Meticulously detailed, exhaustively researched and written with Figes’s characteristic verve, The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture is a sweeping tour de force and a monumental work of historical synthesis. Focusing on the intertwined biographies of a famous French opera singer of Spanish descent, her French impresario husband and one of Russia’s most beloved novelists, Figes traces this trio’s fluctuating fortunes, zooming out from time to time to investigate subjects such as the middle-class craze for piano-playing and the birth of the travel guide
I started The Europeans noting its heft and feeling irritated that one set of relationships should be explained at such great length. However, Figes in his maturity is a fine, subtle writer with a nice eye for detail and clever with structure. I finished the book entertained, informed and armed with the kinds of insights and questions that will keep me happily going for the rest of the year.
IIt is ironic that this passionately exuberant book should be published just as we are about to leave Europe. For Orlando Figes’s subject is how writers, artists and musicians in the 19th century created a richly diverse European culture that surmounted narrow-minded nationalism. As he shows, technological advances lay behind their achievement. The railway boom of the 1840s made travel easier and cheaper, and new printing techniques stimulated the mass production of books and sheet-music... A conclusion to draw from The Europeans, though Figes refrains from doing so, is that tribalism is stronger than art. The Franco-Prussian War and the First World War showed how thin the veneer of international culture had been. That is a melancholy reflection, but it accentuates, rather than reduces, the value of Figes’s tumultuously informative and educative work.
Orlando Figes is a fine historian who combines scholarly detail with readability. His wide-ranging book touches on a multitude of subjects. But at its heart is a love triangle — the very human story of three remarkable individuals whose lives he has resurrected with great sympathy and insight.
[W]hat enlivens the book so enthrallingly is that it creates its argument by tracing the lives and experiences of three interlocking personalities working in the vanguard of music, art and literature... A professor of history at Birkbeck College best known for his work on modern Russia, Figes was disgraced a decade ago when he was exposed and sued for posting hostile pseudonymous reviews of rivals’ books in Amazon. With this magnificently humane book, written with supple grace but firmly underpinned by meticulous scholarship, he has surely redeemed himself.
Weaving into the spaces between these lives the vital stuff of culture in relation to money, Figes evidently feels that out of the fabric of grand, flawed, artistically dedicated and politically aware lives it is possible to define a continental culture. One is reminded of Karl Marx’s observation regarding Balzac’s novels that he could learn more about the personal property of the well-off from reading how a woman “horned her husband for cash or cashmere” than from any historian or statistician.
There is, however, a valedictory, subtextual import to the encyclopedic history Figes has written. The pan-European culture that Turgenev and the Viardots saw emerging was sundered by two world wars. Since 1945, Europe has largely been at peace. The astonishing artistic to-and-fro that exists today would be one Figes’s subjects would recognise instantly. The current potential fracturing of that European unity is an awful warning. As Figes says in his introduction, he hopes his book will “serve as a reminder of the unifying force of European civilisation, which Europe’s nations will ignore at their peril”. One has little confidence that the current galère of egomaniacs, self-serving charlatans, idiots and spittle-flecked Europhobes that run our politics will listen, let alone read a book as relevant, trenchant and searching as this one. But maybe – with a bit of good luck – that intense, vibrant, interlinked European cosmopolitanism, established over the last two centuries, will triumph in the end.
A fascinating subtext in The Europeans is Britain’s grim isolation. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Viardots found British weather, audiences, music, food, hotels and Sundays unendurable, the compensation being the high fees foreign artists could command in Britain. (The country may have been known in Germany as ‘the land without music’, but it liked to import it.) Figes’s heroes were shocked on meeting Tennyson to hear that he had never read George Sand or Victor Hugo, let alone a Russian novel. Turgenev too sometimes found Britain trying, although Figes omits the passages in his letters where he expressed delight at the Isle of Wight (he began Fathers and Sonsthere), enjoyment in George Eliot’s company and pleasure at shooting partridges in Cambridgeshire. He spoke English well and was happy to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford. Other Russians loathed Britain more: Dostoevsky denounced the Crystal Palace and the child prostitutes of Haymarket, while Tolstoy derided Englishmen’s false teeth – a symbol to him of false character.