The idea of a coherent European culture is surprisingly modern, given how close the kingdoms of the continent have historically appeared. But, prior to the arrival of the railways, travel over vast distances was open to only the hardy or desperate, and culture bled out of continental cultural centres slowly, vastly diluted and largely misunderstood. Each country was a universe unto itself, an echo-chamber of mild mediocrity entrapped by obsessive chest-beating nation making.
Come the railways, and culture gushed across borders, with opera troupes, artists, writers and critics criss-crossing the continent, knitting together a common European culture which, arguably, by the end of the nineteenth century, formed the greatest cultural flourishing ever seen.
Figes’ narrative focuses on the intersecting lives of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, Spanish opera singer Pauline Viardot and her French husband, the art critic Louis Viardot – a triad that formed the centre of a Europe-wide web of culture that extended from St Petersburg to Seville and everywhere in between. Meticulously researched, at times almost drowning in detail, Figes brings alive the birth of something that, until recently, we all took for granted: a single shared European identity.
Demonstrating the critical importance of cultural diversity in driving innovation, Figes’ history of European culture is a passionate call to rescue the values of cosmopolitanism that have taken such a battering from the rise of Orbán, Le Pen and Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and from the tragedy of Brexit. Marx wrote: ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.’ In Figes’ excellent recounting of the enormity of Europe’s cultural legacy, it is clear that the joke is on us.
Reviewed by a library member