In search of love, on the heels of a great writer

Unable to travel to Europe this summer? Try reading Robert Dessaix's "Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev" instead. Many of the pleasures of a European sojourn are on display in this combination memoir-travel tale: the joy of stepping off a sleek German train into an old town center, the gentle evening stroll through a city square, the pastry savored at a quaint cafe.

In many ways, in fact, "Twilight of Love" is a love letter to Europe (if Europe's boundaries can be expanded to include eastern Russia).

It is also a book that reminds all of us who don't hold EU passports - Dessaix is Australian - how it feels to catch a first glimpse of that deeply rooted culture, a world we recognize but cannot entirely call our own.

Dessaix's feelings for Europe, however, are really a metaphor for larger questions he aims to explore.

The book is the story of a trip taken through Germany, France, and Russia in search of places where the 19th-century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev once lived. Dessaix visits Baden-Baden, Paris, a couple of smaller towns in France, and Russia - Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Spasskoye (Turgenev's ancestral home.)

Along the way he meets up with old friends and does a lot of thinking about the nature of love.

Turgenev, Dessaix explains, spent much of his life in love with a married woman, even though it's not clear that their love affair was ever consummated.

The idea of a devotion that transcends physical passion fascinates Dessaix. "I want to know what it felt like to love someone like that," he writes. "I want to find the words."

Nothing in his journey, of course, fully unlocks the question. But the quest does give Dessaix a chance to consider love in its different stages.

Is the blinding passion that one experiences early in life most like love - or do years of steady companionship come closer to the real thing? Or might something exist somewhere in between?

Dessaix's musings take him back through his own life experience.

At the age of 12, he one day picked up a Russian dictionary. It was love at first sight. And as is often the case with youthful passions, Dessaix's was in equal parts overwhelming and senseless.

"Despite my tender age, ravished is what I was," he recalls. "Russian was my new-found Amour - not a wholly wise one, no doubt...."

Yet this love has proven enduring. Dessaix, an essayist, commentator, and translator, has devoted much of his life to the study of Russian literature.

His student days in Russia in the 1960s, he recalls, were "exciting beyond belief." Much was ugly and frightening, and the ideology was mendacious and twisted.

Yet nothing dimmed Dessaix's ardor for daily life in Moscow. "To this day," he writes, "the smell of unleaded petrol makes me feel nostalgic."

But now, some decades later, he recognizes as he travels (and fittingly, his trip finishes in the new post-Soviet Russia which he struggles to accept) that his red-hot passion has morphed into something a good bit calmer.

"Once it was an intoxicating love affair" he explains to a Russian friend. "Now, well, it's a marriage. It's almost your whole life, it's what you are, but, at the same time, it's driving you berserk."

Apart from a few references to the disappointment of a failed marriage, Dessaix keeps personal asides to a minimum. He does recall his own first sexual encounter - which took place in Paris - but touches on this only briefly.

Even when it comes to Turgenev's own grand passion, we learn relatively little. But it is Dessaix's conjecture - formulated as he travels - that Turgenev eventually came to accept the limits of love.

"Love is never enough," Dessaix concludes. And yet, "It must always be enough. There's nothing else."

Dessaix is also fascinated by the way love and desire change shape and form over the course of a lifetime.

Turgenev, he confesses, didn't appeal to him as a writer when he was a young man. "If you have a whit of imagination at that age, you want to tumble about with Napoleon and axe-murders and visions of God, not hang about in musty drawing rooms, as Turgenev's readers are often forced to do."

But today, Dessaix says, at a different stage of life, he finds that "sitting quietly ... in one of his musty drawing-rooms, eavesdropping on rambling conversations about all the things that really matter in life, now fills me with deep pleasure."

And that's exactly the kind of gentle, elegant enjoyment served up in "Twilight."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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