Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev,
translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater
and Maya Slater

When millennials turned the phrase “O.K., boomer” into an insult, a sarcastic dismissal of the clueless elderly, they hardly realized the irony involved. People born during the post–World War II baby boom may be on Social Security today, but in their hearts they will always be the generation of the 1960s youthquake, whose motto was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Having failed to die before they got old, as The Who recommended, they now find themselves on the wrong side of a new generation gap.

The idea of the generation gap is so fundamental to the way we think—about everything from politics and economics to pop music and corporate branding—that it seems like a permanent part of the human condition. And it’s true that people have been telling stories about the clashing desires of the old and the young since long before Romeo and Juliet paid the price for their parents’ feud. What’s distinctive about modern generational warfare is that it turns personal and family conflicts into ideological struggles. The young and the old are no longer just human beings at different stages of life’s journey; they are like political parties or warring classes, fighting over fundamental issues of power and justice.

The best place to see this new worldview being born is in the pages of Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children, to be published by New York Review Books Classics later this month in an excellent and highly readable translation by veteran Russianists Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. Fathers and Children—or Fathers and Sons, as some earlier translations have it—was first published in 1862, and while Turgenev’s Russia is a different world from today’s America in many ways, the book still feels surprisingly timely. That’s because it was the first novel to deal with a theme that has preoccupied writers ever since, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Philip Roth: the way politics turns children into their parents’ enemies.

Fathers and Children opens with a scene that will make any recent college graduate, or any parent of such a graduate, wince with recognition. Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, a man in his 40s, is waiting eagerly for his son, Arkady, who is coming back to his provincial hometown after having graduated from the university in St. Petersburg. Nikolai, a widower, is deeply moved to see his son again but doesn’t quite know how to express it; as for Arkady, Turgenev writes, “despite the sincere, almost childlike delight that filled his heart, he was anxious for the conversation to be less intense, more ordinary.” Father and son both know that their relative positions in the family have changed but aren’t sure how to navigate the new dynamic—especially when Arkady discovers that his father has installed a young servant girl in the household as his mistress, and that she has given Arkady a baby brother.

It was the first novel to deal with a theme that has preoccupied writers ever since, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Philip Roth: the way politics turns children into their parents’ enemies.

The love between father and son, if left alone, would probably allow them to work things out. But Arkady has come home with a friend, Evgeni Vasilyich Bazarov, who has no interest in reconciliation. As Arkady informs his father and uncle Pavel, Bazarov is a “nihilist,” which he defines as “someone who doesn’t bow to any authority, who doesn’t take a single principle on trust, no matter how much that principle is revered.” “So, and is that a good thing?” asks Pavel suspiciously, and Turgenev spends the rest of the book offering evidence on both sides of the question.

Fathers and Children was the product of a society agonizingly aware of its own backwardness. As the nations of Western Europe were industrializing and democratizing, czarist Russia remained poor, rural, and feudal, and the educated classes recognized the need for change. In 1861, the year before Fathers and Children appeared, Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom. In this context, Turgenev shows, Bazarov’s nihilism can be seen as progressive: by taking nothing for granted, he hopes to cut through the fog of tradition and illusion that obscures Russia’s concrete problems. “A decent chemist is worth twenty poets,” he declares.

What makes the novel continually timely is Turgenev’s insight into the psychology of such youthful rebellion. When we see Bazarov at home with his own parents, his principled nihilism starts to look more like cruelty—rejecting his mother’s affection, giving his father orders, humiliating them more deeply every time they reveal their abject devotion. Does Bazarov hate his parents, and encourage Arkady to hate his father, because they are obstacles to the truth he seeks? Or has he defined truth as whatever makes parents suffer?

Turgenev gives his story a happy ending, or the closest thing to it that the situation allows. The novel concludes with a sentimental affirmation: “Can it be that love, holy, devoted love, is not all-powerful? O no!”

But the war between the generations that he diagnosed was about to get much more ferocious. In the 20th century, the ideological descendants of Bazarov in places such as Russia, China, and Cambodia would take the commandment to wipe out the corrupt older generation quite literally. We’ve never gotten anywhere close to that in America, but we’ve seen enough of the self-righteousness of children and the stubbornness of parents to make Fathers and Children a book for our moment.

Adam Kirsch is the author of The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century and an editor for The Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section