Want to write a memoir? Don’t read this quote

I have loved Russian literature for most of my life. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Sergei Dovlatov. (Gogol scares me, as do Poe and Hoffmann. Reading any of the three of them is like being pulled into the imagination of a schizophrenic.)

Recently, I’ve been considering and rejecting re-reading Anna Karenina. As my friend Ellen Kaye and I agreed, we just can’t deal right now with a novel about a time and place where women were so suppressed and had no rights. I, personally, can’t face Anna’s end. Again. Just can’t.

What about Turgenev, though? Why wouldn’t he be on my beloved Russians list? I did read one novel, probably Fathers and Sons, many years ago, but it had so failed to resonate, I could not remember anything about it.

I could think of one reason Turgenev might be worth a new look. Years ago, I discovered Tolstoy had composed a collection of Russian fairy tales, more or less for children. In the forward, I learned that Tolstoy had developed a love for such tales when he was a child. His older brother, Nikolai, had entertained his younger siblings by telling them stories of his own invention. (Tolstoy wrote his brother into Anna Karenina as the hopeless alcoholic brother of Levin.)

Someone once asked Turgenev why Nikolai Tolstoy, given his talent, had never written. Turgenev said it was because Nikolai lacked the one quality necessary for a writer: vanity.

On the basis of that, I decided to try Turgenev again. In The Diary of a Superfluous Man, hardly an inviting title, Turgenev’s narrator, who tells us he’s terminally ill, decides to write about his life. Not an uncommon desire.

So he writes this:

But it occurs to me, is it really worth while to tell the story of my life?

No, it certainly is not…My life has not been different in any respect from the lives of numbers of other people. The parental home, the university, the government service in the lower grades, retirement, a little circle of friends, decent poverty, modest pleasures, unambitious pursuits, moderate desires — kindly tell me, is that new to any one? And so I will not tell the story of my life, especially as I am writing for my own pleasure; and if my past does not afford even me any sensation of great pleasure or great pain, it must be that there is nothing in it deserving of attention. I had better try to describe my own character to myself.

In short, he lacks the necessary vanity.

I stopped reading this novella, went on to First Love, didn’t find it particularly wonderful either, so the answer to my question: should I try Turgenev again? is no.

But I will retain enough vanity to write a memoir.

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