A writer searches out the significant sites in the life of Ivan Turgenev and ponders love, obsession, creation and literary celebrity.
No bald description can do justice to this moving and poignant work, the latest from Dessaix, whose memoir Night Letters (1997) showed how artfully he can intertwine the mundane and miraculous. An Australian who now lives in Tasmania, Dessaix first became interested in Russia and its language in the 1950s, when Sputnik was beeping overhead. Not many years afterward, he lived and studied in the Soviet Union and became a noted scholar (Turgenev: The Quest for Faith, 1980). Here, he begins his account in Baden-Baden (where the great novelist lived for a time), then travels to France and Russia to visit the places where Turgenev resided, wrote, loved, suffered and died (not all the sites are extant). He sees, as well, places where his characters played out their parts—staircases they descended, restaurants they frequented. Dessaix is fascinated with Turgenev’s 40-year passion for the singer Pauline Viardot-García, a married woman of ordinary if not homely looks. Turgenev lived near (and even with) her for long periods, enjoying her husband’s company, as well. Dessaix believes there was no sexual contact between the writer and Pauline—but there was patent eroticism. Along the way, the traveler and author contemplates some of life’s great conundrums, the pains and pleasures undergone by Turgenev and, for that matter, by all of us. He summarizes relevant passages from the novels—both the well-known and the unknown—and, along the way, examines his own successes and failures in intimacy. Some of his sentences are surpassingly lovely (Turgenev’s “single theme,” he writes, “refracting a single flame: I love you, yet we must die”). Dessaix also takes some amusing potshots at hunters and at the excessively credulous and pious. And he resolves to reread Turgenev.
Simply, gracefully and wisely written, saturated with the sorrows and joys of years.