A History and a Haunting Novel:  Orlando Figes’s “The Europeans” and Guy Gavriel Kay’s “A Brightness Long Ago”

It is a rare experience to read two brilliant books in a row: a perfectly-imagined or well-researched book tends to be followed by the reading of a string of mediocre books.  Perhaps our brains cannot deal with too much excellence?

But I have been thrilled by Orlando Figes’s The Europeans:  Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s haunting new novel, A Brightness Long Ago.  

Fans of the great Ivan Turgenev will love Orlando Figes’s The Europeans, a sparkling, exuberant  history of the development of European culture in the the 19th century.  The book focuses on the relationship between the Russian writer Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, the opera singer he loved for most of his life, and her husband, Louis Viardot, a theater manager and writer.  This trio was influential in promoting the work of their peers, international writers, musicians, and artists .  (N.B. I  adore Turgenev and binge-read his  books in 2017 .  I blogged about it at Mirabile Dictu, if you’re interested.)

Whether or not the lovesick Turgenev and the controlling Pauline consummated their relationship–some vote for the Platonic theory, Figes gives evidence for a sexual relationship–Turgenev followed Pauline around Europe and rented apartments near the Viardets in Paris, Baden-Baden, and London. (Sometimes he lived with them.) As international commerce was facilitated by the building of railroads, Turgenev and the Viardots promoted the arts throughout Europe, Russia, and England. 

The craze for novels in translation became a big business for publishers, especially in France and Russia.  (The English were content with their own novels.)  Turgenev championed the Russian translation of Flaubert, the French translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the Russian translation of Zola, to name a few of his more famous projects.  Pauline,  one of the most powerful stars of the opera world, influenced the taste of composers (she sometimes helped them with their operas) and concert-goers.  And Louis Viardot, who for a time had managed his wife’s career, also wrote about radical politics.  (The French police  found them suspicious and spied on them.)

Turgenev became a beloved writer, especially in Europe, but had his emotional ups and downs, complicated by what often seemed like a one-sided love affair, bouts of gout, and being a considered a dissident in Russia.  (He was arrested in Russia after writing Gogol’s obituary.) I loved reading about Turgenev’s artsy social circle, the rise of art museums, the influence of critics on popular taste, and more.

Guy Gavriel Kay is in top form with his new novel, A Brightness Long Ago.  This gracefully-written historical fantasy, set in a world that parallels the city-states of Renaissance Italy, is a ripping-good read, brimming with politics, warfare,  and intrigues. And in the Acknowledgments, Kay recommends a staggering number of books that helped him with research, and explains that one subplot of the novel is based on the feuds between the Montefeltro and Malatesta families in 15th-century Italy. 

  A Brightness Long Ago is not quite in the same class as my favorite of Kay’s novels, Under Heaven,, but if you need a good cry, this is the book for you.  (I rarely cry over books, but I cried excessively over this one.)

What if you want to be a bookseller but the world takes you elsewhere?  That is the plight of Danio Cerra, a tailor’s son who, after seven years at a prestigious school,  found himself working as a court assistant, and, later, as an influential political advisor.  As an old man looking back over his life, he aches for his youth.  He especially misses Adria Ripoli, an aristocratic feminist whom he met when she assassinated a tyrannt, known as the Beast, for his exploitation of the people and frequent killings.  Danio saved her life after the assassination, finding her wounded, and  they had a short relationship.   Despite their separation due to class and circumstances, he remained in love with her after her tragic death.

Even Danio’s simplest descriptions of sadness moved me.

Adria is an absence.  No one living knows what that means, how often I remember her, even now.  It is foolish, I concede it. Sometimes we are foolish.  But isn’t it also true sometimes that the only way a person survives after they die is in the memories of others?

And Kay eerily writes lyrical passages of stream-of-consciousness from the perspective of the newly-dead  hovering over their bodies.

But it not all weeping.  Kay also tells the dramatic stories of others connected to Adria:  Adria’s uncle Folco, a renowned mercenary commander, and his rival from a neighboring city-state.  Their feud is ongoing. Then there is a healer, a woman who can see ghosts.  And we read of the fall of a city.

Sad, often beautifully-written, and a good read.