Posts Tagged ‘Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev’

Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev is a short, lyrical,  meditative, perfect book. It is part biography of Turgenev, part memoir/travel book, and part literary criticism.  If I were Oprah, and thank God I’m not, because then I’d have to share my thoughts by underlining passages for the special e-book version, Dessaix’s Turgenev-inspired travel book would be my summer Book Club “pick.”

Dessaix, an award-winning Australian writer, novelist, scholar, and former Russian professor, fuses personal and literary history.  This genre-bending volume of belles-lettres is divided into three parts:  Baden-Baden, France, and Russia.  As Dessaix retraces Turgenev’s footsteps and sight-sees with his friends, he meditates on his own relationship with Russian literature, and connects his own Australian identity to the “barbaric” Russian identity of Turgenev in the 19th century  (both places were said to have “no culture,” and travel to Europe was necessary for intellectual development).  Dessaix recreates not only the atmosphere  and mood of  Turgenev’s 19th-century world and novels, but also describes the changes in Europe and Russia since the ’60s and ’70s when he first traveled there.


He illuminates the workings of Turgenev’s mind, his long love affair (possibly unconsummated) with Pauline Viardot, a married opera singer whom he loved for most of his life, his complicated relationships with Dostoevsky, Belinsky, and Tolstoy, and his charting in his novels of the intellectual and social movements in Russia.

Turgenev’s house in Bougival, France

Dessaix reflects on what place means to us.  Do we know Turgenev better when we see a kitschy plaque on a building, tour a house, or a ruin?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Dessaix is  cynical about what the Russians call the dom-muzei, the “house-museum,” the famous people’s birthplaces and houses restored and turned into museums.  He admits he feels nothing when he looks at period furniture, pictures of famous Russians, and cases of memorabilia.

But at in Bougival, France, in the house Turgenev bought in 1874 and lived till his death in 1883, Dessaix has an epiphany. The three downstairs rooms leave him cold, but then

It was at the top of the staircase that I first felt moved.  Stepping into his study, with its rich, red-walled coverings and wide view downhill towards the river, I felt something shift in my attitude towards Turgenev, the way it does when somebody you know well will sometimes tell a joke or comment on a film they’ve seen and all of a sudden, to your surprise, you find yourself looking at this old friend quite differently.

The desk is there–his actual desk, the desk he once sat at…”

And now for a slight divigation…What is it about desks? 

I love the dom-muzei.  In the Midwest, we can’t do Turgenev…

But it’s about the desk.

At novelist Bess Streeter Aldrich’s house in Elmwood, Nebraska, we, yes, got to touch her desk.  She had a special compartment built into her desk for the typewriter, which she didn’t like to  look at–she wrote by hand, and often hired high school students to type her manuscripts. Aldrich pushed  a lever and the typewriter popped up or down out of sight:

Bess Streeter Aldrich’s desk

And then there is Ruth Suckow’s desk, given to her by her husband, which is now in the study of the small frame house where she was born in Hawarden, Iowa.  I know less about Suckow, an Iowa writer whose books are mostly out-of-print, but there is something about that desk.

Ruth Suckow’s desk and typewriter.

End of divigation.

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Martin Sheen in “The Way”

I will never walk El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James).

I prefer to bicycle.

But The Way, a film written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, is a moving, beautiful, cathartic film, which has inspired people to walk el Camino, the 800-mile trail from the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where St. James is buried. I recently read a profile of an internet business owner inspired by the film to make the pilgrimage, and I was inspired to rent the movie.

Esevez is not afraid to develop a story slowly yet economically, and the dialogue is realistic, casual, but meaningful.  Martin Sheen plays Tom, a stolid, slightly irascible doctor whose son dies on El Camino.  Tom feels guilty and wretched, having turned down the chance to walk with his son.  Once in France to pick up the body, he decides to make the journey.  He doesn’t think of it as a pilgrimage–he is doing it only for his son, and scatters his ashes along the way–but gradually the persistent characters who seem drawn to him form what Kurt Vonnegut would call his karass (a group thrown together who unknowingly do God’s will).

Great acting, beautiful film.

Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev.  I had never heard of Robert Dessaix until I began looking for biographies of Turgenev.  This came up at Amazon, and is exactly what I wanted, though I hadn’t known it existed.

Dessaix, an Australian writer, translator, and Turgenev scholar, travels to Baden-Baden, France, and Russia to experience the places Turgenev, once the most famous writer in Russia, lived and wrote about. This may prove to be my  most enchanting read of the summer, because Dessaix makes Turgenev comes to life as he describes places and speculates on what makes one know a writer–sometimes an empty place more than a building, as happens to him in France, at Courtevenal, once a castle more like a village.

There was indeed nothing there…

“It was here, not in Baden-Baden or the rue de Douai, but here, where there was nothing left at all, no plaques or busts or ruins or painstaking restorations, that I felt–at last really felt–and here I must tread very carefully to avoid the minefield of necromantic gobbledygook–that I was alive to Turgenev. He had not come alive–I had.  And so I laughed.”

Robert Dessaix

Such good reading, more than a biography, more than a memoir, more than a travel book, and I was inspired to read Smoke, though Dessaix admits it is not a very good novel, because it reflects Turgenev’s life in Baden-Baden.

Dessaix makes us feel who Turgenev is.

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