ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
We're going to continue now with our series You Must Read This, in which we ask writers to tell us about their favorite books. Author Gary Shteyngart is the author of the recent novel Absurdistan as well as the Russian Debutante's Handbook, and his choice isn't entirely surprising.
GARY SHTEYNGART: My favorite novel is Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, a 200-page ravishing knockout of a book that explains just about everything you need to know about families, love, heartache, religion, duels, the institution of serfdom in 19th century Russia, not to mention advice on how to seduce your housekeeper's young daughter. In short, it's a Russian masterpiece, one written so beautifully and with such economy that when you finish reading it, you might feel a little shaken and a little stirred. A vodka martini on the front porch might be in order.
SIEGEL: a prejudice or a crime? Arkady has fallen under Bazarov's spell, but he's still deeply attached to his kind, loving, father - a very minor and very incompetent landholder who laments his son's new urbanity. I've fallen behind. He's gone ahead the father says, which could be the lament of any sensitive father whose kid has just come home from his first year at Swarthmore.
SIEGEL: Katya loves Arkady, Arkady loves Bazarov, Bazarov loves Odintsova, Odintsova loves Odintsova.
The background is Russia in the 1860's, a country disfigured by the hideous legacy of serfdom. But this is hardly a social tract. What enraged Turgenev's critics at the time is that he pandered neither to conservatives nor to progressives. Bazarov may be a so-called man of the future who says chivalry is a kind of deformity and tries to pal around with the peasants, but in their eyes, he's just a simple buffoon who could never understand their hardships.
In the end, Turgenev's gift is his enormous compassion. In Fathers and Sons, no one is right and no one is wrong. Some people are laughable to be sure, but Turgenev's psychological reach is so great that we never feel derision for anyone. Bazarov may cringe at the institution of the family, but his homecoming and the simple, unwavering, comically inept love of his parents form some of the most heartwarming scenes in Russian literature. When Bazarov finally meets his end - and I won't reveal how - the devastation his parents feel is so complete, one may be compelled to close the book before reaching its final pages. If there's a real villain in Fathers and Sons, it's not the Czarist government or the herd of fashionable poseurs with their clever ideas - it is life itself in all its cruelty, randomness, indifference, and most of all, its brevity.
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SIEGEL: Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook. He lives in New York. You can find more recommendations from our series at our Web site, npr.org.