The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes

Conventional wisdom once held that the refined European should speak German to his philosophy tutor, French to his cook, Italian to his lover, and English to his horse. The polyglot protagonists in Orlando Figes’s wonderful study, The Europeans, would have been capable of that, with Spanish and Russian thrown in.

At the fulcrum of a romantic love triangle central to the story stands Pauline Viardot, the toast of mid-19th-century European opera houses for her soaring mezzo-soprano and amazing vocal versatility. Not a conventional beauty by any means, her long neck and bulging eyes made her what the French call une belle laide (think Rossy de Palma), an unprepossessing woman exuding sex appeal. Captivating Pauline made many conquests, starting with her doting husband, Louis Viardot, 21 years her senior, an arts entrepreneur and scholar devoted to protecting and promoting his beloved young wife, even if she did not return his amorous feelings.

At the fulcrum of the romantic love triangle stands Pauline Viardot.

The couple’s lives changed forever during Pauline’s tour of Russia in 1843. The stupendous pay packets offered to the diva by the St. Petersburg elite, Zeligs in the service of Westernization, had been the irresistible draw; the rapturous adulation, the delight. No one was more enthusiastic than the young writer Ivan Turgenev, who was instantly and permanently smitten when he first saw her perform. The future colossus of Russian letters then started a lifetime journey following the Viardots around Europe, living in the same cities, sometimes in the same house. Louis, a complaisant cuckold, counted Turgenev a close friend, tactfully averting his eyes for decades.

The Business of Culture

Were that all there was to Figes’s tale, a boulevardier setup, the nearly 600-page volume could be classed as a mere doorstop curio. But the British historian’s ambition is far greater—to show the juggernaut of European cosmopolitan identity set in motion when the railroads spread across the Continent, linking theretofore discrete cultural capitals in a sort of Ryanair route map avant la lettre. No aspect of the business of culture escapes his notice, in all creative fields. Music, visual art, publishing, copyright law, fiction, poetry, and so on—all merit extensive, meticulously researched detours, down to the last franc, pound, and ruble. Figes delivers a riveting examination of the nuts and bolts of high culture.

We learn which of the great artists were shrewd with cash, and who was woeful. In the first group Pauline was firmly encamped, determined never to sing for free. Even for performing at the funeral of her dear friend Chopin, she demanded—and got—a whopping fee equal to nearly half the budget of the expensive solemnities. The diva’s tours of the capitals of Europe, often with Turgenev in tow, brought in a considerable fortune, which was just as well since the Russian’s mother, tired of his gallivanting, cut off his allowance, even if it amounted to a drop in the bucket for a woman with 5,000 serfs.

Even for performing at the funeral of her dear friend Chopin, Pauline demanded—and got—a whopping fee.

A Who’s Who—Turgenev and the Viardots were Olympians at socializing—enlivens the narrative throughout. The gossip—Turgenev thought Hugo a pompous fool, Dickens wept openly at Pauline’s artistry, Mussorgsky was a hopeless lush—is delectable, and the carefully curated correspondence a model of sly discernment. When Flaubert, Turgenev’s closest French friend—so close that the Russian actually edited the perfectionist prose master of Normandy—wanted to vent his frustrations with his century, he sent letters to the lover of Pauline, as in, “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a sea of shit is beating up against its walls … ”

One of the most touching final moments in Figes’s masterful storytelling comes on Turgenev’s deathbed, when he dictates his last short story to Pauline in French, German, Spanish, English, Italian, and Russian—cosmopolitan to the finish. As for Pauline, who survived him by 27 years, her apartment on the Boulevard St. Germain became a place of pilgrimage: Tchaikovsky visited her and admitted to kissing her hand fervently a dozen times, and Saint-Saëns performed his Le Carnaval des Animaux there for a dying Liszt. The prima donna of Paris, the city Walter Benjamin called “the capital of the nineteenth century,” passed away, aged 88, in 1910, her world soon to be swept away by war. Only recently has Pauline’s cosmopolitanism been revived, but it is in danger once again. As Orlando Figes freely admits in his acknowledgments, Brexit Britain led the author to reclaim his German nationality. He has put his ID papers where his pen is.

Stephen O’Shea’s latest book, The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond, is out now