Book Reviews - Autumn 2019

The Great Convergence

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.”

Progress in transportation also had an astonishing effect on public performances of music. Bigger concert halls rose as audiences grew, swelled by an unprecedented influx of traveling music lovers. Most striking was the effect on the repertory of opera houses. Traditionally, opera houses depended on the population of a single town and on the sale of season tickets to box holders. Novelty was indispensable. The figures given by Figes are startling: at La Scala, of the 298 operas produced from 1778, when it opened, to 1826, only 30 were repeated in a second season. Twenty years later, thanks to the constant renewal of a public arriving by train, managers could cut back on the number of new productions and instead build a repertory of proven favorites. It also became feasible to export an opera with its sets to another city.

Books, pianos, and people were constantly on the move. Gone were the days when a wealthy family would linger in Europe for months on a grand tour. In the 1850s and ’60s, such travelers gave way to tourists. The tourism industry was a creation of the railway age, and the hordes it unleashed were not appreciated by the cultural elite. “Every spot is attacked … the top of the Rigi is worn bare of grass, and is strewn with broken bottles and fragments of The Daily Telegraph,” deplored the Edinburgh Review in 1873.

Culture remained the biggest tourist draw. Visits to galleries and museums were imperative. Cities competed in this domain. In 1857, Turgenev visited the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester, which attracted more than 1.3 million visitors from all over Europe. Turgenev was delighted by the Raphaels and Rembrandts and Michelangelos arranged in chronological order to display the development of their art, in contrast to the haphazard presentation at London’s National Gallery.

Museumgoers now required guidebooks—a need that Louis Viardot astutely recognized.  He was the indispensable, intelligent support of his prima donna wife, the understanding older husband (21 years her senior) who accepted the constant presence of Turgenev, the adoring lover of the glamorous Pauline. But the least eminent element of the love triangle was by far the most discerning connoisseur of art. The popular museum guides he published were used by thousands of visitors. More important, his preferred principles of organizing works were adopted by museums all over Europe. Culture now transcended frontiers, and the Viardot-Turgenev constellation was at the heart of this movement. Pauline, who toured tirelessly, introduced Italian opera to Russian audiences. Her success in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée spread throughout the continent, and the concerts she organized in Paris promoted Russian and Spanish music, still mostly unknown in France.

Nobody worked more intensely than Turgenev to create a reciprocal literary movement between Russia and France. Many readers would be surprised to learn that it was he who secured publishing contracts and reviews for Flaubert in Russia and in Germany. He did the same for Zola, Mérimée, Daudet, and Maupassant. In a pinch, he would, with the help of Viardot, translate their works to speed things up. As the best-known Russian writer in the West, he was well placed to negotiate book contracts for other Russians. War and Peace was so long that French, British, and German translators balked at the enterprise. Finally a Russian woman published a version with many cuts. Turgenev forced the book on the most influential writers of the time. He claimed victory for the novel when Flaubert wrote to him, “Thank you for making me read Tolstoy’s novel. It’s first rate.”

The connections Figes identifies between technical advances and artistic innovations keep his reader continually engaged, intrigued, and somewhat nostalgic for a period when the arts, more than religion or political beliefs, served a unifying role in Europe.

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