Turgenev on love

At the end of Turgenev’s play Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre, an old man is playing cards with a boy.

“What have you got?” asks the old man.

“Three hearts,” answers the boy.

“You’ll need them,” says the old man.

A boy will need three hearts because at least two of them will be broken. That “love is a bloody business” is the message of Turgenev’s play, but it’s also an affirmation of love.

Turgenev knew a lot about the complexities of love from his own life. In 1843, when he was 25, he met Pauline Viardot, a Spanish opera singer, and “remained under her spell for the rest of his life.” She was married, but Turgenev lived with her and her husband.  Turgenev once defined his relationship to her as an “unofficial marriage,” and Pauline and her husband brought up his bastard daughter whom Turgenev had with a servant on his mother’s estate.

The play began with all the characters sat around the edge, emphasising the multiple and geometric connections among them that the play would reveal.

Let me start with Natalya, the wife of Arkady, a rich landowner. She has a son by him, but it’s clear she has never loved him. Perhaps she married him for his money, as Turgenev’s father married his mother, a much older woman. Natalya has summoned her lover from Moscow because she is in despair, but she doesn’t love him either, although he very much loves her and always has done. But Natalya has fallen in love in a very inappropriate way with Belyaev, her son’s German tutor, a man much younger than her.

Belyaev says he loves her, but we don’t believe him. In the play he has had sex with Katya, the servant, and is paying court to Vera, the ward of Natalya and Arkady. He mentions too that he had to leave Moscow because of a scandal. Natalya, Vera, and Katya all love Belyaev, so he is more loved than anybody, but we feel he doesn’t really love any of them. He’s an adventurer, and by loving him the women expose their shallowness. When things heat up, Beyaev leaves rapidly; but we are left thinking that one day love will catch up with him and he will need his three hearts.

The most tragic figures are those who love without being loved. Matvev, a servant, loves Katya, but she’s had her head turned by Belyaev. Rakitin, Nataya’s one time lover, is now unloved and wonders if he ever was loved. Vera isn’t loved, although Belyaev said he loved her, but is courted by a rich, fat, disgusting neighbour. Finding herself abandoned she thinks she’ll accept him, a mistake we all recognise. Arkady too is unloved.

The best and funniest scene in the play is when Shpigelsky, a cynical doctor, proposes marriage to Lizaveta, a companion to Anna, Arkady’s mother. Both are old: it would be very much a marriage of convenience. Shpigelsky in his proposal lists his many defects: he’s not of good birth, not rich, not light hearted (although he plays at being so), not good natured, and not much good as a doctor, but he is ill humoured, silent, exacting, and immensely vain. “I’m not jealous and not mean, and in my absence you can do just as you like. Of Romantic love and all that between us, you understand it’s needless to speak; and yet I imagine you might live under the same roof as me…so long as you try to please me, and don’t shed tears in my presence, that I can’t endure.”

This is, we think, a very honest proposal. Perhaps we would all do better when proposing marriage to list our faults rather promise “happiness ever after,” as we are inclined to do in such moments.

Lizaveta, a practical woman, says she’ll give him his answer in four hours. She declines him; good for her, we think, although we are attracted by his humour and honesty.

Reflecting after the play and writing this blog, I realise that none of the characters both loved and were loved. So perhaps the play was not an affirmation of love, as I suggested, but I still think it was—because it depicted the power of love, a power stronger than any other in our lives.

It’s all very Russian: everything writ larger than in our Anglo Saxon world, but we recognise the truth of it all.

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