Turgenev and Stand-Shooting

The other day I chanced to read Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s Yermolai (Ермолай) and the Miller’s Wife, and soon became interested in the background of this great Russian writer of whom I had but heard the name.  

I discovered that Turgenev came from an aristocratic Russian family. As late as in the nineteenth century the Russian nobility had hundreds of serfs subservient to them. The plight of slaves in early America is well known, but that of the serfs in Russia and of other oppressed peoples in other societies at the same time are not as well publicized. Turgenev was not exactly a revolutionary like his later compatriot Lenin, but he felt for and experienced the plight of the lower classes. He remembered how his own grandmother had once killed a serf for misbehaving. Though he was fluent in the upper class language  French, as the brown sahibs of India were in English, he was out and out a Russian in heart, written word, and depth of understanding. And he wrote only in his own rich and beloved native tongue. But a time came when Turgenev left his motherland in anger and  settled down in Paris because of the intense negative criticisms of his master-work Fathers and Sons (Отцы и дети). This reminds us of Nirad C. Choudhuri who packed up his things and went to England, there to spend the rest of his life because (he felt)  his compatriots did not recognize his greatness.

Back to the short story of the huntsman Yermolai with whom the author once went stand shooting for the woodcock. But what is stand shooting? Turgenev explains it as the story begins.

A quarter of an hour before sunset in springtime you go out into the woods with your gun, but without your dog. You seek out a spot for yourself on the outskirts of the forest, take a look round, examine your caps, and glance at your companion. A quarter of an hour passes; the sun has set, but it is still light in the forest; the sky is clear and transparent; the birds are chattering and twittering; the young grass shines with the brilliance of emerald. . . . You wait. Gradually the recesses of the forest grow dark; the blood-red glow of the evening sky creeps slowly on to the roots and the trunks. of the trees, and keeps rising higher and higher, passes from the lower, still almost leafless branches, to the motionless, slumbering tree-tops. . . . And now even the topmost branches are darkened; the purple sky fades to dark-blue. The forest fragrance grows stronger; there is a scent of warmth and damp earth; the fluttering breeze dies away at your side. The birds go to sleep–not all at once–but after their kinds; first the finches are hushed, a few minutes later the warblers, and after them the yellow buntings. In the forest it grows darker and darker. The trees melt together into great masses of blackness; in the dark-blue sky the first stars come timidly out. All the birds are asleep. Only the redstarts and the nuthatches are still chirping drowsily. . . . And now they, too, are still. The last echoing call of the peewit rings over our heads; the oriole’s melancholy cry sounds somewhere in the distance; then–the nightingale’s first note. Your heart is weary with suspense, when suddenly–but only hunters can understand me–suddenly in the deep hush there is a peculiar croaking and whirring sound, the measured. sweep of swift wings is heard, and the snipe, gracefully bending its long beak, sails smoothly from behind a dark bush to meet your shot.”

That is the meaning of “stand-shooting.

August 15, 2011

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