[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.
Dopeworld: Adventures in Drug Lands
"To its credit, Dopeworld is nothing if not ambitious. Vorobyov states as much himself, describing it bombastically as ‘true crime, gonzo, social, historical memoir meets fucked up travel book’. That is a lot to cram in. If sometimes he drops the ball (the..."
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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.