do with his writing at the time. At that point, he was translating Paul de Kock with the use of my dictionary. The philosophical circle seems a lifetime away, and I only left Russia three years ago.”
“So you are the Stankevich! The man who introduced Hegel to Russia!“
“You profess to be a student of Hegel?” Stankevich asked tiredly.
Turgenev plowed on without regard to his companion’s tone. “I am a student of Hegel! Not some aristocratic girl who has tired of Baratynski and George Sand and thinks the German philosophy the latest fad. I’m going to Berlin next month, should my bladder decide to accept being cured.” He glared in the general direction of the offending organ.
“You must stop to see a friend of mine at the university, Michael Bakunin. He should be there soon, and I do not know when I will be back in the city. If you find him anywhere near the faculty of agriculture, then you must write to me immediately, as it would be the surest sign that hell has frozen over. If that is the case, I would rather spend my last days at home, in the serf-governed utopia that will surely result.”
“Agriculture?” Turgenev asked quizzically.
“His reaction exactly. I was visiting when his father announced that Michael could go, and listen to the ’windbags’, if he agreed to study agriculture as well. And now he is coming, so something has happened on that score.”
“It sounds a fair trade.”
“Not if Hegel is your life. He says he is coming, how he can afford it if he is not studying agriculture I do not know, and I would go to meet him myself were it not for this beastly cough. The doctors won’t let me travel.” He pushed away his nearly empty tumbler. “I’ve had about as much cure as my bladder can take. Would you care for a turn about the gardens?”
“Gladly. Here I thought I had sunk to the depths of boredom, actually chatting up a tourist, and I meet the Stankevich.”
“I did not realise, outside the secret police, it was such an honour. And even then, I should have thought Herzen’s circle preferred.”
They walked in companionable silence for some time.
“It’s depressing to see so many of us alone.”
“I’m not alone,” Stankevich replied. “Varenka is out today, in town, some form of shopping, she has led me to believe. She never really tells me anything. Probably because she is not really shopping.”
“A friend. Michael’s sister. One of Michael’s sisters, I should say. She is married. Her husband is back in Russia, but she has her son with her. A bad marriage. She is better off away from him.”
“Your mistress, then.”
“Hardly!” Stankevich tried to argue, but he began coughing. Turgenev helped him to a bench, shocked at how easily he could feel the bones under the wool coat Stankevich wore, even in the warmth of the Italian May. He kept his arm around Stankevich’s shoulders even after he stopped shaking.
“You should not be alone.”
“I’m fine. As fine as anyone in my position can be. There has been a distinct improvement since coming here.” The words sounded hollow to Turgenev’s ear. “Let us continue.”
They continued down the path. “The great thing about philosophy is that you know you will get on with a person because you understand each other.”
“That sounds as if you believe there are different philosophies for different people. If you know a person’s philosophy, you know the person. And that is absurd, because if that were the case, then philosophy would be meaningless.”
“Of course. But you know you shall never get on with people who do not understand themselves and have got off on the wrong path. But as long as you understand that everything is rational, even the wrong path, well, you can’t hate those people anymore because they are necessary to the dialectic of history. If you know you won’t get on, then you actually will get on because you know what conflicts to avoid.”
“Even Tsar Nicholas?”
“Even his uniqueness in the taxonomy of despotism.”
“I’m not sure anymore.” Stankevich sank to a bench in the summerhouse in the centre of the gardens. “The necessity of seemingly random action. Why Chaadaev is insane and Nadezhdin exiled but Belinsky carries on unharmed. You shouldn’t need other people so badly in Hegel’s philosophy. But I need someone so much. An answering echo to my inner life.”
He looked very tired and very small and very frail to the tall sportsman. Stankevich half turned, and Turgenev took his chance. Their lips met with a sweet hesitance, but Stankevich followed when Turgenev pulled back. They were about to kiss again, but Stankevich fell coughing. Turgenev kept his arms around his friend. When he finally looked up, Stankevich’s eyes were filled with tears. “The answering echo to my inner life. And in another bloody summerhouse!”
A woman came running down the path. “There you are!” she cried in Russian.
Stankevich tried to dry his tears. “Varenka. It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right. You’re worn out!” Taking notice of Turgenev, she switched to Italian. “Who are you?”
“Ivan Turgenev. A countryman in all senses,” he replied in their own language.
“Varvara Bakunin. Nicholas needs his rest.”
“Of course. It was a pleasure to meet both of you. I will see you both later?”
“Of course,” Stankevich answered for them both, though he avoided looking at Turgenev.
Fiction ~ Nicholas ~ Home