The Triumph of Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev; drawing by David Levine


In his novel Snow, the Turkish Nobelist Orhan Pamuk has his character Ka, a Turk living in Germany, think of Ivan Turgenev, the great Russian writer who lived most of his adult life—nearly fifty years—in Europe:

Ka loved Turgenev, and his elegant novels, and like the Russian writer Ka too had tired of his own country’s never-ending troubles and come to despise its backwardness, only to find himself gazing back with love and longing after a move to Europe.

Unlike such expatriate writers as Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad, who mostly chose new subjects in new countries, Turgenev gazes back at a turbulent homeland in the throes of social change, beginning with the Decembrists in 1825, the stirrings of communism (the Communist Manifesto was issued in 1848), the agitations of influential political figures like Sergei Nachaev, Alexander Herzen, and Mikhail Bakunin, and the end of serfdom in 1861.

Like Ka, Robert Dessaix, the author of a curious but seductive book, Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev—part biography, part memoir, part travelogue, part literary criticism—looks at his own life and that of the great Russian through the romantic lens of exile. It’s significant that Dessaix is an Australian: an Australian, no matter where he is, is far from home, and it was that alienated sense of displacement that drew him, like Ka, to Turgenev, all three so far from home.

Also like Ka, Dessaix is fascinated not so much with Turgenev’s work as with the man himself. He follows in Turgenev’s footsteps from Russia to Baden-Baden to Paris to the French countryside, imagining the figure he finds or needs, gazing at the places where Turgenev’s shade does or doesn’t seem present, in Germany or Russia or the site of a vanished castle in France. He hopes to raise Turgenev’s ghost, to feel his presence, as people do when they wish to feel close to a writer they admire, beyond and more intimately than in his works or through his characters: it’s Ivan Turgenev the seeker wants, not his creations Nezhdanov (in Virgin Soil) or Bazarov (in Fathers and Sons).

During this exercise of identification and sympathy Dessaix tells us something, but not everything, about both the Russian and himself, and enough about Turgenev’s work to lead us back to it, where we find a surprisingly modern figure. Dessaix also charts his own emotional progress as he moves closer to understanding the man he is seeking. With him from time to time as he tracks down Turgenev’s vanished haunts are companions—Ilse, Irina, Daniel—who make occasional observations and enliven with their questions Dessaix’s interior ruminations; there are suggestions of Dessaix’s entangled past with each of these people, but the present drama is within the contemplative, erudite Dessaix himself.

Turgenev was born into an old noble family in Spasskoye in 1818 (the same year as Emily Brontë) and was brought up on his…

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