Sunday, March 29, 2015

Gemma Roselli

Dark-haired Beauty by Alexeievich Harlamoff
Gemma Roselli is a young Italian girl living in Frankfurt, Germany, and working in her family’s pastry shop where she meets Sanin, a Russian nobleman. The story of this 1840 meeting is told by a mature Sanin as he looks back over his life with regret in Ivan Turgenev’s The Torrents of Spring, published in 1872.

Sanin, who is traveling in Europe before settling down to employment in Russia, enters the pastry shop in order to take a glass of lemonade. The shop is empty but soon a beautiful girl rushes out from a back room, imploring him to save her brother, who has fallen into a faint. Sanin asks for brushes, loosens the boy’s collar and begins rubbing the boy’s chest and arms. When he recovers consciousness, Sanin leaves, but not before Gemma thanks him, requesting that he return to take a cup of chocolate with her family.

Sanin is welcomed by the Rosellis as if he is one of the family. He is so delighted that he misses his coach to Berlin that night. Though they are Italian, they have settled in Frankfurt and Gemma is engaged to a German, Herr Klueber. Gemma’s mother laments that the pastry shop is no longer doing as well as when her husband was alive. The next day Sanin is invited on an outing with Gemma, her brother Emil and Herr Klueber.

Sanin is unhappy to learn that Gemma is engaged and also finds that Klueber is condescending to Gemma and her brother. Klueber is after all a successful tradesman. When they sit down for lunch together near some German officers, one of them comes over to drink to “the most beautiful coffeehouse lady in all Frankfurt and in the world.” Gemma is embarrassed and Herr Klueber immediately insists that his party leave. But Sanin goes over to the officers and presents his card, telling the young man his conduct was “unbecoming to a gentleman and unworthy of the uniform you wear.”

Sanin is called upon to a duel, as he expected. But on the dueling grounds, the officer shoots into the air and apologizes. Emil has watched all of this and reports it to his sister. When Sanin next sees the Rosellis, a melancholy has settled over them quite unlike their former gaiety. In the evening, Gemma gives him a flower and Sanin realizes he loves her.

The next day Gemma’s mother tells Sanin that Gemma has broken off her engagement. She is terribly worried about ruin and scandal and what will become of the family. She begs Sanin to talk sense into her daughter. Sanin goes out into the garden where Gemma is sorting cherries for putting in pastries. Sanin begins to speak to her and she asks him, “I know what my mother thinks. But what advice will you give me?” But Sanin breaks off and asks her to wait. “I will write to you,” he says.

Sanin then impulsively asks Gemma to marry him. He will sell one of his Russian estates and use the proceeds to help her family make the pastry shop a going concern. “First love is exactly like a revolution,” writes Turgenev. “The regular and established order of life is in an instant smashed to fragments.”

When Sanin meets a fellow Russian whose very rich wife might be willing to purchase the estate, he goes off with him to Wiesbaden to negotiate with her. And here we leave Gemma, because we never see her again. Sanin succumbs to the power of the Russian woman, Maria Nikolaevna, who seduces and enslaves him. He sends Gemma a “wretched, lying, miserable letter” which remains unanswered.

Thirty years later, Sanin comes upon the cross set with garnets which Gemma once gave him and wonders what became of her. He goes to Germany to find her, but she has emigrated to America. He writes her a letter and she answers, saying “she regarded her meeting with him as a source of happiness, since it had prevented her from becoming the wife of Herr Klueber.” She was married and lived in New York in complete happiness, contentment and prosperity with her husband, four sons and a daughter.

Turgenev took great care over this story, which grew into a lengthy novel and is regarded as among his best. Though Turgenev wrote A Sportsman’s Sketches which helped turn the Russians against the evils of serfdom, he saw himself as a coward and weak in will. He spent most of his life in thrall to a married woman and never established a nest of his own. The man or woman of will and commitment, embodied here in Maria Nikolaevna, obsessed him and appears in most of his work.

What I loved about Gemma was her liveliness and graciousness. She is in a difficult position in that her mother believes that only through Gemma’s marriage can the family’s economic fortunes be remedied. Gemma, without ever stepping out of the role of the dutiful daughter, nevertheless saves herself through her own deep feeling from marrying a man who patronizes and condescends to her. She regards with friendship the unfortunate Sanin, who thirty years before had betrayed her with the beautiful and powerful Maria Nikolaevna.