A panoramic cultural history of nineteenth-century Europe, told through the intertwined lives of three remarkable people: a great singer, Pauline Viardot, a great writer, Ivan Turgenev, and a great connoisseur, Pauline's husband Louis.
Figes has shown an unerring ability to weave together the political and the personal ... Figes tells the tale with his customary vigor and sensitivity but in counterpoint with a panoramic yet engagingly detailed survey of the creation of a pan-European culture suspended between the revolutionary moment of 1848 (for which Pauline composed an official cantata based on the 'Marseillaise') and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 (which forced the Viardots and Turgenev to leave the hitherto cosmopolitan environs of Baden-Baden). The two registers—the personal and the world-historical—intertwine and reflect back on each other ... Figes is acutely aware of the ways that material changes interacted to produce cultural change ... Turgenev was a living embodiment of the cosmopolitanism whose creation Figes is celebrating.
In the age of Brexit and social media, the contemporary relevance of The Europeans is obvious. But Figes wisely leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions about the parallels between then and now. By the same token, he takes a position on the cosmopolitan ideal of Europe, which he casts in inspiring terms ... In relating this efflorescence, Figes does not acknowledge its kinship with another foundational moment in the history of Western cosmopolitanism: the humanist Renaissance of the 14th through the 16th centuries...Even a condensed discussion of this context would have been useful in a work of this scope ... That said, Figes is impressively thorough when it comes to cataloging the railway era’s many notable achievements.
This running ledger, this constant transmutation of artistic endeavor into unabashed bookkeeping, forms the backbone of Mr. Figes’s work. That he has managed to accomplish it so lucidly and entertainingly is a remarkable feat in itself, but it also illuminates much about the very nature of art and society in 19th-century Europe ... His monumental work is the product of thorough and extensive research, largely in archival sources and in several languages. The author has a remarkable capacity to keep a huge quantity of factual material present in mind, and to bind it moreover into a coherent story. Woven through the biographical narrative is a detailed account of the transformations in technology, mores and law that created the new cosmopolitanism ... Mr. Figes’s magisterial work will surely come as a welcome vivification of a splendid if vanished way of life.