Turgenev’s Button on Stevenson’s Shirt: The Strange Case of a Resuscitated Lover

Inna Caron, Ohio State University

Ivan Sergeevič Turgenev’s “Song of Triumphant Love,” written in 1879 and published in 1881, quickly attracted the attention of Western readers. Aside from the romantic plot and the erotic details, this story presents a mysterious scene of a raising from the dead. When one of the main characters, Mucio, is struck by his rival Fabio with what appears to be a deadly blow, his Malaysian servant resuscitates him through a series of strange rituals. Seen through the eyes of the rational Westerner, it appears to be dark Oriental magic that is operating in this scene. Certainly it evoked a great deal of interest both in Russia and abroad.

In 1882 Turgenev’s tale was translated into English and published in New York. In 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson moved to Saranac Lake, New York, where shortly after his arrival he began his novel The Master of Ballantrae. At the core of this novel lies a life-long rivalry between two brothers, including some details, which are similar to the love triangle conflict in Turgenev’s “Song of Triumphant Love.” This similarity is quite trivial, however. What is noteworthy though are the climactic scenes of the devious brother’s death and his subsequent resuscitation by his Indian servant. It closely parallels the resuscitation scene of Turgenev’s tale.

Claire Harmon, who wrote a preface to the Anniversary Edition of The Master of Ballantrae issued a thought-provoking statement that Stevenson “made a whole shirt to fit a button.” Evidently, she was referring to documents of the Stevenson Society, according to which the Scottish writer conceived the plot of his novel because while in Saranac Lake he recalled a resuscitation story of an Indian fakir, told to him by his uncle a long time ago.

This paper proposes to reevaluate the aforementioned statement, as well as the chronology and the geographic proximity of the American edition of Turgenev’s tale and the new Stevenson’s novel, as a rational ground for the comparative analysis of the two texts. A close reading of both resuscitation stories, I believe, will demonstrate that it was Turgenev’s “Song of Triumphant Love” that may have provided the real button around which the shirt of The Master of Ballantrae was made.