Appraising Orlando Figes?

Review of The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture by Orlando Figes: ‘The Europeans is clearly a testimony to Figes’ erudition.


With The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture Orlando Figes has written an opulent, richly enthralling, panoramic work on the cosmopolitan history of nineteenth-century European high culture. This he portrayed through the prism of the railway, and with the vivid example of an extraordinary ménage à trois of Ivan Turgenev, novelist, poet, and playwright, Pauline Viardot, a soprano and composer, and Louis Viardot, a great connoisseur. Figes approaches Europe as a space of cultural transfer, translation and exchange across national borders from which a European culture – an international synthesis of artistic forms, ideas and styles – emerges and sets Europe apart from the rest of the world. He draws on empirical structures and employs an analytical method to deduce how these have shaped the self-understanding of Europeans. 

The Europeans is clearly a testimony to Figes’ erudition; it is immaculately researched and firmly underpinned by meticulous scholarship. This is also accompanied by an eloquence that saturates his entire writing; it is beautifully written and with Figes’s characteristic verve and supple grace. What’s more, it is a book that exemplifies perfectly how Figes always manages to make his work irresistibly appealing, which, I believe, must lie in the fact that he can make distant history gain a very present, relevant and immediate touch. When I read it for the first time, I was thoroughly absorbed from start to finish and plunged into another world. Indeed, Figes managed to make past events which we now see as central to European high culture completely current. The grievances and constellations in Figes’ world of The Europeans inevitably confront the reader with current issues, just as all the reflections on culture, the market and mobility lead one directly into the present. The approach also calls for examples of lived life, not just structural generalities. The British-German historian has found a constellation of three protagonists for his account – precisely those ’three lives’ mentioned in the subtitle – that could hardly be more apt for a European self-understanding: the triangular story of Turgenev with Pauline Viardot and her husband Louis Viardot. Turgenev was the first Russian storyteller to gain recognition in Europe and Pauline Viardot was an international self-made star of opera, her husband a translator of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote and an eminent figure in French intellectual life. I here gratefully note that Figes does not tell the story of the capitalisation of culture in an accusatory manner, but rather in a densely descriptive way that gifts the reader with his knowledge. I moreover appreciated the fresh look at European art and culture that Orlando Figes offers in his book and the way the author combines epochs and private fates. Turgenev’s merits as a literary mediator across national borders are worthy of any attention. 

Ultimately, Orlando Figes’ The Europeans is an original, fact-rich, brilliantly constructed book and the lasting value of it certainly lies in the impressive panorama he has made of his investigation: It broadens our horizons in the very best sense and thereby makes us a little more European ourselves.

Orlando Figes, The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, illustrated. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2019. 688 pages, €12,89.