Sun, 06 Mar 2005
From:

Treveling exotic landscape of writers' haunts, trails

Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, Guardian News Service, London

What drives us readers to throw down our paperbacks, pick up our suitcases and go in search of the world our writers actually lived, loved, ate and slept in? This question preoccupies, in very divergent ways, the literary travel journals of Christopher Rush and Robert Dessaix. Both set out to capture very different 19th-century authors through retreading their footsteps, only to find they were searching for someone - or something - else.

When Australian Dessaix was 11 - at about the time the first sputnik began crisscrossing the sky - he bought himself a Russian dictionary and fell in love with Russia: its soul, its literature. That passion ignites the soft candle flame of Twilight Of Love, in which Turgenev is mainly a portal through which Dessaix hopes to travel in search of traces of the world I've spent half my life trying to seize hold of.

By 1863 Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) - author of Father and Sons, peer of Tolstoy, friend of Flaubert, money-lender to Dostoyevsky - had effectively exiled himself to Europe, where his novels were better received. But it's not Turgenev's writing that interests Dessaix most, it is his life. Specifically, the 40 years Turgenev spent in supposedly chaste devotion to mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, trotting around Europe after her - and her husband - like a fuddy- duddy lapdog.

There's a haunting melancholy to Dessaix's prose as he follows Turgenev's way through the faded tea rooms and casinos of Baden Baden, and motors around Europe to a chateau where all the scenery was in place, but the actors had long since gone home.

He puts off visiting sites and is ultimately uninterested in peeking under the sheet to discover if Turgenev slept with his muse. Instead he lusts for the strategically placed gauze of a more reticent era, such as he uses to screen his own privacy - a wife is mentioned, but also two male lovers. In this yearning narrative, Dessaix travels not with Turgenev but after him: his narrative is ever trying to seize hold and, like Turgenev's desire for Pauline, trembles in the pleasure/pain of a love unconsummated.

A very different and searing pain blazes from Christopher Rush's astonishing pilgrimage from rage to redemption. When his wife, Patricia, was suddenly snatched from him by breast cancer, Rush, a writer and English teacher, found literature offered no consolation - "Apparently I can explicate a Shakespearean tragedy but I'm not trained for a real life one". Spiralling into a hellish nervous breakdown, his hopelessly book-anchored brain clings to shreds and tatters of Auden, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Larkin - yet none can save him from despair and near-insanity.

Beatifically, the tone lightens in the second half, where Rush decides on an odd road to recovery. He will fling the books out the window and re-enact fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson's journey across the Cevennes, right down to riding on a donkey (a jaunty beast called Anatole). Like Dessaix on Turgenev, Rush isn't so keen on RLS as a writer - but I reflected that Stevenson's best book had been his own life. The young yet-to-be- author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had similarly undertaken this journey to try to get over the loss (though not death) of his lover, and this made me think about the double-sided nature of travel which is both an escape and a pursuit. Like Richard Holmes, who did RLS's Cevennes trail more than a decade earlier, he found that by losing yourself you find yourself.

Sharing a roll-up with "Louis", he recognizes a fellow traveller on the road of life, emerging from this fictional encounter remarried to life. Dessaix arguably does the opposite - confronted by the brutal prosaicness of modern Moscow he takes refuge once again in fiction, identifying with Turgenev as they share appreciation for a bygone twilight of love across the centuries. But the message of both is the same, whether the urge is to escape into books or out of them. The harder we search for someone else, the more likely we are to find ourselves.

Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev
Robert Dessaix
Scribner
320 pp

To Travel Hopefully: Journal of a Death Not Foretold
Christopher Rush
Profile
288 pp





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