Joie Davidow

 

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


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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


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


I I Wouldn't Leave
Rome to Go
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