Longest journey

Twilight of Love: travels with Turgenev

Robert Dessaix <em>Scribner, 269pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 074

Robert Dessaix claims that the inspiration to write Twilight of Love sprang from a sense of "kinship" with Ivan Turgenev that developed during a career in Russian studies. Yet I could not help wondering which particular kin Dessaix had in mind - no one very close, apparently; perhaps an elderly aunt. "I never much fancied Turgenev when I was young," Dessaix confesses, adding that "his novels and short stories have never been a passion of mine". Later he writes that A Hunter's Sketches is "a book I've never taken to very strongly", because of its association with blood sports.

I am no devotee of duck-shooting, but I cannot help feeling that it is outrageously narrow-minded for a literary critic to take such an opinion of one of the greatest works of 19th-century Russian literature. For mysterious reasons, Dessaix dwells at length on the weakest of Turgenev's novels - Smoke and Virgin Soil - while ignoring two of the works that made his reputation, Rudin and On the Eve. Even Fathers and Sons, usually considered his masterpiece, is discussed only superficially, while First Love is mentioned just once, for its "strong sexual undercurrents, even if [it is] rather dated".

What, one wonders, is Dessaix planning to reveal through this alleged "kinship"? He is not hoping to enlighten us on aspects of Turgenev's prose, nor to inspire us to reread him, despite his insistence that not "even the better read could name a single novel he'd written".

Turgenev's biography is given more attention than his writing, although Dessaix does not even attempt to evoke scenes from his subject's life with any vividness. Much of the book is taken up with a dreary sightseeing tour around Turgenev's various homes in Baden-Baden and France. The travel writing is perfunctory. Bougival, where he died, looks "much like any other riverside township on the outskirts of the metropolis"; Baden-Baden "must have seemed to Turgenev then, as it did to me that morning, like a fairy tale come true". Dessaix concentrates on his own responses, describing at length how in one place he longs to hear Turgenev's voice, in another he "at last really felt" that Turgenev had come alive to him, and that a third museum "wasn't the real thing".

A few subjects do emerge from this string of cliches. Dessaix is really only interested in aspects of Turgenev's life that he feels correspond directly with his own: his anxieties as a Russian living in France (which echo Dessaix's about being Australian), his fear of death and, above all, his love life. For almost 40 years (on and off), Turgenev loved a singer, Pauline Viardot. As a young man, he had an affair with her. The relationship soon cooled to a platonic but loving friendship with both Pauline and her husband, Louis Viardot.

Turgenev lived next door to the couple and shared in their domestic life until his death. I agree with Dessaix that Turgenev's devotion to Madame Viardot is touching, even courageous. I would go further and say that far from being an "aristocrat who shamelessly shilly-shallied", as Dessaix puts it, Turgenev displayed in his private life the same honesty that he showed in his prose. Unmoved by the political or social conventions of the time, he simply tried to be truthful.

At the same time, Dessaix's analysis of this relationship is overplayed. He sees it as both rather "modern" and an exam-ple of a love that has, in the modern age, become "almost impossible", a love that discerns divinity in the eyes of the beloved. Surely, love of this type is much more a matter of temperament than era. When he was 40, Turgenev wrote to a friend that sex three or four times a year was just right for him. He enjoyed family life, yet he did not want the distraction of a household of his own. His life with the Viardots suited him perfectly.

A couple of years ago, Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov proved that a mixture of literary criticism, travel and personal interpretation of a beloved author can make for an outstanding book. I was hoping for something similar from Robert Dessaix, yet at the core of Twilight of Love there seems to be a lack of respect, not only for Turgenev, but for literature itself. Dessaix remarks, revealingly: "Reading Turgenev - or Tolstoy or Gogol or Dostoevsky, anyone from a time and place we can barely imagine any more - is a disembodied experience unless we know what it felt like to be alive there then." By this measure, any fiction is a "disembodied experience". It is the writing itself that can make us feel what it was to be alive there and then. And without a profound feeling for the prose, poking around in an author's biography can only appear shallow, self-serving or faintly voyeuristic - or, as in this case, all three.

Charlotte Hobson is the author of Black Earth City: a year in the heart of Russia (Granta Books)