Do I regret being old. No! The regret is in the infirmity that accompanies my particular old age. I'll use one example to illustrate my strong statement.
While I was a student at Christchurch Boys’s High I mowed three lawns (two shillings and sixpence each) on Saturday to get pocket money. The history master suggested we read a Russian novel when we studied19th century Russia. I read Dostevsky’s 'Crime and Punishment' – translated of course - and was hooked. I spent my pocket money buying and exploring his other novels. The tumultuous torrent of his prose swept me along. Nothing in my experience fitted his world. Years later when I reread them, especially 'The Brothers Karamazov' and 'The Idiot' I still found the mystery and strange extremes of emotion and ideas excitingly compelling. That literary love affair led me naturally on to Tolstoy and the great panoramic sweeps of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Kareinna'.
In the year I trained to be a secondary school teacher as a history graduate I was placed in the Social Studies group. We were urged to do further university study. I asked to do Russian. My tutor reacted scornfully. “What for?” My reply was honest. “I want to read Russian writers in the original.” Their response was understandable. I was going to teach New Zealand secondary students. “You have no geography in your degree. You need some. We’re enrolling you for Geography 1.” So much for the romantic longings of a late adolescent.
When I started teaching I could afford to buy more books. Reputedly, Turgenev was the third great 19th century Russian novelist so I bought a couple. But he didn’t grab me as the other two had. Too gentlemanly, too reserved, nothing much seemed to happen, everything seemed to be an understatement, love seemed destined to fail. Strange! I admired the novels of Dostovesky - a religious fanatic and nationalistic bigot - ahead of the novels of the cultured liberal and strong opponent of serfdom. There was a famous quarrel between the two writers where Dostoevsky suggested the Turgenev would see Russia better if he got a telescope.
The foreword to Turgenev’s 'Fathers and Sons' had a quotation from a lecture given by Turgenev which helps explain the difference between the two writers. He said everyman was either Don Quixote - certain of their beliefs and acting without fear of consequence – or Hamlet - contemplative, sceptical and ironic. Now, I realise both are two male fictitious, fantasy figures but as a young man I found the division intriguing. Of course, it’s rarely one extreme or the other, most of us are somewhere along a continuum. Further, it’s a moveable feast. But at that stage of my life I firmly believed I was a Hamlet. I spent hours looking at my existence through that lens - a waste of time.
Turgenev’s division into these two extremes is more singularly Russian than British colonial. My development and temperament steered me towards a more practical, pragmatic existence. Turgenev might be like Hamlet in that he was an equivocater. My farming upbringing while it didn’t stop me day-dreaming did give me habits of persistence, punctuality, and reliability. As a teacher there were lessons to prepare, homework to be marked, university texts to be swotted, and sports teams to be coached. Marriage added another set of responsibilities, garden to be dug, hedge to be cut, car to be washed, mortgage to be paid though undoubtedly, the bookish side of my character puts me more on the Hamlet side of the spectrum.
Last summer I reread 'Fathers and Sons' with much more enjoyment and satisfaction. When I first read it, while I found concepts of liberalism and Slavic nationalism credible – even so I didn’t really understand them - I found that of nihilism just unrealistic. Now I realise it was a stepping stone towrds modern existentialism. The hero s wilful denial of his feelings seemed stupid as did his denial of the power of art or poetry. I enjoyed rereading it much more when older. It captures that sense of living on the edge of an abyss – Turgenev’s word - that is elusive but always there. It was more Russian than I’d realised, but also more universal.
When that young man first read that novel he knew death was certain but the odds were that it was some way far ahead. Now as my own gets closer I find myself understanding more the 19th century preoccupation with it. And the horror and fear without faith. The novel’s farcical duel was not as I first thought romantic twaddle, it was a form of dicing with death, Russian roulette involving two people. The hero’s succumbing to typhus at the end of the novel is par for the course. How can a nihilistic atheist think of death as anything but random, a terrible and stupid waste? Heroic death was not an option in this instance. I realised my stoicism rather than his despair was my buttress.
My country childhood days were punctuated with births, weddings and funerals. Mortality was seen as part of a cycle. Every now and then in the city a funeral cortege would go past. Men would doff their hats, traffic would stop and there was silence to respect the dead. Those days are long gone. Death has always bothered humanity. Medieval theologians wrote treatises about it, there were manuals on how to die properly. Then, young, mature, the old, all were vulnerable. Plagues lurked and pounced on individuals and civilisations. Modern civilization with its gadgetry tries to ignore death. And therefore aging because it is an unfortunate reminder of that certain inevitability. We have moved a long way from Alexander Pope’s 'this long disease, my life'.
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