A prodigiously researched account of the spread of culture throughout the mid and late 19th century using three specific biographies to personalize the voluminous historical data.
Figes (History/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, 2014, etc.) returns with another astonishing work displaying his vast knowledge of art, music, literature, culture, and history. Wisely, he uses three people to embody much of his discussion: Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, French singer Pauline Viardot, and her husband, Louis, a political activist and literary figure. The author follows these three over the decades—Turgenev and Pauline had an intimate relationship that Louis tolerated—and through their stories, we see specific instances of the cultural changes Figes illuminates throughout the book. The growth of railways, the advances in photography and publication, the explosion in literary translations, the vast increase in literacy—these and other factors increased the development of a kind of common European culture that only the growth of nationalism, and the consequent wars, could weaken. "The arts played a central role in this evolving concept of a European cultural identity," writes Figes. "More than religion or political beliefs, they were seen as uniting people across the Continent." This necessitated the "recognition that any national culture is a result of a constant dialogue across state boundaries and of the assimilation of separate artistic traditions into a larger European world." Turgenev and the Viardots traveled continually: She was a popular singer, and, initially, it was her financial success that supported her family. Later, her voice gone, it was Turgenev's writing and generosity. In many ways, the text is a who's who of the time period. Liszt, Dickens, Balzac, Hugo, George Sand, Chopin, Tolstoy, Flaubert—these and countless other icons move smoothly through the narrative, a rich mélange of tasty ingredients. There are some mild surprises, too: Mary Shelley briefly wanders in (we read Victor Frankenstein's description of the Rhine), and Henry James makes some cameos.
A powerful and essential addition to our understanding of European history and culture.
A Book of the Year for Spectator, Daily Telegraph, BBC Music Magazine, BBC History Magazine, and Kirkus Reviews
“Brings distant history so close that you can feel its heartbeat.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard
“Much anticipated ... impressively thorough.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Magnificent. Beautifully written, immaculately researched and thoroughly absorbing from start to finish. A tour de force that explains how Europe’s cultural life transformed during the course of the 19th centuryand so much more.”
Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
“Superbly entertaining and vastly informative, The Europeans show how the enriching, symbiotic internationalism of painters, musicians and writers of 19th century Europe led to the creation of artistic masterpieces that stand among Western civilization’s highest achievements."
The Washington Post
“With the future of Brexit and the European Union still uncertain, the book, which makes the case that a common European culture once existed and thrived, is doubly relevant today.”
The New York Times
“Monumental ... Figes's magisterial work will surely come as a welcome vivification of a splendid if vanished way of life.”
The Wall Street Journal
“It plunged me into another world. I learned so much and was carried away by the intelligence and fluidity of the stylea combination which is unbeatable.”
Antonia Fraser, author of Mary Queen of Scots
“An extraordinary account of the development of a continental cultured class.”
“Magnificent and utterly gripping: European identity, culture and commerce through the lives of three remarkable individuals, the book for our times.”
Phillippe Sands, author of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide
“Magisterial, beguiling, searching ... a history of a continent in constant change.”
William Boyd, The Guardian
"Shaping and sweetening the prodigious array of facts and figures, Figes has wisely chosen to construct his tale around three central personalities of the age, who seem to have known everyone of cultural importance in nineteenth-century Europe ... Moving and enlightening."
“Meticulously detailed, exhaustively researched and written with Figes’s characteristic verve, The Europeans is a sweeping tour de force and a monumental work of historical synthesis.”
Julia Coman, The Guardian
“A massive study of nineteenth-century cosmopolitanism, and of the way social changes and technological advancementsrailways, steamships, the telegraph, photographyfostered a sense of pan-European identity.”
“Ambitious, densely woven … Figes shows that entirely unexpected relationships, clashes, and synergies can emerge when talented people from different corners of Europe interact.”
“A prodigiously researched account of the spread of culture throughout the mid and late 19th century … The text is a who’s who of the time period: Liszt, Dickens, Balzac, Hugo, George Sand, Chopin, Tolstoy, Flaubertthese and countless other icons move smoothly through the narrative, a rich mélange of tasty ingredients … A powerful and essential addition to our understanding of European history and culture.”
Kirkus (starred review)
“Excellent, wide-ranging … Figes masterfully summarizes this period … in a persuasive and consistently enlightening fashion.”
“Figes’s deep grasp of the characters and the technology-driven societal upheaval make this cultural history fascinating, even indispensable.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Some writers use a telescope to look at the world, others a microscope. Orlando Figes … uses both to his readers’ constant surprise and delight.”
The American Scholar
“Timely, brilliant and hugely enjoyable … a magnificently humane book, written with supple grace but firmly underpinned by meticulous scholarship.”
“Passionately exuberant … Europe’s dynamic culture comes to life in the tumultuous story of singer Pauline Viardot, her husband, and her lover, Turgenev … Breathtaking."
“Remarkable … Orlando Figes is a fine historian who combines scholarly detail with readability. His wide-ranging book touches on a multitude of subjects. But at its heart is a love trianglethe very human story of three remarkable individuals whose lives he has resurrected with great sympathy and insight.”
“A brilliant book, enormously impressive.”
Peter Frankopan, Spectator
“Figes is a fine, subtle writer with a nice eye for detail and clever with structure. I finished the book entertained, informed and armed with the kinds of insights and questions that will keep me happily going for the rest of the year.”
“An exhilarating whirl through 19th-century Europe … should enchant anyone interested in the cultural revolutions of the 19th century.”
BBC History Magazine
“A kaleidoscopic survey of European high culture from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, encompassing everything from painting and railways to politics and music, as rich and densely packed as a fruitcake.”
“Wonderful … Figes delivers a riveting examination of the nuts and bolts of high culture. … No aspect of the business of culture escapes his notice.”
“I loved the book. I read it in every spare moment, fascinated and sometimes surprised. All of the principal characters are inspiring, but The Europeans also shows the struggles and backbiting and mistakes which can also lie behind a repertoire we tend to take for granted. I have been speaking about the book to everyone I know: it is clearly not just a book for musicians but for the widest audience interested in literature, music and art."