Book Reviews - Autumn 2019

The Great Convergence

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How continental art and literature went global

By Anka Muhlstein | September 3, 2019
In 1857, the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester attracted 1.3 million visitors from all over Europe, Ivan Turgenev among them. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1857, the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester attracted 1.3 million visitors from all over Europe, Ivan Turgenev among them. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes; Metropolitan, 592 pp., $35

Some writers use a telescope to look at the world, others a microscope. Orlando Figes, a British historian well known for his work on Russian history, uses both to his readers’ constant surprise and delight. His subject in his new book is the culture that took form in Europe beginning in the 1840s. Notwithstanding their political differences, intellectuals and literary and artistic types read the same books, admired the same paintings, played the same music, and enjoyed the same operas across the continent. According to Figes, this convergence would not have been possible without the advent of the railways. His telescopic lens examines the consequences of this innovation in all its aspects. But an unusual trio stands at the center of his story. Under his microscope, he analyzes the complexity of feelings and achievements of the most famous ménage à trois of the second half of the 19th century. Through the intertwined lives of the writer Ivan Turgenev, the celebrated opera singer Pauline Viardot, and her husband, Louis Viardot, now forgotten but in his time an important art critic, Figes displays, in lively detail, the effort of artists, writers, and promoters of the arts to cut across borders.

Few people think of railways as a cultural force. Yes, we all know that railways shrank distances, but Figes shows through numerous examples their surprising and durable effect on the way people read, on how music was played in public and in private, and on the development of museums. It had been expensive and slow to ship books, but the expansion of railways slashed the cost and sped up distribution. The number of books France exported between 1841 and 1860 doubled. Trains also encouraged reading. Travelers, fighting the boredom of long journeys, turned to books for distraction, and soon books became a large new market. By 1854, the French publisher Louis Hachette had 60 stalls in railway stations. Fifteen years later, he had 500. The more astute publishers understood quickly the need for a new type of literature for passengers. Short stories became hugely popular, as did travel guides and the detective tales known as “penny dreadfuls.”

For piano makers, the train was a blessing, facilitating transport of the huge, heavy instruments. Exports and deliveries multiplied, and by midcentury, piano ownership was no longer a luxury. Figes notes that German poet Heinrich Heine complained that “one drowned in music, there is almost not a single house in Paris where you can be saved as in the ark before the flood.” Everywhere “young ladies play the piano, mothers play the piano, children play the piano.”

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