By Ivan Turgenev
When I spent a student exchange year in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1970s, I was joined at the hip to a battered copy of Turgenev's classic, A Sportsman's Notebook. I was in the Lenin Library, writing my first book, Russian Journal, and this modest yet haunting collection of descriptions of 19th-century peasant life offered me generous insight into the soul of the enigmatic country around me. The compassionate eye of the narrator—a peripatetic rural gentleman whose hunting expeditions take him through the estates, villages, woods, and fields bordering his home—conveys to us the mixture of earthy humanity and soaring spiritual beauty typical of Russian literature and life, then and now. Episodes and personalities range from the near mystical (in "The Live Relic," a paralyzed peasant girl has become a sort of local saint) to the chilling (in "The Knocking," a group of drunken men seem to hint casually at murder). In Turgenev's time, A Sportsman's Notebook helped awaken the awareness of the Russian upper classes to the human qualities of the peasantry; nowadays it is an unforgettable portrait of a vanished world.