The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Artists & Lovers

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture


Allen Lane 551pp £30 order from our bookshop

At the heart of The Europeans is an extraordinary ménage à trois. The novelist Ivan Turgenev was for two-thirds of his life in love with the singer and composer Pauline Viardot, wife of the entrepreneur and connoisseur Louis Viardot, who accepted Turgenev as a friend and shooting companion. The relationship (briefly a ménage à quatre when Pauline and Charles Gounod fell in love) was sustained by the emotional intelligence of all three and by the balance of interests. They were voluntary exiles (Louis was French, Pauline was Spanish and Turgenev was Russian) who spent much of their lives in Germany, notably in Baden-Baden. Turgenev left Russia, returning only for short visits, to escape police surveillance and to avoid critics outraged by the either too radical or too reactionary protagonists of his novels. Pauline and her husband were abroad largely because of her career as an opera singer.

This trio’s story has often been told. Pauline was the daughter of a famous singer and composer, Manuel García (whom Turgenev would discreetly laud in his Spring Torrents). Like any Spaniard at the time, she had to be as tough as she was talented to make an impact in Europe’s cultural centres. She became an astute businesswoman as well as a superb musician and linguist, and was enchanting company too. Owing to Pauline’s redaction of letters and diaries (she outlived both her husband and her lover by twenty-seven years) and to her children’s discretion, as well as to the thoroughness of the existing scholarship, there is little new that Orlando Figes can report. But he does persuade us to take Pauline’s compositions seriously. (Recordings are now available of her remarkable settings of Russian texts and her much-praised vocal arrangements of Chopin’s mazurkas, though we have yet to hear her instrumental music, let alone her operas.) Among French musicologists, preparations for the bicentenary of her birth, which falls in 2021, are advanced. The two-hundredth anniversary of Turgenev’s birth passed, with deplorably little attention, a year ago.

Like his earlier work Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, published in 2002, Figes’s latest book is composed on a broad canvas, with bold brushstrokes that suggest the inseparability of 19th-century Russian culture from wider European influences. He floods us with contextual information, not least the history of European opera from Rossini to Wagner. He explores the factors that turned opera from a metropolitan, aristocratic art form into a cosmopolitan, bourgeois one. He also gives us an account of the railway-building spree of 1840 to 1890 that enabled singers and audiences to travel from one side of Europe to the other in days. (It is a sobering thought that the Paris–St Petersburg train was faster in 1896 than in 1996.) Another subject Figes provides a great deal of information about (perhaps too much) is money. Over the course of the 19th century, exchange rates settled. For international singers such as Pauline, this brought a degree of prosperity and an independence previously unavailable to those in the profession.

As for the developments that shaped Turgenev’s career, Figes discusses the role of cheap printing and railway bookstalls, which ensured that more copies could be sold, though that did not necessarily mean an increase in authors’ incomes. The growth of lithography and photography allowed music scores and performers’ images to be distributed widely. The weakness of copyright laws (especially international ones) and the poor payment and qualifications of translators (Turgenev often translated his own works into French) prevented writers, unlike singers, from benefiting from the growing unification of Europe.

Economic and technological developments were of course important factors in the emergence of a new cosmopolitan culture. But one misses in this study any insight into less tangible factors (for instance, the decline of religion or advances in medical knowledge) in forming a pan-European outlook. Nor does Figes explore in any depth Turgenev’s genius as a writer. We learn a lot about his income (or penury, because of his ineptitude and generosity). We also follow the splendours and miseries of his love life, typified by his remark that he could feel love only when a woman’s heel was pushing his neck into the mud. Turgenev was particularly unhappy whenever Louis and Pauline felt that, for appearances’ sake (usually when Pauline gave birth), he should fade into the background. We learn where Turgenev went and whom he met, and we hear about his periods of creativity and barrenness, his charm and eccentricities, but Figes is less interested in what made his work so powerful. No other Russian writer has conveyed so convincingly the ability of erotic attraction to overwhelm a perfectly decent person’s life; no other Russian writer was able to look at radicals to the left and conservatives to the right and either show the good in both sides (as in Fathers and Sons) or pronounce a pox on both their houses (as in Smoke). Like Chekhov after him, Turgenev could distil in twenty pages what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy took two hundred to say, and he did so in prose as refined and musical as Flaubert’s.

In fact, it was with Flaubert that he had most in common. Smoke and Sentimental Education were written concurrently, and the two writers were corresponding at the time. The unheroic heroes of their respective novels are similar and both writers felt disillusionment with politics. Flaubert’s conclusion that falling in love is the equivalent of bringing flowers to a brothel is harsher than Turgenev’s, but their two protagonists, in love with two contrasting women, suffer similar catastrophic breakdowns. As Figes points out, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky seemed more authentically Russian to European readers, but until these two were accepted into the canon it was Turgenev who gave Russian literature its prestige. Figes’s book should stimulate new interest in Turgenev. Recent translations of Smoke (by Michael Pursglove) and Fathers and Sons (by the late Peter Carson) have given English readers the next best things to the originals.

An exemplary index and source notes make it easy to navigate this encyclopedic work. Once again, Figes attempts to cover all the arts; in Natasha’s Dance, the stretching of his expertise aroused some wonder and, where holes appeared in the canvas, controversy. As in that book, minor inaccuracies put at risk one’s faith in the enterprise. He identifies the fiancée of the hero of Spring Torrents as German instead of Italian. He also misleadingly describes Lavretsky, the hero of Home of the Gentry, as a ‘lovesick’ traveller, whereas in reality Lavretsky is poleaxed as a result of his wife’s betrayal. There are other questionable assertions in The Europeans. Hungarians would be furious to read that their folk music is of gypsy origin. And women didn’t need to wait for the invention of the fortepiano to play chamber music: they had the harpsichord. As for the 19th-century British literary world, Figes speculates that it had no need for Emile Zola because it had Thomas Hardy instead. In fact, the two novelists have little in common. The reason almost none of Zola’s works were available in English is that publishers were scared off once Henry Vizetelly had been prosecuted for obscene libel after publishing a translation of The Earth in 1888.

A fascinating subtext in The Europeans is Britain’s grim isolation. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Viardots found British weather, audiences, music, food, hotels and Sundays unendurable, the compensation being the high fees foreign artists could command in Britain. (The country may have been known in Germany as ‘the land without music’, but it liked to import it.) Figes’s heroes were shocked on meeting Tennyson to hear that he had never read George Sand or Victor Hugo, let alone a Russian novel. Turgenev too sometimes found Britain trying, although Figes omits the passages in his letters where he expressed delight at the Isle of Wight (he began Fathers and Sons there), enjoyment in George Eliot’s company and pleasure at shooting partridges in Cambridgeshire. He spoke English well and was happy to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford. Other Russians loathed Britain more: Dostoevsky denounced the Crystal Palace and the child prostitutes of Haymarket, while Tolstoy derided Englishmen’s false teeth – a symbol to him of false character.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter