Thursday, February 2, 2017

Turgenev, narrating an event he says he has no right to witness

When living in Paris in the late 19th century, Ivan Turgenev got invited to a behind-the-scenes look at a public execution. “The Execution of Tropmann” is what he wrote in response. (And what I recently read for Deal Me in 2017.)

The essay ultimately questions the use of capital punishment - and, more strongly, capital punishment carried out in front of a public audience.

But Turgenev tries not to hammer readers with his point-of-view. His approach is to lay out a narrative of the hours leading up to the execution.

He and a few others are allowed to stay overnight with the prison governor until the 7 a.m. execution. He describes the growing crowd outside, their noise. His own sleeplessness. He provides descriptions of prison officials and the prisoner himself, and the rituals of preparing for the execution. Then the execution, on the guillotine set up overnight. (Turgenev didn't want to look, but hung behind and heard it.)

One issue raised by his account is the extent to which writers should insert themselves into a narrative. To what extent should they introduce their own feelings or thoughts? (How much can they realistically remove themselves?)

Turgenev doesn't preach at the reader. But even when he's just stating a fact, the adjectives he uses and what he chooses to focus on can betray his inclinations and feelings. For instance - the roar of the crowd, persisting all night, he describes at one point as an “elemental force.” Later, he says the gathered people sound “overjoyed." He highlights one individual in the crowd and admits he can’t understand why the young man is intermittently shouting.

A nearby horse he describes as “innocent.” Possibly the most innocent creature on the scene. (Reminds me of the Auden poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” - “and the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”)

The conversation in the prison governor’s quarters is “dull” and “platitudinous,” any words sounding flat under the circumstances.

Turgenev can’t help inserting himself into the narrative. He doesn’t overdo it, but he’s there as a character. At the same time, he questions his right to be there ( “... no psychological or philosophic considerations excused me”), as it was an invitation he accepted without thought and didn’t back out of because of pride. In an uneasy way, he invites the reader along as a fellow trespasser, and perhaps as someone who can share his misgivings and horror.

As for Tropmann, Turgenev doesn’t attempt to make an angel of him. He claims the prisoner - convicted of murdering a family - had lied to the police before. But he also calls into question Tropmann’s sanity. And there are disturbing moments when Tropmann, preparing for his execution in the presence of witnesses, seems to perform for them, consciously imprinting himself on the narrative and changing it.

For writers to turn up where they don't necessarily belong, intruding into lives and institutions, opens them to criticism, sometimes tempts them to behave unethically, but also highlights their power and responsibility. Turgenev might have skipped attending the public execution. But did something of value still come from his presence? Was it worth it at the end to bear witness - with deep reluctance - and bring his own feelings to bear on the events?


Brian Joseph said...

Great post Hila.

I have not read Turgenev but I would like to.

Writing about an execution is a powerful and worthy subject in and of itself. It seems that Turgenev has added an entirely new level to it in his examination of the writer's role in the incident.

I like his what he sad about the horse, Though seemingly odd there seems to be truth to it.

Roderick Robinson said...

Pepys is more laconic; impossibly laconic, you might say: Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.... It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him...

Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross. ... took (my guests) to the Sun Tavern, and did give them some oysters. ... angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.

Jay Carr said...

Back in 2011 I had read, by sheer coincidence, several books and stories in a short period of time that all had something to with executions. I've stayed away from the topic since then :-) and haven't read this one by Turgenev.

I remember Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" and Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" were two of the works, and the latter went into something of a debate on the relative merits - or not - of capital punishments, as a character in that novel had nearly been executed himself.

Execution in front of an audience has always turned my stomach. Maybe from witnessing the "hanging scene" in the original film version of "True Grit" when I was but a wee lad.

HKatz said...

@ Brian - Thanks. Turgenev didn't really discuss the role of writers, only his thoughts about his right to be there... but his essay does raise those questions.

@ Roderick - I haven't read Pepys (yet) but the excerpts you share here made me laugh :) Impossibly laconic indeed...

@ Jay - I read "In the Penal Colony" and it almost made me nauseous but what a good story. At some point I plan to write about it here. As for True Grit, haven't seen it, but movies can do that to you for sure.