That poplar tree reminds me of my childhood: it grows on the edge of the pit where the brick kiln used to be, and in those days I firmly believed that the clay-pit and the poplar constituted a special talisman: I never found time hang heavy on my hands when I was near them. I did not understand then that the reason time did not hang heavy was because I was a young boy. Well, now I’m grown up, the talisman no longer works.
– Bazarov, the protagonist of Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.
Both admirable and pitiable in his character, Bazarov goes on to observe: “The tiny bit of space I occupy is so minute in comparison with the rest of the universe, where I am not and which is not concerned with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so infinitesimal compared with the eternity in which I have not been and shall not be … And yet here, in this atom which is myself, in this mathematical point, blood circulates, the brain operates and aspires to something too … What a monstrous business! What futility!”
Twelve years ago I bought a copy of this book in a bookstore on Commercial Street in Springfield, Mo. The book store (and so perhaps the book) had once been owned by my eventual (and now former) employer, the late Rolland Comstock. (I also have a second copy of Fathers and Sons in a different translation that Rolland himself gave me because he happened to have multiple copies of it in his library and had put me to work that day paring down his collection of Russians in order to make room for new acquisitions.) I don’t know why I picked it out then or why I decided to finally get around to reading it now. I mostly plowed through out of respect and determination until I hit Chapter 21 and the conversation Bazarov has with his friend, Arkady, in the shade of a haystack and in sight of that towering childhood talisman discussed in the quotation above. I began to admire the book and identify with its main character after that.
I’m a good deal less morose than Bazarov. Reading a bit of Nietzsche might have done him some good. I would like to be a character in Fathers and Sons if only to put a copy of The Gay Science in Bazarov’s hands. I’ve also found that one sure way of causing a childhood talisman to regain it’s power is to have a child. Perhaps if poor Bazarov could only have experienced reading Winnie-the-Pooh stories with a two-year-old daughter, he might have felt the heavy weight of his existence lift away. So that’s what I would recommend for Bazorov’s nihilism: Friedrich Nietzsche and A. A. Milne.