Magazine article The Spectator

He Didn't Linger

Magazine article The Spectator

He Didn't Linger

Article excerpt

He didn't linger TWILIGHT OF LOVE: TRAVELS WITH TURGENEV by Robert Dessaix Scribner, £12.99, pp. 269, ISBN 0743263383 £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

The Australian Robert Dessaix, a Russian scholar, chooses to regard himself, in relation to Western civilisation, as an ancient Greek might have considered a Phrygian or a Scythian - a barbarian outsider. This, he believes, brings him even closer to his beloved and Russian Turgenev, who spent most of his adult life outside Russia, but whom his lifelong love, the French opera singer Pauline Viardot, always regarded as 'a barbarian'. This famous love leads Dessaix to speculate about the nature of love itself. It was 'triangular', in the sense that Viardot was married, and, in the manner of the 12th-century troubadours, it became a 'courtly love'. Turgenev more or less followed her and her husband round Europe, living near them or with them, building houses next to them, at one time in their garden. Dessaix sees Turgenev as Viardot's 'troubadour'. Whatever intimacy he may have hoped for in the beginning, it 'declined' into passionate friendship, but only in the grammatical sense of 'decline'; the noun remains 'love'. Dessaix goes so far as to describe Turgenev as 'mortal love incarnate'.

Just as Turgenev followed the Viardots, so Dessaix follows him, from Baden-Baden to Paris, to Pauline's castle Courtavenel, and to Bougival where, in 1883, aged 65, Turgenev died, still within sight and earshot of his love. Dessaix also goes to Russia, to Turgenev's estate at Spasskoye, and in all these places he observes and describes well, musing upon them to good effect (on the whole). All the time he is puzzling and picking at the word 'love', simultaneously believing and disbelieving in its possibility. This he does in a distracting way, because, never explicitly, he seems to associate Turgenev's experience with his own: 'If I could find the right word for what Turgenev felt, perhaps the love my own life is rooted in would grow even more luxuriantly.'

In the course of this pondering he comes up with the startlingly time-bound idea that the possibility of human love disappeared around the 1850s, with the loss of belief in the human soul, 'as we used to call it' (he presumes too often that he and any reasonable reader will be of the same mind). …

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