Archive for October 13th, 2020

“The Europeans” by Orlando Figes

There’s something about the mid-19th century that fascinates me. Or rather, to be more precise, there’s something about the arts and the culture of the western world of the mid-19th century that fascinates me. But that’s too cumbersome for an opening line.

Pick just about any decade or two any time in history, and it would be easy to reel off the great writers, painters and composers who were active at the time, and the great works that were produced; and the mid-19th century is no exception in that regard. But what makes this period exceptional for me is that there were so many works of that era that mean so much to me personally. Let us, for instance, consider the single decade, the 1860s. It was Dickens’ last decade, and saw the publication of his last two complete novels – Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend; George Eliot weighed in with The Mill on the Floss, Lewis Carroll published the first of his two Alice novels, Robert Browning published Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last poems were published posthumously after her death in 1861; Tennyson wrote Enoch Arden, and Trollope … well, a quick glance at the reference books indicates that he was, as usual, scribbling away like no man’s business. Across the channel, there was the publication of the final edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert published Salammbô  and L’Education Sentimentale, and Zola made his mark with the wonderfully lurid Thérèse Raquin. From Russia, we have Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, while Dostoevsky was keeping himself busy with From the House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot. Tolstoy only wrote one major work in that decade, but that major work was War and Peace. And in the meantime, Ibsen, after many years churning out plays that are now only remembered because he went on to write better stuff, got off the mark as an artist with Brand and Peer Gynt, possibly the last great plays written in verse. And all this time, across the Atlantic, the two great American poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, were writing some of their finest works.

And this is just literature. There were revolutions happening in the other arts too. Music could not be the same again after Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: composers who came afterwards were either influenced by Wagner, or reacted against him, but they could not ignore him. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was also composed in that decade, as were Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos, some of the later works of Berlioz and some of the earlier works of Brahms … and so on, and so forth.

Meanwhile, in the visual arts, the two giant canvases exhibited by Manet – Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe – were arguably as revolutionary in painting as Tristan und Isolde was in music. The artists now known collectively as the Impressionists (rather misleadingly, since they were all very different from each other) – Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir – were all establishing their distinctive styles and artistic visions.

Even acknowledging that we can find significant artistic activity in just about any decade we may care to look at, this seems to me quite exceptional. And if we look at the decades before and after the 1860s (don’t worry – I won’t be providing more boring lists!) we can find similar flowerings of artistry, in all areas. It could well be that I find this era particularly fascinating merely because I am personally attached to so many of its artistic creations, but I do find it hard to escape the conclusion that there was something in the air – something special was happening. But it’s hard to put one’s finger on it without making crude generalisations.

It seems to me that, around the mid-century – 1850, say – Europe, culturally, was between, as it were, two “-isms”. Romanticism wasn’t quite dead – indeed, I don’t think it ever died – but the writers who flourished in the latter half of the century cannot really be described as “Romantic”: indeed, many, such as, say, Flaubert, may rightly be described as rebelling against Romanticism. Similarly in art: the label “Romantic” may easily be applied to Turner, say, or to Delacroix, but not to the artists now known as the Impressionists, nor to the next generation who are labelled (not too imaginatively) as the post-Impressionists. Like the writers of that era, they were neither Romantic, nor Modernist. The composers who flourished in the latter part of the century are still known as Romantic – Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. – but many of the earlier generation of romantics (Mendelssohn, Weber, Chopin) were already dead by 1850, and Schumann died shortly afterwards in 1856 (although his productivity had been tragically cut off towards the end by severe mental illness). Although some of the old-timers did continue into the latter half of the century (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi), styles, inevitably, had moved on from the early days of Romanticism: Berlioz had already done much of his best work (Les Troyens excepted), while the best work of Wagner and of Verdi was yet to come. In short, whether they had labels or not, artists of the later half of the 19th century, despite the lack of an “-ism” to characterise them, were, I think, producing works that were significantly different from what had come before. And it is this period – this “inbetweenism”, in between the first wave of Romanticism and the emergence of modernism – that fascinates me. While there are, of course, many artists from outside this era whom I revere – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, and various others who carry that terrible stigma of being “dead white men” – it is this in-between era to which I most feel drawn.

And so, when a trusted friend recommended me to read The Europeans by Orlando Figes, I had little hesitation. It is, ostensibly, the story of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, and the somewhat curious ménage à trois he had with famous opera singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, and her husband, the art critic and translator Louis Viardot; but Figes hangs on this narrative line a fascinating cultural history of Europe in that period. He considers all kinds of factors that shaped the direction of the arts – political, economic, social, technological, even legal: the establishment of copyright laws, for instance, and the various bilateral agreements between nations, transformed the direction not only of literature, but also of music publishing. The greater ease of transport not only made travelling between countries easier, it increased the catchment areas of opera houses, and an increased potential pool for their audience meant a decreased requirement for a constant supply of new works. And so on. Within a few decades, the world changed in all sorts of very important ways, and the arts, to survive, and, quite often, to flourish, had to adapt and change along the way.

The narrative of Figes’ book begins in 1843, when Turgenev and Pauline Viardot first met, and continues till 1883, with the deaths of Louis Viardot and of Turgenev. An early chapter fills us in on the events before, and a concluding chapter on events afterwards – focussing, naturally, on Pauline Viardot who lost the two men in her life within a few months of each other. Their story, fascinating in itself (all three were remarkable figures) is particularly appropriate for a book that is essentially about European culture, since they were the most cosmopolitan of people. Turgenev was Russian, Louis Viardot was French, and Pauline Garcia was Spanish, but they all seemed most at home in Germany, and travelled and lived extensively around Europe. Pauline Garcia wasn’t, to judge from her portraits, particularly beautiful, but she possessed, apparently, an extraordinary personal charisma, and her singing was, from all accounts, mesmeric. At one point, we are told of Turgenev observing Dickens in the stalls, listening to Pauline singing Orfeo in a revival of Gluck’s opera (the revival was organised by some chap called Hector Berlioz) with tears streaming down his eyes. Turgenev met briefly with Dickens on the way out, and Dickens was sufficiently moved by the performance to write what is effectively a fan letter to Pauline Garcia-Viardot.

Throughout, one gets what could be called “cultural name-dropping”: there goes Manet, there’s Wagner, there’s Tolstoy – and look over there! – there’s Brahms, there’s Flaubert. The entire book, apart from anything else, is a veritable Who’s Who of major cultural figures of the time. There are some, admittedly, who remain on the fringes: Turgenev appears never to have met with Verdi, for instance, despite Verdi’s immense stature, even at the time. Although we are told Pauline Viardot had performed in Verdi’s Macbeth and Il Trovatore, we are also told of her antipathy to Verdi’s music; and Turgenev himself had been a bit rude about La Traviata in his novel On the Eve. The tastes of Turgenev and of the Viardots tended to run more towards the Germanic rather than the Italianate: Pauline Viardot was, like many others, entranced by the music of Wagner, though she was (much to her credit) outraged when Wagner reprinted his notorious pamphlet “Judaism in Music”. Another of my great cultural heroes of that era, Ibsen, doesn’t really get much of a look in either, despite having spent most of his best productive years in Europe.

The two events that most shook the lives  of Turgenev and the Viardots were the revolutions of 1848, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (The unification of Italy doesn’t appear to have touched them much, as their focus was more on the north than on the south.) For the latter Turgenev and the Viardots sided strongly with the Prussians, despite Louis Viardot’s French nationality: this was partly because they were living in Baden at the time, but also because they felt this war would help bring down the hated monarchy of Napoleon III.

Interestingly, Verdi, another great artist with liberal leanings, sided with France in this conflict, saying in a private letter that whatever the Italians knew about freedom and liberty, “we have learnt from the French”, and expressing great unease about growing Germanic nationalism. It has long seemed quite curious to me that, despite his own position as a sort of cultural representative of Italian nationalism, he chose for his next opera, Aida, a storyline that was very explicitly anti-nationalist. It is of course wishful thinking on my part that so great a cultural hero of mine should share my own political biases, and I think I should read up a bit more to see if this was indeed the case. But I continue to think it remarkable, nonetheless, that at a time when various types of nationalism around Europe were on the rise, Verdi should compose a work that so eloquently depicts human love overcoming the barriers of nationhood that separate and divide us.

For, while this era was an era of greater cosmopolitanism, it was an era also of increased nationalism: perhaps one cannot have one without the other. People became increasingly worried that with nations coming closer together, local traditions would be erased, and all different cultures homogenised. Perhaps the most notorious expression of this was the monologue Hans Sachs is given towards the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where German artists are encouraged to keep German art “pure”. This feeling was echoed by all other nationalities – the Czechs, the Russians, and the citizens of the newly united Italy. (Even Verdi urged that Italian composers should be true to the spirit and the traditions of Italian music.) There seemed to be a genuine fear that individual national characteristics will be swallowed up by the international whole – a fear that is still, incidentally, very much with us. This feeling was particularly acute in Russia, where Slavophiles and those who looked to western liberalism were virtually at each other’s throats. This conflict was very apparent in relations between Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. They met when Dostoyevsky, in Baden, visited Turgenev: he had not wanted to, but the two had met accidentally in the street, and, since Dostoyevsky owed Turgenev money, he did not want Turgenev to think that he was deliberately avoiding his creditor. There are conflicting reports on what exactly passed between the two men, but it was certainly most acrimonious, with Dostoyevsky angrily denouncing Turgenev’s last novel Smoke, and Turgenev (according to Dostoyevsky) claiming that he was proud to regard himself as a German rather than as a Russian. Turgenev later denied he had ever said such a thing. And Dostoyevsky’s debt to Turgenev never did get paid.

Like many others at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Turgenev and the Viardots found themselves refugees in England, and the picture that emerges of England at the time reads almost like a catalogue of every single stereotype about the coutry: bad food, a highly polluted foggy and dismal London, and the like. Prices in England were much higher than elsewhere in Europe: despite the shocking levels of poverty, there was clearly much more money circulating in England than there was elsewhere in the continent. (Although Figes doesn’t mention it, one suspects that the rather extensive British Empire may have had something to do with that.) And there was the cultural insularity. The British book trade depended far less on translations than did the book trades of other countries, and when Turgenev spent a few days as a guest of Tennyson’s (yes, he pops up as well), he was surprised to find that not only did this eminent man of letters know nothing of any literature written in any of the countries across the channel, he wasn’t much interested in finding out about it either.

Turgenev had his personal flaws, as does anyone, but he does emerge as a very kind and decent person. So, indeed, does Louis Viardot. Pauline Viardot, in many ways, does appear to be a stereotypically temperamental prima donna, but Figes captures the immense personal charisma that drew so many people to her. Both Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died in 1884: Viardot was some twenty years older, so his demise was perhaps not so unexpected; Turgenev died after a very painful and distressing illness. Among other things, he wrote on his deathbed a touching reconciliatory letter to Tolstoy (with whom he hadn’t always been on good terms), telling him that he considered it a privilege to have lived at the same time. Turgenev, his great friend Flaubert, Wagner, Distoyevsky, Manet and Liszt all died within about five years of each other: culturally, it did seem like the end of an era. And of course, a new one was just around the corner. But what an extraordinary few decades these were! We could see this era, of course, as a sort of bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, but really, beyond a point, labels are pretty meaningless: they may help us see patterns amid all the chaos, but sometimes, these labels create patterns don’t really exist. This Inbetweenism that existed in the years covered by this book – roughly, 1843 to 1874 – remains, for me, one of the most wonderful periods of artistic and cultural activity, and The Europeans I found a quite enthralling guide. Among other things, it makes me want to revisit the works of Turgenev (“the novelist’s novelist” according to Henry James), and of his friend Flaubert. On the whole, this is the cultural era in which I feel most at home.