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“Not a great writer, though a pleasant one” was Vladimir Nabokov’s verdict on Ivan Turgenev, the first Russian novelist to make an impact abroad. Nabokov—­who once complained about Henry James’s “vulgarities”—­liked issuing high-handed, contrarian judgments. But he wasn’t alone in speaking of Turgenev with condescension. A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), the book that made Turgenev’s name, was credited with helping to end serfdom in Russia, and Fathers and Sons (1862) introduced a lasting character type—­the nihilist—­in the person of Yev­geny Bazarov, who questions everything “with indescribable composure.” Fathers and Sons, however, made trouble for Turgenev. The Russian left interpreted it as a right-­wing satire, while the right accused Turgenev of pandering to the left. In time, both sides agreed that he was a gutless centrist. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky belittled him, and their fame—­which he promoted tirelessly in Paris—­meant that later generations of Western readers had trouble reconciling his short, elegant books with preconceived notions of the turbulent Russian soul.

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