Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright and translator.
The Tryst, first published in Contemporary Magazine (Совреме́нник) in 1850, then in the collection Hunter’s Notes (Записки охотника) in 1852.
Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that published in the Points of View volume.
This is the third of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. From their introduction: “The stories selected for this group demonstrate some of the different relationships a narrator may have to events and main characters; these relationships determine how he gains information. He may be a confidant of the protagonists; he may be merely an eye-witness to their actions; he may be a member of some group or community in which they’re generally known, in which case he behaves like the chorus in Greek drama.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Our unnamed narrator finds himself resting in a birch grove in autumn. All around him are the beautiful, sensuous sights and sounds of nature at its most perfect; verdant, lush, almost over-ripe in its sheer stunning presence. He drifts off to sleep and wakes up later and spies a peasant girl sitting in this lavish environment – but she is crying, and her delicate white skin stands out against the green grove. The narrator remains hidden, but eventually, another figure enters the scene – an arrogant, posturing young man, whose “face, rosy, fresh, brazen, belonged to that category of faces which, insofar as I have been able to observe, almost always move men to indignation and, regrettably, are very often found pleasing by women.”
The girl, Akulina, is relieved to see the boy, Victor Alexandrych, but he brusquely tells her he will be leaving tomorrow with his master. Stunned into sadness, Akulina begs him to stay but he callously shows no interest in her feelings and tells her to stop talking nonsense. She gives him a garland of cornflowers, but he shows no interest in them. Desperate to hear a kind word from him, he disdains every opportunity to soothe her sorrow. He patronises her for her lack of education, says she cannot possibly imagine what life is like in glamorous Petersburg, says it’s impossible for them to marry and eventually shrugs his shoulders and walks off in silence, leaving the cornflowers behind. A chill comes over the birch grove; the leaves now seem dry and lifeless, and nature’s colours have turned grey. The narrator starts to approach Akulina but she runs off. His final comment on the incident: “I came home; but for a long time the image of poor Akulina would not leave my mind, and her cornflowers, withered long since, are still treasured by me…”
The incident that Turgenev describes is simple enough. A meeting between two young people, she is clearly in love, and he is only in love with himself. He never has any intention of behaving honourably to the girl and she is just left to rue her unhappy affections. But we see it all through the eyes of the narrator, and he is biased from the start – finding Akulina fetching and pure, and “very far from bad-looking”. Victor Alexandrych, on the other hand, “did not create a pleasing impression on me. He was, judging by all the signs, the spoiled valet of some young, rich seigneur.” And whilst there’s no doubt that the boy mistreats the girl in this tryst, you must wonder if the narrator has an ulterior motive in framing the story in the way he does.
Turgenev gives us a superb contrast between the description of nature at its most fecund before the meeting, and then dry and lifeless afterwards – which clearly symbolises the optimism and positivity about their relationship before the meeting, and how it is dead and buried after she has been so badly let down. I also like how he suggests that the narrator has been so affected by what he saw that even today, some time after the event, he still treasures the memory of Akulina. “Treasure” is a strong word!
Brief, thoughtful, and packed with gorgeous descriptions, this is a juicy nugget of the short story genre, that suggests just as much (if not more) than it actually says. Not exactly enjoyable, but certainly memorable and I really admire Turgenev’s construction and use of language.
The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, Johnny Bear by John Steinbeck.