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.
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:
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.
End of divigation.