A Sportsman’s Notebook by Ivan Turgenev

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

“When the unbearable midday heat compelled us to seek shelter, he led us to his bee-garden in the very depth of the forest. He opened up for us a little hut, hung with bunches of dried aromatic herbs, gave us some fresh hay to lie on, then himself put a sort of network bag over his head, took a knife, a pot and a piece of burning wood, and went off to the bee-garden to cut us some honeycomb. We washed down the warm, translucent honey with spring water, and fell asleep to the monotonous humming of bees and the busy murmur of leaves . . .”

A Sportsman's Notebook, by Ivan Turgenev, is just that: a notebook-style series of sketches, of people and places in rural Russia, observed by a wealthy young man while out hunting, usually with dogs in tow, often with a faithful serf. It's filled to the brim with passages as sensually pleasurable as that quoted above (almost sexually satisfying, right?).

The Notebook captures the bitter, almost unbearable joy that comes of finding one’s body out in nature. It manages to evoke, over and over, the feeling that arises in the briefly held perfection of a moment (be it a warm afternoon out walking, or a gorgeous landscape glimpsed over the crest of a hill, or cool water drunk straight from the stream); that of being both utterly alive and destined to die; in love with life and the world, and unable to keep hold of it.

The Notebook has no plot, no particular drive, other than to convey to us the sights, sounds and people of the Russia in which Turgenev grew up. Maybe that’s why I love it so very much – no moralistic lessons, or, at least, none that taint the immediacy of the images and sensations therein. If there are any politics or ethics, say, in regards to violence, poverty and slavery (which, of course, there are), they’re subtle, without didacticism. Turgenev sketches for us both the ugliness and magnificence of the world he knew, and lets us simply languish in it.