The advent of railroads in the 1840s marked the beginnings of a seismic cultural shift for the European continent. The first continuous international train left its station in 1843; just three years later, with the inauguration of the Paris–Brussels line, it became apparent just how much the new technology would affect the individual’s interaction with the larger world. The 205-mile journey between the two capitals took twelve hours—none too speedy by modern standards—but its first riders, a group that included Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, already understood the social implications. “Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone,” marveled Heinrich Heine: “I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries are advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea breakers are rolling against my door.”

Natural and national boundaries appeared to dissolve; Europe entered its first period of cultural transnationalism since the Roman Empire. Writers and artists, books and paintings traveled easily, now, across the continent. Operas, orchestras, and theatrical productions could tour everywhere under steam power. Commentators at the time, very much like those who hailed the possibilities of the internet in the 1990s, saw the new technology as ushering in a period of peace and brotherhood, democratization and universal harmony. And like the boosters of the internet, they were soon to be disappointed. Nevertheless, something important did grow out of this new internationalism: what we now think of as “European culture” (as opposed to the “Christendom” of earlier centuries) was created, with a distinctive canon of classic works created by improved communications and emerging market forces.

Orlando Figes, who has spent most of his career writing on Russian history (A People’s Tragedy, Natasha’s Dance, The Crimean War), has in his newest book provided an exhaustive chronicle—sometimes over-detailed, but often moving and enlightening—of these decades of fruitful cultural sharing and, yes, “appropriation,” a word now uttered with contempt, but a process that is of course essential in any civilization’s development. The ideal of European brotherhood and harmony, tested by the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars, would blow up completely in 1914, less than a century after the Congress of Vienna. Still, European culture as a focus for identity has to a large extent survived, as the existence of the European Union—however troubled—demonstrates. In The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, Figes has focused largely on the arts as a “unifying force between nations.”1 His aim, he writes, is to “approach Europe as a space of cultural transfers, translocations and exchanges crossing national boundaries, out of which a ‘European culture’—an international synthesis of artistic forms, ideas and styles—would come into existence and distinguish Europe from the broader world.”

The ideal of European brotherhood and harmony, tested by the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars, would blow up completely in 1914.

As a way of shaping and sweetening for the general reader the prodigious array of facts and figures he brings to the project, Figes has wisely chosen to construct his tale around three central personalities of the age: the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818–83); Louis Viardot (1800–83), a French “republican activist, editor, opera director, Spanish scholar, critic, writer and literary translator, art expert and collector”; and his remarkable wife, the famous singer Pauline Viardot (1821–1910), with whom Turgenev was romantically involved for decades (a fact her husband tactfully ignored). Between the three of them, they seem to have known everyone of cultural importance in nineteenth-century Europe and to have made significant personal contributions to the transmission of literature, music, art, and theater across national boundaries. Indeed, they personified an ideal of cosmopolitan open-mindedness.

Turgenev, a landed aristocrat who always managed to be broke, studied at the University of Berlin for three years. From that time on he considered himself as much German as Russian, and on his return to Russia passionately advocated the Westernization of the country, opposing the nascent Slavophile movement that took Russia to be separate from Europe, spiritually purer. After an unsuccessful few years in the Russian civil service, Turgenev returned to Western Europe where he would spend the rest of his life, usually living near or with the Viardots and writing the series of novels, beginning with A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), that would make him one of the most famous and beloved of European authors. He used his growing prestige to promote East–West literary exchange. “Turgenev played a vital role in getting Russia’s writers better known in Europe in the 1840s and 1850s—a role he would broaden as a cultural intermediary between Russia and the West over the next thirty years,” Figes explains. He befriended Tolstoy, a decade younger than he, and urged War and Peace on publishers and opinion-makers in the West. In Paris he became an intimate of the Magny circle: Mérimée, Sainte-Beuve, the Goncourts, and particularly Flaubert, who became increasingly dependent on the Russian’s wisdom and literary finesse. “He staggered me,” wrote Flaubert, “with the depth and crispness of his judgments. If only all those who mess about with books could have heard him, what a lesson! He misses nothing. At the end of a session of a hundred lines, he can remember a weak adjective; he made two or three exquisite suggestions on points of detail for Saint Anthony.” Turgenev effectively acted as agent, publisher, and translator for Flaubert. He promoted Maupassant, Jules de Goncourt, and Zola—who consequently gained fame in Russia well before he did in France—in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “We nicknamed him the ambassador of the Russian intelligentsia,” remembered Maksim Kovalevsky: “There was not a Russian man or woman in any way connected to writing, art or music, on whose behalf Turgenev did not intervene.”

The Viardots were similarly influential, similarly generous in the help they gave other artists and intellectuals. In France, Pauline, who was Spanish by birth, and Louis, who had lived in Spain and loved its art and culture, did much to inspire a new interest in that exotic country; Louis’ collection of Spanish art, and his writings on that subject, were formative. As players in the opera scene—Louis as what would now be called a producer, Pauline as a singing star and teacher—they were at the center of musical culture at the critical moment when music became a favored activity in the life of the new bourgeoisie. Pianos were newly affordable and they proliferated in middle-class homes, while the 1840s saw the development of a serious concert culture enabled by the easier movement allowed by railway travel; recent establishments like the Philharmonic Society of London and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris thrived. “In some ways,” Figes writes, “attendance at such concerts was part of the assertion of a middle-class identity, a way for subscribers to align themselves with the aristocracy as gatekeepers of high culture.”

How charming to discover that Turgenev was an Offenbach fan!

Musical soirées at the Viardots’ throughout their lives—and Pauline lived a very long one, dying well into the twentieth century at the age of eighty-nine—seem to have been attended by everyone who was anyone at that time. Rossini, Liszt, Chopin, George Sand, Berlioz, Bizet, Gounod, Delacroix, Corot, Doré, Saint-Saëns, Ary Scheffer, Renan, Daniele Manin, Herzen, Bakunin, Dickens, the young Henry James—all these and many more came for “music-making, amateur theatricals, spoofs, charades, and the portrait game.” The love duet from Tristan und Isolde was first performed at the Viardots’ Paris salon, with Pauline and Wagner himself singing the title roles. In Baden, where our three protagonists lived for several years in the 1860s, the Viardots hosted, at their Thursday evenings, the likes of Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Anton Rubinstein, and Johann Strauss II (and this is not even to mention the various crowned heads who attended such occasions). Ah, life before television! Pauline herself was no mean composer—Figes speculates that had her world been ready for female opera composers, she might have distinguished herself in that field as she did in others. One would especially like to have been present in Baden when the opéras bouffes written by Pauline and Turgenev in the style of Jacques Offenbach were performed. How charming to discover that Turgenev was an Offenbach fan! So, too, was Pauline, though Offenbach had famously parodied her recent triumphant performance in the role of Gluck’s Orphée with his burlesque Orpheus in the Underworld.

Offenbach’s operettas offered a new sort of mass entertainment (as brilliantly described in Zola’s Nana). Other forms of art, too, were gaining a mass audience with new techniques of mechanical reproduction. The introduction of faster lithographic presses brought down the price of sheet music for home performance. A literary canon was developing through the new cheap “libraries” sold in train stations and accessible to all. Paintings old and new were popularized through photographic reproductions; the age of the art print and the art postcard was dawning. The invention of the wet-collodion process in 1851 enabled multiple prints to be made from a single negative—a great improvement on the daguerreotype. A new craze for portrait photography set in. Baudelaire complained bitterly: “From that moment on, our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on a metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism took hold of these new sun-worshippers.” Selfie-culture, it seems, had dawned.

No less egregious was the rise of mass tourism under the aegis of train and steamship power, Murray’s guidebooks, and the Thomas Cook tour. Then, as now, the sight of bands of clueless tourists provoked snobbish reactions from the well-traveled intelligentsia; “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour,” commented John Ruskin, “will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better going fast.” Louis Viardot, it would seem, disagreed. In any case he personally did much to set the new tourist agenda, writing five bestselling museum guides that greatly influenced not only the formation of a standard canon of works to be visited, but modern curatorial practices in general; following his suggestions, museum directors began arranging works of art in chronological order rather than squeezing them onto walls at random.

The fact that the French Viardots supported Prussia at the outset of the Franco-Prussian War says everything about their essential cosmopolitanism. They despised Napoleon III, who had destroyed the Second Republic and was now drumming up French jingoism and stupidly attacking a militarized Prussia. As the Prussians crushed France and swept all before them, however, the Viardots changed their minds, while Turgenev bemoaned “the aggressive greed for conquest that has overtaken Germany.” Forced to flee their beloved Baden and unwelcome in France, where they were reviled as friends of the Prussian royal family, the trio took temporary refuge in England—das Land ohne Musik—where they brought a whiff of Continental culture and musical fashion to a new circle of friends that included Anthony Trollope, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, Robert Browning, Frederick Leighton, Arthur Sullivan, and William Gladstone.

Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died just months apart, in 1883. Pauline went on for another twenty-seven years.

The unification of Germany spelled disaster for the kind of cosmopolitan communities that Turgenev and the Viardots had excelled in creating around them wherever they went. Artists like Offenbach—who was German, French, and Jewish—were suddenly stigmatized, their careers destroyed. National boundaries were strengthened, psychologically if not physically. The gigantic funerals of Victor Hugo in Paris and Giuseppe Verdi in Milan, with millions of mourners following the cortèges, were as much nationalist occasions as tributes to art.

Louis Viardot and Ivan Turgenev died just months apart, in 1883. Pauline went on for another twenty-seven years. Figes chooses to end his tale at the moment when Sergei Diaghilev arrived in Paris with his Ballets Russes in 1907: “This was the point when Russia took its place right at the heart of Europe’s cosmopolitan culture. . . . The Stravinsky ballets were in fact a synthesis of European elements, the music drawn as much from Debussy, Ravel and Fauré as from Russian folk song and its champions in the nationalist school.” The young impresario expressed a passing wish to pay a visit to the aged singer who had lived through legendary times and had worked with Rossini, Chopin, and Meyerbeer. The meeting never took place. But, as Figes points out, the Ballets Russes represented the “fulfillment of the cultural ideals she had embodied all her life.”

Figes does not provide a postscript, but he might well have done so. To what degree does Russia culturally belong to Europe, a century after Diaghilev? Who won, the Westernizers or the Slavophiles? Can the European Union be seen as representing the same sort of values that internationalists like the Viardots and Turgenev espoused? A recent novel about the European Union, Robert Menasse’s The Capital, has fun with the fact that the “Culture” ministry is regularly the least regarded and worst funded section of the Brussels bureaucracy. The Europeans raises many, many questions about contemporary Europe, but it leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

1 The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, by Orlando Figes; Metropolitan Books, 592 pages, $35.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 5, on page 68
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