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.