It began with the railroads: The Europeans, by Orlando Figes

November 29, 2019 at 9:25 pm (Art, Book review, books, Music)

What began was the nineteenth century culture of worldly sophistication and high art described in this incredibly wide ranging volume. Along with the new  ease of rail travel, cultural cross currents began to flow with increasing speed and receptivity, to and from numerous nations of Western Europe. The countries specifically referenced are Italy, England, Germany, Russia – to my surprise – and France, always France, the epicenter of it all.

The book’s full title is The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. Figes chooses to tell his story through the lives of singer and composer Pauline Viardot, her husband Louis, and their friend and close associate Ivan Turgenev. (The great Russian writer was, in fact, in love with Pauline Viardot throughout his life. To an extent, she returned his affections, but would never leave Louis, with whom she had four children.)

Pauline Viardot, 1821-1910

 

Louis Viardot 1800-1883

 

Ivan Turgenev, 1818-1883

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I had gotten this far in composing this post before we left town for a few days. A recent photo in the  Washington Post served as a reminder that I hadn’t yet finished it:

Putin signing visitors’ book in Turgenev’s house

Ages ago, when I was trying to get more classics under my belt, I read Fathers and Sons and First Love. I recall especially being moved by the latter. In The Europeans, Orlando Figes tells us how Turgenev’s early writings in The Sportsman’s Sketches first secured his authorial fame. As with many out-of-copyright classics, various editions of this work are available for download on Amazon. I’ve read several of the stories and very much enjoyed them.

As it happens, copyright law, both within nations and international, is an important subject covered by Figes in his book. And as happens sometimes in books like this, it slows the narrative down to a crawl. It’s a case of an important subject that needs in depth coverage and one that at the same time isn’t – well, for want of a better word, sexy.

Still, all in all, this was a fascinating book, filled with illuminating facts about the flowering of high culture – art, music, and literature – throughout nineteenth century Europe. What fabulous gifts these people bequeathed to us!

 

 

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