Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev

Robert Dessaix
Picador (September 2004) 275 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36499 5

reviewed by Ann Skea

One Saturday morning when I was about eleven or twelve years old, at about the time the first sputnik began criss-crossing the sky, I went into a bookshop in a suburb of Sydney and bought myself a Russian dictionary.

So, Robert Dessaix's obsession with all things Russian was born and "in the blink of an eye... the whole course of [his] life changed." Dessaix studied in Russia, reads and speaks Russian fluently, and knows Russian literature well but, until now, he has found writing about Russia "extraordinarily difficult." It is surprising then, that in Twilight of Love he chose to write about a Russian author whose work he confesses to never having totally enjoyed, even though he know it thoroughly.

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, the man, however, has somehow become someone Dessaix feels a kinship with. And following his footsteps around Europe, visiting towns he lived in and houses he knew well, Dessaix feels empathy and "a glimmer of fellow feeling" for him. Turgenev, it seems to Dessaix, shared his own feeling of dislocation and strangeness in the place in which he was born, and had a similarly strained relationship with the usual conventions of his society. Both, Dessaix suggests, experienced situations which taught them to "know what wormwood tastes like."

Yet wormwood has little to do with the flavour of this book, which is anecdotal, humorous, intelligent, literate and entertaining. Twilight of Love is a travelogue which reveals as much of Dessaix's own character as that of Turgenev. Dessaix's various travelling companions and friends, superfluous as they sometime seem to Dessaix's main journey, do reflect different aspects of Dessaix's own life and offer a sort of modern parallel to Turgenev's life and times.

Dessaix begins his journey in Baden-Baden, where he teams up with an old friend (a sophisticated, married German woman) to visit various Turgenev "sites." In France, with its more relaxed sexual ambience, Dessaix meets a young Frenchman, Daniel, with whom he once had an affair and who is now in his "Buddhist phase." With this new companion and his very different perspective, he tracks Turgenev to Rozay-en-Brie and to Courtavenel, the vanished castle of which was the place where Turgenev felt most at home. And in Moscow, it is Irina he meets again--a Russian woman with whom he has been friends since their studies at Moscow University in the mid-sixties. Irina is anxious that Dessaix approves of the recent dramatic changes in Russia, and his reminiscences of earlier times are as interesting as his visits to St. Petersburg and Oryol, and to Spasskoye, to which Turgenev had eventually come home and where some of his best-know novels were written.

As well as writing about Turgenev's life and of his friendships with other well-known Russians, Dessaix focuses his travels particularly on places associated with Turgenev's lifelong love of the opera diva, Pauline Verdot. Theirs was a three-cornered relationship in which Pauline's scholarly husband, Louis, was the third party. This unusual and long-lasting arrangement seemed to suit all three, but whether Turgenev and Pauline ever became lovers has long been the subject of debate. Dessaix speculates, but comes to no conclusions. Love is love, and it is expressed in many forms--and whilst this book is a travelogue of sorts, and a literary biography of sorts, it has more the product of Dessaix's own love of life and literature than of anything else.

Sometimes, like life, Twilight of Love is patchy, and sometimes Dessaix's reflections on his own past seemed to me to be random and irrelevant. Mostly, however, this book is an interesting, informed and easily read meander through some of Turgenev's writing, through Russian history, and through the vast range of ideas which attract Dessaix's active curiosity. By the end of it you may, like Dessaix himself, find yourself "warming to the idea of re-reading Turgenev": or, even, of reading Turgenev for the first time with Twilight of Love beside you as a sort of rough guide to some of Turgenev's eccentricities. tribulations and loves.


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