A Russian Affair is two years old!

Two years ago I wasn't sure if the world was waiting for a blog about Russian literature, but hey, I'm the kind of girl who reads Nabokov's comments on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin for fun, so it was only natural that if I was going to have a blog, that that should be the subject.

My aim was to keep it as accessible as possible. I regularly hear people say that they find Russian literature daunting, even intimidating, before they've even read one page! So I took it upon myself to use this corner in cyber space to take away that prejudice. And judging by the comments I have already convinced some of you.

Inspired by the fantastic BBC series War and Peace, I wrote several posts about that epic Tolstoy novel. People were particularly interested to find out about the relationship between brother and sister Hélène and Anatole and Is there really an incestuous relationship in War and Peace? (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4L) became by far the most popular post on my blog. Another favourite was Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-5t).

Undoubtedly the most fun to make was In the Footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4F). For two days I wandered through Paris with Google Maps, searching the addresses where the two writers lived. I was particularly keen to see the house where Turgenev had lived for many years with the Viardot family. Nowadays there is an authentic French patissier on the ground flour of the house on the Rue de Douai. They serve a delicious breakfast and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting there and watching tout l'arrondissement buy their pain quotidien there.

The most interesting blog post to make was Turgenev's birds (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-7h). It was a spontaneous post inspired by another blogger. It showed beautifully why Turgenev was such an accomplished writer. Fathers and Sons is a masterpiece, and it features many subtle details that make it very atmospheric. Unconsciously our brain makes all kinds of associations while reading, even if you don't pick up on it. By focussing on a seemingly small detail, birds in this case, I managed to show that that detail was put into the novel with a purpose.

In 2016 I have started a series of “Typically …”. So far we've had Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. In 2017 I shall write about Gogol, Chekhov, Goncharov, Pushkin and Lermontov. But you can also expect spontaneous blog posts like In the Footsteps and Turgenev's Birds.

My goals for my blog remain the same: to show you how fascinating, rich and most of all fun Russian literature really is!

Reactions, questions and requests are always welcome. Happy reading!

*** Photos by me, except Anatole and Hélène from the BBC's War and Peace.

 

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In the footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris

Ah Paris.. As I’m writing this I look out over the countless roofs of the city. I’m here to walk in the footsteps of two great Russian writers, two favourites of mine: Turgenev and Tolstoy. 150 years ago the journey from Russia to Paris took about ten days; for me it’s just over three hours by train from Amsterdam.

Pauline Viardot

Turgenev came to live in Paris (actually he lived there off and on for 36 years) to be close to his objet d’amour, Pauline Viardot. He had been hopelessly in love with her since 1843, but she was the wife of his good friend Louis Viardot (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R). After staying at the Viardots’ as a ‘family friend’ for a really long time, he decides in 1847 that it’s more appropriate to rent his own apartment, close to the Tuileries Garden.

Depressed

Around 1857, the year that Tolstoy came to visit, Turgenev lives on the Rue the Rivoli 208 or 210 (most sources say 210) with his daughter Paulinette. At that time his relationship with Pauline is not so good, and that depresses him.

50 Rue de Douai

In 1871, however, when he is 53 years old, he moves in with the Viardots at the 50 Rue de Douai. There he occupies four rooms on the third flour. By then he has become some sort of honorary consul of Russia in Paris. Ilya Repin comes to paint his portrait, and he takes part in weekly get togethers with Maupassant, Zola, Flaubert and Georges Sand (to name but a few) in former restaurant Magny on the Rue Mazet.

After his death in 1883 in the Viardots’ country house, his body is transported to Russia to be buried there. But before the coffin gets on the train, it is sent to the Russian Cathedral in the Rue Daru to get censed, even though Ivan was not religious.

Rue de Rivoli

With Tolstoy, of course, it’s a different story. Not love, but adventure calls him to Paris. He arrives at the Gare du Nord on February 9th 1857. Turgenev and the writer Nekrasov, who he knows well, receive him. The first night he sleeps in the Hôtel Meurice in the Rue de Rivoli, but the next day he rents a furnished apartment in the same street on number 206.

Madness

On the evening of his arrival Tolstoy is taken to a costumed ball in the Opéra by Turgenev. Before he goes to bed that night Tolstoy writes only one word in his diary, that typifies his stay in Paris: “Madness.”.

Turgenev, who knows the city really well, shows him numerous places of interest. But also when Tolstoy is alone he keeps a busy schedule. He goes to lectures at the Sorbonne, to concerts, to evenings with fellow countrymen. Obviously he thinks Napoleon’s grave is a disgusting display of misplaced worship. Through Turgenev he could have met a number of acclaimed French writers, but typically he doesn’t think that’s necessary.

The Guillotine

Tolstoy is enjoying himself tremendously until he decides one unfortunate day to attend an execution by guillotine. But seeing the infamous machine in action with his own eyes terrifies him, it disgusts him, he is disgusted with himself for going, he is disgusted with the French for inventing it and can’t sleep for nights. He leaves Paris soon after.

Love-hate

In Paris too the relationship between the two writers is not always good (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1Y). Their diaries and letters clearly show that:

Turgenev, February 16 – His creaking and groaning have a very bad effect on a man like me, whose nerves are already overstrained.

Tolstoy, February 21 – Spent another pleasant evening with Turgenev and a bottle of wine by the fireside.

Tolstoy, March 4 – Dropped in on Turgenev. He is a cold and useless man, but intelligent and his art is inoffensive.

Turgenev, March 8 – I cannot establish any lasting friendship with Tolstoy, our views are too different.

 

View on the Tuileries from the Rue de Rivoli
This is the building in which Tolstoy rented an apartment
He only stayed six weeks, but he is remembered in Paris
The door at 206-208 is beautiful, and the location in great, but inside it was not as comfortable as Tolstoy was accustomed to..

The Viardots’ house on the Rue de Douai

Turgenev’s rooms were on the third flour

Turgenev must have crossed this doorstep many times

Ici vécut de 1871 à 1883 l’écrivain Russe Ivan Tourguéniev après de ses amis Louis Viardot, historien d’art et hispaniste, et Pauline Viardot-Garcia, cantatrice et compositeur, soeur de la Malibran

On the ground flour there is now an authentic and delicious bakery

The view from the bakery

The Russian Cathedral where Turgenev’s coffin was censed. Incidentally there was also a funeral service being held when I took these photos.

When on February 19th 1871 Russia officially abolished serfdom, Turgenev was so happy (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-28) that he went to Russian church to celebrate!

-fin-

—Tous les photos prises par moi-même—

Les livres:

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy and Turgenev, his Life and Times by Henri Troyat

Count Alexey Nikolayevich Tolstoy

The Tolstoy family produced three famous writers; Alexey Konstantinovich, Lev Nikolayevich and Alexey Nikolayevich. Nowadays we don't hear much about the third, even though his story is quite remarkable. He was the black sheep of the family.

Youth

On his mother's side he was also a distant relative of Turgenev. So he actually had a double set of writing genes. His mother left his father when she was two months pregnant with him and little Alexey grew up with his stepfather Alexey Bostrom. When he was thirteen he was apparently acknowledged by his father and officially became Count Tolstoy, but he has never been in contact with the Tolstoy side of the family.

From an early age his mother encouraged him to write. He appeared to be talented indeed. In 1901 he moved to St Petersburg to go to university. Soon his first works were being published. Just when he was an established and successful writer the revolution took place, and the circumstances changed. Alexey feared his comfortable lifestyle would change for the worst and fled the country, eventually ending up in Paris, like many Russians.

Paris

Because Paris was suddenly full of unemployed Russians, it wasn't exactly easy to earn a living. He wrote a few books, but the pay was not very good. And if there was one thing that the count loathed it was empty pockets. He decided to move to Berlin. There he met some fellow Russian artists and found out that it is possible to live in Russia in relative comfort if your work fits the communist ideologies (the purpose of art was to underline the political point of view).

Soviet Union

He went back to Russia in 1923. It took him about ten years to find his role, but he succeeded. With his ancestor Peter's shrewdness. He managed to find a way to please both the people wishing to escape from their daily misery and the political leaders. He wrote a play about the murder of Rasputin in which the Romanovs were put in a bad light.

After Stalin came to power the circumstances under which writers (and most other people for that matter) lived become unbearable. People got arrested for no apparent reason. Tolstoy however was not only spared, but he even managed to become Stalin's favourite author and live like a millionaire (yes, in the Soviet Union!). With his play about Peter the Great he took a risk. He made an obvious parallel between the tsar and Stalin. Both leaders 'had' to make (human) sacrifices to make Russia bigger and better. Obviously he didn't forget to mention that his ancestor was Peter's adviser.

Stalin's favourite

He succeeded and Stalin was flattered. It is not unlikely that Stalin liked the idea of having his 'own' Tolstoy, he even called him by his title 'count', and so placed himself in line with the tsars. In 1942 Alexei wrote another play. This time about Ivan the Terrible. Again he emphasised the sacrifices that had to be made and the unavoidable triumph of communism in the course of history. It seemed that he understood precisely what the communist leaders wanted and expected from literature.

From then on Alexey wrote what Stalin wanted him to write and lived a life of luxury. Yes, this Tolstoy too moved in the highest circles. But unlike Alexei Konstantinovich and Lev Nikolayevich, and indeed Turgenev, he didn't use his name and influence for the greater good. When he died in 1945 he got a state funeral and to honour him it was decided that the Spyridonskaya (yes, there he is again, the family patron saint) Street, where Alexey lived, would be renamed Alexey Tolstoy Street.

 

War and Peace with Turgenev and Tolstoy

Tolstoy and Turgenev. Two giants in the history of Russian literature. Thanks to his outspoken opinion and controversial nature Tolstoy is the best known of the two. But in a purely literary sense Turgenev may well be the better writer. I love Tolstoy, but he did write a lot of grumbling too, and Turgenev never did.

They had a love/hate relationship, that started with more or less the same touching letter from Turgenev. In 1855 he wrote to Tolstoy, who was at the time fighting at the front in the Crimean War (nothing new under the sun) and who had already published Childhood and Boyhood, the following lines:

Enough! There’s a limit to everything! You have proved that you are no coward, but your instrument is the pen and not the sabre!

Tolstoy took those words to his heart. He admired Turgenev immensely and not much later stood on his doorstep in Saint Petersburg. The writers embraced each other in Russian style and Tolstoy stayed for a month. When the poet Fet came to visit Turgenev late one morning he asked who’s gleaming sabre it was that he saw in the hall and was told it belonged to Count Tolstoy. Count Tolstoy had been up all night with the gipsies (gipsy singers were quite popular at the time in Russia) and was still asleep in the next room. Fet and Turgenev spent the first hour whispering to each other.

Soon, however, it became clear that they didn’t have much in common. Turgenev thought Tolstoy was wildly jealous and extremely stubborn. Tolstoy called Turgenev a bore and could not understand that he, who was much wealthier, was an advocate of the emancipation of the serfs*.

Nonetheless both writers expressed their love for each other:

Tolstoy: Turgenev has left. I am sad. I feel that I have grown to love him dearly. Even though we argued all the time, I am terribly bored without him.

Turgenev: Friends in the sense of Rousseau we will never be. But we can still love each other and be happy for each other’s successes (…).

In May 1861 Tolstoy stayed with Turgenev at Spasskoye. There a fight about Turgenev’s daughter Paulette (see Turgenev’s Eternal Love) got so out of hand that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel. In the heat of the moment letters with apologies were sent to the wrong address, but it was eventually called off (luckily, just imagine them killing each other!). They did make peace, but there was no contact for seventeen years.

In 1883 Turgenev writes Tolstoy, who is at that moment fanatically religious, from his deathbed in France:

(…) My friend, return to literary activity! (…) Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! (…) I can’t walk, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, but so what! (…) My friend, great writer of the Russian land – heed my request!

 

 

* In 1852 Turgenev published his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, a series of short stories in which the narrator meets all kinds of characters, most of them serfs. This was the first time in Russian literary history that serfs were described as people with individual feelings and talents. These stories contributed to the actual emancipation of the serfs and would almost certainly have helped Tolstoy change his mind about the issue later in life. I’d love to write a separate blog on this subject in the near future.

 

Peace on the Rue de Rivoli; Turgenev lives on 208 and Tolstoy on 206 (Tolstoy lived there for only six weeks, but he got a plague and Turgenev didn’t! If you wish to see Turgenev’s plague in Paris you’ll find it at 50 Rue de Douai).

Photos are mine. 
 

My inspirational sources:

Tolstoy, a Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

 

 

Turgenev’s Eternal Love

Turgenev was in love with the same woman his whole adult life: Pauline Viardot. He saw her for the first time in 1843 in the opera of Saint Petersburg. An extremely gifted and celebrated mezzo-soprano. And the wife of his friend Louis Viardot.

Hopelessly in love

He falls hopelessly and irrevocably for her. The next day he goes to visit her. Pauline is lying on the divan in her salon and points Turgenev towards a polar bear skin on the floor. Three out of four paws are already occupied by admirers, he gets the fourth. And that’s where he’ll stay until he’s an old polar bear himself: at her feet!

Turgenev becomes a faithful friend of the family. He accompanies them through Europe wherever Pauline performs. He stays at their house for such long periods at a time that it becomes embarrassing. He buys a house next to the Viardots’ in Baden Baden. Eventually he even moves in with them, occupying the third floor of their house in the Rue de Douai in Paris. By then Turgenev is like an uncle to the children.

  

 

Turgenev in Paris

The three of them form an intellectual household. They have friends like Flaubert, George Sand, Zola, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky. Pauline gives singing lessons when her voice becomes too aged to perform. Louis Viardot has an extensive art collection that includes a Rembrandt, while Turgenev forms the centre of the Russian community in Paris.

But he will never fall in love with another woman and start a family of his own. There are some small romances, including one with Tolstoy’s younger sister. One of those even results in the birth of daughter Paulette, named after Pauline of course. Even so he will never let it come to a marriage.

Did Turgenev have an affair with Pauline or not?

For Turgenev the ideal woman is a woman he can never get. In a letter to the poet Fet he writes “I only know true happiness when a woman presses her boot into my neck and pushes my face into the mud!”. The sad result of an evil mother. We are not certain if Turgenev ever really had an affair with Pauline, but it is assumed that her fourth child, a boy named Paul, is Turgenev’s.

In 1883 he dies in France in the vicinity of Pauline and her children.
*Photos by me, the second shows the house on the Rue de Douai.

For this piece I read ‘Toergenjev’s Liefde’ by Daphne Schmelzer