Karen Hewitt goes travelling with Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), author of seven short novels, several stories and some remarkable sketches, was once more famous than Tolstoy, and the most admired Russian outside his own country. His fictional characters are typically sensitive, intelligent and acutely aware of each other; but when they fall in love they move into a trance of melancholy and seem almost to embrace failure. In each novel topical issues provide a sketchy plot, and in one (Fathers and Sons) the political theme even promises for a time to predominate, until the hero succumbs reluctantly to a passion that is far more destructive for him than nihilism. (The novelist himself lived for many years in unconsummated love with a happily married woman who accepted him as part of her family.)
In Travels with Turgenev Robert Dessaix sets out to examine Turgenev's versions of love in his life and in his novels. He wanders around houses where the novelist lived in France, Germany and Russia, (comically evoking that irritable ambivalence with which many of us respond to the relics of our heroes), and ponders on Turgenev's extraordinary unchanging devotion to the opera singer, Pauline Viardot. But this is also a personal exploration in which Dessaix and his friends take part in a discussion on what kinds of love are possible today. Might it be that some kinds of love that came naturally if not easily to Turgenev are no longer available to us?
Much of the book swerves from the Russian novelist to the Australian writer's own life to big ideas. Dessaix's intimate beguiling writing does justice to Turgenev's theme of love, but betrays itself when he alludes to his own sexual life. For instance if, like me, you have read nothing else by Dessaix, his coy references to homosexual love, one or possibly two marriages, and unspecified promiscuity are confusing intrusions into an argument about forms of love that have nothing to do with sexual orientation or the giveandtake of an active partnership.
When he discusses the novels, Dessaix is humanely perceptive, and very helpful, I imagine, for those who don't know the novelist's work. But as he points out, Turgenev never turns his beloved actual Pauline into a character in his fiction, and never, except as a melancholy retrospect, describes the kind of love that he seems to have had for her. So 'travels with Turgenev' are not exactly 'travels with his novels': there is a gap between the speculative biography and the actual fiction that is never fully confronted.
That said, this is an enjoyable and deeply moving effort to link literature, life and love.
Dessaix is fond of metaphors about debatable lands "the illlit space between family happiness and unfettered depravity", "beyond the boundary stones of the civilized world", "this twilight space between eras" partly because they are at the heart of his argument about the kind of love which we have lost, partly because they enable him to compare himself with Turgenev.
Dessaix, a young man from Australia in 1965 and Turgenev, a young man from Russia in 1838 were both seeking European civilisation from distant lands that were simultaneously 'uncivilised' and 'home'. His reflections on their shared and disparate experiences are among the effective pages of the book.
Later, he seems to be speaking for himself when he says of Virgin Soil, Turgenev's last novel: "It's about what it's possible to believe in, given death, if you've had an education. And the answer is: nothing at all, unless you were born with a believing nature."
Education, civilisation, the impossibility of taking seriously a notion of "a disembodied Übermensch who had supposedly once turned himself into a Jewish carpenter's son" all define the outlook of both writers.
But as he sits on a bench in the garden of Turgenev's Russian home, Dessaix reflects that he has come to some kind of accommodation with his own unbelief whereas "at the heart of [Turgenev's] despair and dread lay a simple astoundingly modern perception: human life is a hopeless battle with time; and unless love is possible, that's all it is; and love is hardly possible any more."
Of course it is, says Dessaix and yet he fears that we can no longer experience the love that saves us from time, the kind of love that he attributes to the tormented novelist. In the last pages of his book, covering the psychological distance that we have all travelled since Turgenev was alive, the search for "how to love in love's twilight" reaches a conclusion that is both melancholy and brave, fit for the soul.
Twilights of Love: Travels with Turganev is available from Amazon (UK)