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 parents’ large country estate, and then in Moscow, until he left home to study in Europe at the age of twenty. He lived in Germany or France virtually all the rest of his life, nearly another half-century, with periods in Russia to visit his difficult, possessive mother or manage his large holdings. He never married, though he had various mistresses, and fathered a child in Russia whose upbringing he would oversee in France.

The Australian Dessaix imagines with special vividness the moment when the young Turgenev arrived in Europe and felt that he

had come home at last, yet at the same time belonged not here, but somewhere else…. You may have to be antipodean, or at least Russian—from beyond the boundary stones of the civilised world, at any rate—to feel this contradiction in your very bones.

This kind of stranger’s worldview informs much Australian writing, and as it happens is useful for writing about a Russian so far from Russia, for sharing an exile’s inward reservations and mild, uncomplaining nostalgia.

Dessaix tells us he himself first fell in love with the Russian language and literature as a boy, and in 1966, when he was twenty-two, went from Australia to Russia to study, a relatively unusual course at that period. It was there that he came to feel a special kinship with Turgenev, felt able to “penetrate at once the thick and dusty circumlocutions about his reputation” (he is quoting T.S. Eliot). This special affinity enables him to write an ambitious meditation about love and the nature of happiness, subjects too amorphous to yield easily to rational analysis and usually left to novelists. The Turgenevian subject as he construes it is how to love “in love’s twilight,” a long period beginning in Turgenev’s lifetime and continuing in ours, marking a transition from Romanticism to the darker, “more mercilessly reasoned” modern world.


His thesis is that Turgenev’s life and works reflect a historical period when “love as it had been understood for centuries had become difficult,” and for us, modern, erotically liberated, “almost impossible.” If this isn’t especially clear, it does have a sort of lavender, elegiac tone that seems suitable for Turgenev in some modes, though Dessaix, like many readers, misses the essentially comic and satiric nature of Turgenev’s gift, which finds the comic spirit the appropriate one for discussing human affairs. He is best compared to his contemporary George Meredith, or to his friend Flaubert, or to his admired predecessors Pushkin and Byron, who had much the same tone.1

In any case, “how to love in love’s twilight” is the problem for Dessaix, and a certain fascination lies, as for the reader of a mystery, in his search for a solution to the questions he raises about Turgenev’s happiness, and human happiness generally. Was Turgenev happy with his unconventional life? Would he have been happier had he married? Or, alternatively, if he had stuck to a life of resolute dissolution? Or stayed in Russia?

Dessaix believes that the Russian found a measure of contentment in his lifelong devotion to a married opera singer, or almost found it. The central drama of Turgenev’s emotional life was his love for Pauline Viardot, a renowned French-Italian soprano, sister to another great singer of the period, Maria Malibran. Ivan and Pauline met in 1843, when they were both in their twenties. She was already married and eventually the mother of several children; Turgenev lived with or near the Viardot family for most of his adult life and died in Pauline’s arms in 1883 at the age of sixty-five.

It’s the nature of this long relationship that has fascinated biographers, because no one understands it for sure, and it eludes easy categorization. Was it a feat of chaste devotion lasting forty years, or an affair that became a lifelong platonic friendship, or a settled ménage à trois—did they or didn’t they? It’s one of the questions central to Dessaix’s inquiry.

It’s hard to decide. Turgenev lived with the Viardots; they raised Paulinette, his illegitimate daughter by a Russian seamstress; the husband, Louis Viardot, and Turgenev were friends and hunting companions; Pauline and Ivan saw each other daily, even wrote operettas together; Ivan contributed heavily to the finances of the Viardot family, was fatherly to the children, and so on. Some biographers have wondered at the complaisance of the husband, the more romantically inclined speculate that the love affair was never consummated—no one really knows, though conclusions run along the lines of national cultural assumptions. Turgenev’s Russian-born French biographer Henri Troyat thought it was likely that he was the father of at least one of Viardot’s children. One of the editors of Turgenev’s letters, A.V. Knowles, also assumes a ménage à trois. When Turgenev moves in with the Viardots in 1871, Knowles speculates that “now in their fifties they no longer felt the need to keep up any of the pretence of their younger years.”

French friends, like Flaubert, for instance, often concluded their letters to Turgenev with folksy greetings to Mme Viardot, as to the acknowledged mistress of their friend’s household, and certainly Turgenev speaks of Pauline with the mundane preoccupations of a husband: “Mme Viardot has been in bed since yesterday; she has a cold, but, thank Heaven, it’s nothing serious.” To many, it would seem from the facts of life, from Pauline’s as well as Ivan’s documented roster of lovers (hers included Alfred de Musset and the painter Ary Schafer), and from the general saucy tone of their set that Troyat’s conclusion is the likely one. It’s hard to deduce much from the published correspondence; many of Turgenev’s perfectly proper letters to “Dear Madame Viardot,” written in French, contain warmer passages in German:

Those days in Berlin; those unexpected and wonderful meetings; everything; and then the cruel parting. It was all really too much for me. I felt myself overcome by the weight of those unforgettable events, the like of which I had never experienced before. Ah, my feelings for you are too strong and powerful. I can no longer live apart from you. I must feel and delight in the nearness of you. A day which is not lit up by your eyes is lost….

But many of the letters just talk about the weather and touristic sites—though there are gaps in the correspondence, and it was all vetted by Mme Viardot in her old age.

The fastidious Dessaix likes to think there was nothing much between Turgenev and Viardot, taking literally a comment he is reported to have once made about being someone who didn’t care for sex more than four times a year (though we know nothing about the tone of the often facetious Turgenev’s remark). He tries to reinforce his conclusion with an anecdote in a Russian biography about a dinner with Flaubert and others, where Turgenev, apparently disgusted by the guy talk, expounded the Romantic view that you could glimpse something eternal and timeless, a “mystical shaft of light,” in the eyes of a beloved woman, though why this should preclude sex with her is not clear.


Though Turgenev in any case led a heterosexual life, Dessaix, apparently gay or bisexual, also finds undertones of gayness. After speaking of Turgenev’s physical beauty, large size, and so on, Dessaix says he was “uncomfortably effeminate,” “although hardly anybody said this too directly.” Henry James on the other hand spoke at almost embarrassing length about Turgenev’s manliness; he described him as someone so imposing that being “brutal” might almost become him, but who instead gave “an impression of magnificent manhood” and was a “delightful, mild, masculine figure.” The Goncourts also speak of his imposing presence, “handsome, but in an awe-inspiring, impressive way,” like a Druid.

All this leads us to see that Dessaix’s Turgenev is not everybody’s. Dessaix and James find the Turgenev they need to find, as we all do in our transactions with favorite writers, until we reach that strange bond wherein, finally, a biography becomes the autobiography of the reader, though in Dessaix’s case, somewhat elliptically expressed.

Above all, Dessaix identifies with the melancholy exile—bringing us back to the whole interesting subject of the interaction of reader and writer, and the subtle variant readings imposed by the text on the reader’s own experiences. And back to the experience of exile and otherness, where Dessaix is eloquent, if not bitter, about Australia, where “forty or fifty years ago…if you had any pretensions to civilised thought, you were usually seen by those around you as a misfit,” like the young Turgenev in Russia at a time when political activism was forbidden, and serfdom, effectively slavery, was the fundamental social arrangement. Discussing it, Turgenev writes, “nearly everything I saw roused feelings in me of shame and indignation—of revulsion, in fact.”


Dessaix is less interested in Turgenev’s love life than in his metaphysical conclusions, and less interested in Turgenev the political novelist than in the novelist of sentiment, but to Turgenev’s contemporaries he was, more importantly, the most powerful Russian voice of the oppressed. Though his efforts to comment on the condition of Russia would come to seem too mild to his angrier younger contemporaries, in his own country, during his lifetime, his influence can hardly be overstated. When his body was returned to St. Petersburg after his death in 1883, his funeral was bigger than that of a tsar, and the English periodical Atheneum called him the first among modern European writers.

John Reed, the American radical, in a 1919 preface to Turgenev’s novel Smoke, written when he was still thrilled about the recent Russian Revolution (with no premonition of its ultimate fate), still saw him as having a groundbreaking prescience, and explained how important Turgenev’s opposition to serfdom was. In the Sportsman’s Notebooks, under “the guise of mere description he depicted the wretchedness of the peasants in a way that roused Russian public opinion more than any other one influence, to demand the Emancipation of the Serfs.” The Notebooks, also called “Sketches,” are small, touching short stories presenting serfs in a very human and sympathetic, and always poignant, way—something nobody except perhaps Gogol had done before. The Tsar himself credited them with raising his consciousness about the condition of this enslaved class.

If, as someone has said, the basic subject of the nineteenth-century novel was adultery, adultery itself was used as a metaphor for deep disorder in society; and society was the focus of the European novel. Both Flaubert and Tolstoy, to take the most famous examples, thought of Emma and Anna (Emma’s trash reading, Anna’s emotional self-indulgence) as examples of the bad state of the times, not so much as characters in dramas of personal anguish. Turgenev seems to have thought of his own novels in this tradition, and certainly Reed saw Turgenev’s works as being concerned with politics, even serving as propaganda.2

This is also how they were received in Russia. But if the pathos of Sportsman’s Notebooks had stirred things up, his later novels would be condemned by many of his countrymen on the left as unduly pessimistic, cynical, insufficiently reverent toward radicals and idealists, and so on.

Virgin Soil, Turgenev’s last novel, in a country-house setting, where the characters represent different shades of the political spectrum, attempted to comment on the condition of Russia in the 1870s, after the liberation of the serfs, when he saw a lot of posturing and self-delusion, and his attitude bitterly disappointed many of his countrymen. This convinced the sensitive Turgenev that he had “failed” in this work, though he was bolstered by remembering that the widely admired Fathers and Sons had also initially been deemed by his countrymen to have failed for reasons of political correctness, not art. In both novels, the radicals, idealists, and revolutionaries are disorganized, unrealistic, and doomed to failure, though their causes are more or less commended, and the events unroll as a series of parties, visits, flirtations, and expressions of ennui in a way that Chekhov would later perfect.

Turgenev’s major novels, influenced by Gogol and Pushkin, can be seen to have influenced a number of younger writers in their turn: Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, even James’s The Princess Casamassima, have similarities, right down to the suicide of James’s Hyacinthe, so like Nezhdanov’s gratuitous suicide in Virgin Soil (or Werther’s, suicide being the nineteenth-century equivalent to the modern car crash for winding up a narrative). The meaningless mutilation of Razumov in Under Western Eyes is very like the futile death from fever of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons. Turgenev for his part was certainly influenced by Flaubert—the two men were close friends, read aloud from their works to each other, and shared a view of their art: “What a painter! And what a moralist you are, my dear, very dear friend! Too bad for your compatriots if they don’t find your book wonderful,” writes Flaubert to Turgenev of Virgin Soil. “That’s my opinion, and I know what I’m talking about.”

Dessaix observes that Turgenev’s disillusioned tone suited his historical moment and still suits ours. He also notes his own initial lack of sympathy for it. Commenting on Turgenev’s appearance in Baden-Baden, he says:

To those looking in at you from outside, your desolation (depression, melancholy, ennui, gloom, taedium vitae, Weltschmerz—there are dozens of words for it) will seem infuriatingly self-indulgent, naturally. When as a young man I first began encountering all the high-flown phrases in Turgenev’s letters and other writings about the dark state of his ego at the age of fifty, his “disgust with everything human” and the “swiftly advancing shadows of death,” I was less than sympathetic. Famous, rich, handsome, loved, living in luxury in one of Europe’s most beautiful towns—what more did he want? What did he mean by “life’s absurdity,” “life’s futility” and “the crackling sound of death…all around us”?

One might quarrel with his picture of an alienated and deracinated Turgenev—this reader finds in his correspondence a rather cheerful, extremely charming, politically involved though gouty writer whose alienation is more rhetorical than real. In the affectionate exchanges with Flaubert, the two discuss politics with vigor and engagement.

They also commend artistic detachment and lightness of tone. Turgenev writes to Flaubert of Bouvard and Pécuchet, “The more I think about it—the more I see it as a subject to deal with presto in the manner of Swift or Voltaire…if you make it heavy, if you are too learned….” Flaubert rejects this approach as lacking “impact and versimilitude,” but it is revealing of Turgenev’s aesthetic—and of course, after reading Bouvard et Pécuchet, many might agree he was right. In any case it’s simply more helpful to think of Turgenev as writing comedies of manners, not impassioned political screeds or cries from the heart.

Dessaix tends to dismiss with only a nod to art the considerable time Turgenev spent in writing and conducting the life of a man of letters—correspondence, editorial concerns, even translations, and his satisfaction in it, strange things for another writer to underestimate. Even lacking sympathy for the work, a fellow writer should understand what Turgenev’s serious life as an artist must have meant to him, in both its happiness and its frustrations (as James and Turgenev understood George Sand despite their reservations about her art). And besides his books, Turgenev’s musical life must have been absorbing—he wrote three operettas with Pauline Viardot, who was successful as a composer after she retired from singing.3 He also wrote plays, poetry, and reviews, and generally led the life of an active French literary figure.

Dessaix’s fellow feeling for the deracinated Russian is an exercise in empathy that may sometimes exceed that usually recommended for biographers, and perhaps he trespasses too far into what we cannot in fact know about Turgenev’s feelings and experiences—he too often employs “the fatal past subjunctive,” as Richard Holmes, the biographer of Shelley, called it, which “marks the passage from facts and evidence to fiction and self-projection.” He writes of Turgenev, “what would shock him, if he could join me now, I decided,…was the way that acts that he had thought of as private were now being committed in public,” or “he may never have read the writings of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter, Countess Marie,…but the general tenor of her judgements would have struck a bell with him” (italics added). One may disapprove of such invention in biography, yet his blend of fact and self-projection does succeed in bringing us a picture of the elusive Russian in a way others have not.


“To tell the truth, I never much fancied Turgenev when I was young,” Dessaix confesses, possibly with some company. Certainly many readers, when first discovering the great Russian novelists, have found Turgenev the least of them; none of his works seem as powerful as Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina. But his laconic, detached manner and finely tuned, Chekhovian sensibility, so unlike the ambitious sweep of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, now seem the more modern; in Russian as in English or French literature, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have something to say to us that the later nineteenth century does not—Byron seems more kindred than Tennyson, or Benjamin Constant than Eugène Sue. The conspicuous absence of religion and other traditional pieties in Turgenev’s writing explains why his contemporaries found him modern. In this also, Turgenev is more to be compared to his close friend Flaubert than to his distant younger colleague Tolstoy in the sense that he was, like Flaubert, European—he not only spoke French from childhood as many upper-class Russians did but he lived in Europe, and shared a milieu and similar views of art with the French, not the Russian, writers of his acquaintance, though he always played an influential role in Russian letters.

Henry James, Turgenev’s great admirer, would have read him in German or French, as well as talked to him in French, Turgenev’s language at home growing up (he spoke Russian with servants and serfs). James, writing in 1903, mentions that Turgenev spoke some English and read some, but not much, and probably didn’t read James, though they were friends. (He adds that Turgenev didn’t read George Sand either, but that Sand considerately didn’t expect her friends to read her huge oeuvre.) Turgenev wrote, however, in Russian, and is considered one of its greatest stylists. Isaiah Berlin, who translated Turgenev’s novella First Love, says his style was the “purest and most classical after the greatest, and most unattainable, of his masters, Alexander Pushkin,” whom the young Turgenev saw once, and always idolized, and probably emulated.4

For Russians, in any case, his work is characterized by “extreme stylistic elegance and diversity of emotive and expressive means,” to quote another Russian translator. Translation problems are the most obvious explanation for the inability of non-Russian readers—most of us—to appreciate the greatness of Turgenev’s style. Maybe Turgenev was lucky in his French translators, as one suspects of Poe, another writer extravagantly admired in France—as translated by Baudelaire.

In English we are most familiar with the translations by Constance Garnett that were published after Turgenev’s death. In French, his writing has a Flaubertian simplicity; sentences like “Pendant mon absence, ma mère avait reçu une lettre de notre voisine” seem completely transparent, especially compared to Garnett’s Victorian reticences, for instance, in “My Neighbor Radinov,” where “pets-de-nonne,” or nun’s farts, a kind of pastry, become “spanish puffs of pastry,” and an old man who “ne pouvait se vanter d’être propre,” couldn’t brag of being clean, becomes “the poor old man could not boast of very nice habits,” quite a bit daintier and, exceptionally for English, longer than the French translation. My copy of his novella “Le Journal d’un homme de trop,” translated into French by Pauline’s husband Louis Viardot, in collaboration with Turgenev himself, has the same simplicity and slight ironic edge: “Il me semble que je tombe dans le métaphysique; c’est mauvais signe.”5

Turgenev would leave metaphysics to later generations, perhaps to us. Dessaix pokes fun at Americans for pursuing our “inalienable Right” as if happiness “were a brace of snipe,” yet it seems to be the object of his search too, beginning with a search for a definition. For most people, he says, it’s “a chance configuration of circumstances we try to make the most of” that defines happiness, if we even can. In the progress of his travels, Dessaix comes to understand the paradox of Turgenev’s being in fact happy, or almost so—resigned to or accepting of his personal impotence in the face of the general futility of life, and in part consoled by his strange commitment to love and by art.

This Issue

March 29, 2007