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If Martin Amis were to fall in love with Madonna, leave home and attach himself to her household for the next 40 years, it might give some idea of the domestic arrangements of the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and the renowned singer Pauline Viardot in the second half of the 19th century. Turgenev was Russia's most celebrated writer, handsome, rich and aristocratic, yet he voluntarily enslaved himself to a woman who was happily married, was exceedingly ugly (it was this, rather than any moral issue, that shocked his contemporaries) and never fully reciprocated his passion.
In later life, she felt no qualms about transferring her affections to a younger artistic admirer, Charles Gounod. Nevertheless, in spite of long periods apart and passing attractions to other women, Turgenev remained devoted to Pauline, eventually dying in her arms in 1883.
Robert Dessaix is the latest in a long line of writers to examine the triangular relationship between Turgenev, Pauline and her seemingly complacent husband, Louis. Yet this is no muck-raking biography. While acknowledging the ambiguities of the relationship, and the possibility that Turgenev's love for Pauline was at one stage consummated, Dessaix is more concerned to explore Turgenev's emotions, which he likens to those of a medieval troubadour.
Like many of his fictional heroes, Turgenev was a weak man, described by his friend, Gustave Flaubert, as a "soft pear". His love for Pauline satisfied the masochistic urges that had been bred by his emotionally emasculating mother. Yet although he was to confess he felt he had missed out on the "main prize in the lottery of life" - family happiness - and never put a direct portrait of Pauline in his work, she had a deep influence on his pervading theme: unrequited and unfulfilled love.
Dessaix uses Turgenev's story to investigate the difficulty of believing in love in a sexually liberated yet spiritually impoverished world. He follows in Turgenev's footsteps from Baden-Baden and Paris to Moscow and St Petersburg, using the changes in the landscape as a pointer to those in sensibility. He notes how Clichy, in Paris, has become a pornographic hypermarket, and how the trappings of Western narcissism are disfiguring Russian streets.
Dessaix's two previous books, Night Letters and Corfu, were both hybrids - part-fiction, part-memoir, part-travel writing. Here, he plays to his strengths by dropping the fiction in favour of autobiographical observation. He movingly relates how much Turgenev meant to him as a writer growing up in the "barbarian" culture of Australia and how, like Turgenev, he was forced to find inspiration abroad.
He describes his platonic relationship with Ilse, a married German woman, in terms that subtly evoke Turgenev's with Pauline. As the narrative progresses, he puts himself to the fore, focusing less on Turgenev than on his own responses to the changes in post-glasnost Russia.
In comparing Turgenev to his contemporaries, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Dessaix states that reading his fiction is like "eavesdropping on rambling conversations about all the things that really matter in life". Much the same could be said of this wise and wry book, the most inventive portrait of a writer's life and legacy since Flaubert's Parrot.
Michael Arditti's 'Good Clean Fun' is published by Maia Press
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