The Mysteries of Russian Love

Ivan Turgenev, one of Russia’s greatest novelists, fell in love with a married woman, the French opera singer Pauline Viadot, and loved her – by all accounts chastely – for the next forty years or so until he died.

Robert Dessaix, an Australian writer, fell in love with the Russian language as an 11-year-old and then spent the next forty years of his life gaining an increasing intimacy with, and respect for, Turgenev’s work. So much so that, in his book, Twilight of Love; Travels with Turgenev, he sets out to follow in the author’s footsteps as he crisscrossed Europe, a native of Russia, but living in Germany and France as part of Viadot’s household for years at a time. Dessaix’s project here is to get as close to Turgenev as he can, to see where he lived, to think about the books he wrote, and to understand what love meant to him. Dessaix wants to gain insight into how he could have been not just satisfied, but often overwhelmed and inspired with what might seem so little real affection to our modern eyes.

It could be, Dessaix muses, that we simply don’t have the right word for what Pauline and Turgenev experienced, and therefore we lack the concept. A ‘love affair’ sounds too carnal, ‘passion’ sounds unsustainable, to be ‘deeply in love’ gives the relationship a turbulence that in reality it lacked. You might wonder why Dessaix cares, but he understands Turgenev’s life and writings to have marked a twilight zone between Romanticism and ‘something darker, more mercilessly reasoned and, of course, more recognizably modern on the other.’ In which case he deduces that what Turgenev could live and feel is impossible to us today, and an example of something extraordinary, unique and enigmatic. He approaches it with a historian’s interest but in the hope of conjuring it up in the present again, out of the contexts in which Turgenev lived and wrote.

What muddies the water a little bit is the fact that Turgenev seems to have been unable to love in any other kind of way. He had a daughter, the product of a fling that Dessaix is notably reluctant to talk about, and late in life he had another amour for a young actress who took on a role in his well-known play, A Month in the Country. At the time, Turgenev was 60 and Maria Savina was 25 and they managed an hour in a train together with Turgenev kissing her hands. That provided enough fantasy for him to live off for several years. Quite what occurred in the train carriage is open to speculation, and Dessaix ticks other writers off for speculating – notably Julian Barnes who wrote a short story about the encounter. Well, never one to miss a Barnes opportunity, I looked the short story up. It’s called ‘The Revival’ and you can find it in his collection, The Lemon Tree. After having been steeped in Robert Dessaix’s perspective on Turgenev, I was looking forward to this story enormously, thinking it would shed entirely different light on the author and his love affairs. And you know what? It was the oddest sensation, but I could have been reading a distilled version of Dessaix’s book, with the difference that Barnes displays always a fearless, explicit approach to the enigma of sex, whilst Dessaix is firmly on the side of idealizing romance. It occurred to me then that both men were quietly fascinated by the idea of a relationship that did not necessarily have the sexual component as its central point. In both cases this interest is dressed up – by Barnes in a postmodern, playful, speculative way, by Dessaix in a romantic, cultural, literary way, but that’s what it boils down to. Dessaix, you can tell, thinks Turgenev remarkable for his ability to love asexually; Barnes surreptitiously suggests he’s either scared or past it.

However, I would be doing Dessaix’s book an injustice if I suggested that Turgenev’s love affair was all he talked about. In fact, far from it. This book is just as much a travelogue of European literary haunts; it’s also an exploration of some of Turgenev’s works, and it is a great deal about Dessaix and his relationship to Russia and to literature. To be honest, the biggest character in the book is Dessaix himself, not least because he keeps appropriating Turgenev’s life to his own. Both come from a land beyond the reach of culture, Australia and Russia being viewed, he insists, as places that civilization has failed to touch, places that in each author’s contemporary life were understood as being able only to borrow the art of others. They both sought to get out, and stay out as far as possible, of their native lands. When it comes to the question of love, Dessaix becomes coy for the only time in the book. He had a wife, for a while, and there is also talk of a male lover, but that’s all we get to know. It might have been better if he had been more open about his own relationship to love, as a proper point of comparison, and allowed Turgenev to speak for himself occasionally. As an homage to Turgenev also, this is a touch baffling at times. ‘To be frank, Smoke is not a very good novel’ he tells us. And ‘[Turgenev] has never pierced me the way some writers can, I must admit, he’d never hurled me into some new dimension, but over the years I’d woven whole skeins of him into who I was.’ There is praise, but always of a qualified kind as if Turgenev, having had a whole book dedicated to him by Dessaix, must not expect to get swollen-headed about it. However, for all the quirks in the content, this is an exquisitely written book, continuously evocative and charming, and very witty, too. You can come to it (as I did) knowing nothing about Turgenev and go away informed and enlightened. But as for love, the reader must put the book down only further mystified, in a satisfying way, about the intricacies and intimacies of its myriad formations.

12 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Russian Love

  1. How interesting. I didn’t know anything about Turgenev’s lack of sexual relationships. I read Turgenev in my late teens, mainly because Fathers and Sons was a lot shorter than the novels by other Russians. I liked it then, but don’t remember much about it now. This reminds me of J.M. Barrie, by all accounts a man who was pretty asexual (or pre-sexual). If Turgenev wasn’t gay then I’d guess he had something in common with Barrie, but that rather than put himself into the world of kids, as Barrie did, he satisfied himself with a romanticized and unobtainable relationship.

  2. I do adore Robert Dessaix’s writing but I found Twilight of Love difficult to read, to the point that I never finished it. I found it too restful and reflective, lacking the guts I liked in his other writings. It feels like the musings of someone at the end of their life. I intend to return to it one day but it’s not right for me, right now.

    I just bookmooched it recently … so did I bookmooch it to you? (no need to answer).

    I also adore Robert Dessaix – I’ve seen him live twice, I think, at writing festivals (in Austalia). He is very charming, quick and funny, but incredibly private with his private life, even though he himself is so open and in evidence in his writing; the people in his life are not.

    All I know of his private life is that he has a life companion (male) and they live a very steady, peaceful, creative life in Tasmania, Australia.

  3. Bluestocking – I’d heard of him, but have not read anything by him. I think I’ll certainly have to now – I’ll let you know what his novels are like!

    Lilian – I hadn’t thought of Barrie, but it’s an intriguing comparison. Turgenev seems to have been heterosexual without doubts, but it was as if he preferred the hothouse of courtly love and romance to the banality of a committed and orthodox relationship. The former was more poetic, more creative. At least, that’s what I take from Dessaix’s reading. I will definitely have to read Turgenev now. I think I have Fathers and Sons – I take it it’s a good place to start?

    Oanh – now that’s extremely interesting. This was the only Dessaix I could get hold of in the UK (easily, that is, via amazon, rather than bookmooching which I never thought of!). I’d love a recommendation for another book by him. He does write very well and is extremely witty and amusing. I’m glad of the confirmation of his privacy – it seems a gentlemanly way to go about things when you put it like that. And I know just what you mean about it being a bit difficult to read. I enjoyed it, but I could also read it without fully taking it in – and then I’d suddenly realise and have to go back. I’d very much like to give him another try.

  4. I have liked Night Letters – another travelogue of sorts, about Venice – and (And So Forth) – yes, its title is in parentheses; it’s a collection of short stories and essays on myriad subjects – Anna Karenina, a trip into the Aus. outback, art, pornography. I think you would really enjoy and engage with (And So Forth), but Night Letters is probably the best one to make someone a fan of RD.

    Although I have both books and would happily mooch them to you, they are in storage in my sister’s garage in Australia. Not very helpful, really.

  5. This sounds like a fascinating book on Turgenev-my knowledge of his life history comes mainly from the wonderful biography of his very good friend, Gustav Flaubert, by Frederick Brown. As to the sex life of Turgenev, one wonders if he shared Flaubert’s fascination with the brothels of Paris. Perhaps Robert Dessaix
    is hesitant to talk a lot about the mother of Turgenev’s child because the mother was one of the serfs basically owned by his family and we assume she had no choice but to engage in sex with her owner.
    Turgenev’s mother was incredibly cruel to the 1000s of serfs she owned. There are for sure unaswered questions about Turgenev’s sex life, maybe Robert Dessaix did not want to open some doors.

  6. I love books in which current writers follow in the footsteps of writers from the past, I can’t say I’ve read that many of them…yet, but I always add them to my reading list to get to one day. I’m not sure what I find so intriguing, maybe the combination of literature, travel, memoir and biography all rolled together.

  7. Oanh – that is just so lovely of you to even think of it! But don’t worry – the first search for Dessaix I simply took the path of least resistance, but there are all kinds of ways that I can get hold of his work. Now that I know what I’m looking for, it will be much simpler – thank you!!

    Mel – I’m impressed by your knowledge of Turgenev! Dessaix mentions the fact that his mother’s a monster, but he does keep quiet about the serf. I must get hold of the book on Flaubert, who is also an interest of mine as it sounds wonderful and most informative. Thank you for your comment!

    Stefanie – I know just what you mean. There’s a certain combination of interests that works so well together and opens all kinds of unusual doors in a narrative. I love them too!

    • Frederick Brown’s biography of Flaubert is really a great study of Flaubert and his associates-my personal bet is that Turgenev was a willing follower of Flaubert in his trips to the brothels of Paris-he may have split love and sex some how-he cannot have sex with a woman he loves-amateur psychology, of course, but fits what we know about him-we do not know of Turgenev’s early sex life but he may have had sex at a young age with serf women-basically slaves – my understanding is that his mother did put serfs that displeased her to death or subjected them to whippings that were sure to have that result-Tolstoy also had relations with serf women-my guess this was common practice among Russian gentry of the period

  8. I’m very glad to hear you can enjoy this without knowing anything about Turgenev, as I plan to do just that. I’m also glad to know it’s such a fascinating book, and after I read it (whenever that is), I’ll definitely have to read the Barnes story. What a great thing it is that the works go so well together! Dessaix’s book sounds kind of odd, which is something I generally like 🙂

  9. Mel U – what you say there has a lot of sense. Put the mother and the serfs together and what do you have? A Freudian complex that was very pervasive in Europe around the time Turgenev was living. I really must get hold of this book by Frederick Brown!

    Dorothy – I am very much looking forward to you reading it (whenever it makes it to the top of the pile!). I suppose it has a travel memoir-ish feel to it most predominantly, but where he goes in his mind through travel is towards Turgenev’s life and work, continually overlaying the present with the past. It IS good, with lots to appreciate in it. Made me want to read more books like this for comparison!

  10. I quite like Turgenev. I’ve read both Fathers and Sons and First Love in the last year, and they both offer, among other things, a look at relationships that’s quite liberal for their place and time. I’m intrigued to know more about his personal life.

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