Joie Davidow

 

An Unofficial Marriage:
A Novel of Ivan Turgenev and Pauline Viardot


Coming from Arcade Publishing, March 16, 2021
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Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of 19th century Europe, An Unofficial Marriage dramatizes the equally tumultuous real-life love affair of two great artists—the famous Russian author, Ivan Turgenev, and the celebrated French opera singer, Pauline Viardot. From the moment he encounters her on the St. Petersburg stage, Ivan falls completely for Pauline. Though Pauline returns his feelings, she is bound by her singular passion for her art and her devotion to her gentle, older husband, Louis. Nevertheless, Ivan pursues Pauline across countries and continents—from Russia to France to Germany to Prussia—and in the decades that follow their fateful meeting, the lives of Pauline, Ivan, and Louis remain permanently intertwined as the lovers face jealousy, separation, the French Revolution of 1848, the cholera epidemic of 1849, the Franco-Prussian War, Turgenev’s arrest in Russia, Louis’s heartbreak and resignation, and the highs and lows of their artistic careers. “You know those unofficial marriages,” Turgenev would write almost thirty years after meeting Pauline, “They sometimes turn out more poisonous than the accepted form.”
 
With beautiful and compelling prose and employing multiple perspectives, Joie Davidow (who herself has a background in opera) illuminates not only the interior lives of these two intensely passionate artists, but also the grand historic moments that Pauline and Ivan experienced and the celebrated figures who moved in their circles—including George Sand, Leo Tolstoy, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Ary Scheffer—providing insight into the dynamic worlds of 19th century opera, literature, art, and politics. Epic in the tradition of the Russian writers whom we encounter, and as romantic and tragic as the operas that Pauline Viardot performs in, An Unofficial Marriage brings to life with great scope and great humanity this captivating story from the past and explores timeless questions about the relationship between art and passion and the complex workings of the human heart.

"Drawing upon her experience as a performer and lover of opera, Joie Davidow has found an exhileratingly fresh way to present turbulent 19th century Europe through the obsessive love of author Ivan Turgenev for married opera singer Pauline Viardot.  Readers will find themselves wisked through the cultural capitals of St. Petersburg, Paris, London and beyond as the two lovers and her devoted husband struggle over their desires and loyalties, the stresses of revolution and repression, the cholera epidemic and financial upheaval. Davidow seduces her readers as surely as Ivan Turgenev did Pauline Viardot in a dramatic saga that would defy credibility were it not based on her years of research." -_ Hunter Drohowska Philp, author of  Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe


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Excerpt

Winter falls on Saint Petersburg like a white curtain.
One day an ice floe appears on the Neva. The waters roil
and a mist arises, hovering over the city. The next morning the
river is firmly frozen, with ice so thick the wooden bridges are
removed, and carriages roll across wherever they like. Overnight,
the colors all disappear, obliterated by the winter snows, leaving
only the wind moaning at the edges of the windows.
Everywhere, there is snow. It covers the houses, the streets. The
ice on the frozen canals is blanketed in powdery white. Day and
night snow falls, while the wind, wailing down the wide boulevards,
sweeps it into hills and valleys. In early November, Saint
Petersburg is cold, harsh, and glorious.
But in the uppermost gallery of the Imperial Theatre, high
above the stage, the heat rising from thousands of enraptured bodies
renders the air stifling. Here, where the environs are unsuitable
for ladies, only men are permitted. They roost in narrow rows,
mercilessly squeezed onto hard wooden benches, delighted to be
there. They understand not a word being sung, and have only the
vaguest notion of what sort of entertainment an opera is meant to
be, but every perch is enthusiastically occupied.
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, unaccustomed to such claustrophobic
conditions, is much too expensively dressed for such a
cheap seat. His long legs are bent at an excruciating angle, knees
to chest, and he hunches his broad shoulders to avoid the men
on either side of him. When he arrived, he found the situation so
untenable, he thought of escaping at the first interval. But then
she appeared onstage, a tiny figure so far below him that through
his opera glasses, she appears both real and imaginary.
Her voice though, her voice is so close beside him, she might
be singing softly into his ears, a voice so beautiful, he wants to die
listening to it. The sound that pours so smoothly into his ears flows
down through his body, reverberating in his chest and belly, pulsating
between his legs. And he stays, although he is unable even
to adjust his feet without treading on his neighbor.
At the final curtain, he scans row upon row of red and gold
boxes, watching the aristocrats, the intelligentsia, the merchants,
even the wealthy Jews of Saint Petersburg; the audience is in a
frenzy. Women dressed in white gowns and covered in gems frantically
tap gloved hands against folded fans, and men in a splendor
of uniforms applaud wildly. Young dandies in the stalls throw their
top hats into the air, calling “Viardot! Viardot!”
The curtains part, and she steps into the spotlight. Pauline
Viardot-Garcia, so small yet so majestic, sinks into a deep curtsy,
lifts her head and crosses her hands over her chest. Through his
opera glasses, he can see that her strange, dark face is covered with
bewildered tears, and he weeps with her.
Then she is gone, and the enormous chandelier is lit, illuminating
the hall.
High above in the gallery, men climb over Ivan’s knees, thrust
elbows into his back as they push and shove one another toward
the interminable stairway that leads down to the street. For
three-quarters of an hour, he is unable to move, oblivious to the
rough valenkis that trample his calfskin boots. He imagines her
reclining in a dressing room filled with flowers, a gossamer robe
revealing the contours of her body, soft black hair flowing over her
shoulders.
Until an old usher leans over him, breath sour with the remnants
of cabbage and onions. Ivan Sergeyevich raises damp eyes
and hurries off.

Violin Sonata by Pauline Viardot-Garcia


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