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London gave me my Turgenev comeuppance. Awhile ago I wrote in this space that, for all my respect, Turgenev underwhelms me. Shortly after that I ran into him in Greece, which surprised and pleased me unexpectedly, and recently, when in London, I ran into him all over the place. I even found myself seeking him out. Not him, you obviously understand, but his traces, his places, his ghost. And there are many of those in London. Actually, there are many of them throughout England. I had no idea. How could I possibly have known that Turgenev spent time on the Isle of Wight over a century before Bob Dylan made his famous appearance there with The Band? Or, to be more exact and detailed, that Turgenev began writing his most famous novel, Fathers and Sons, a work that continues to define the Russian psyche today, while living in Ventnor on the south coast of the Isle of Wight? Well, I could have known, of course; you can know anything. And one day we may be able to know everything. I, personally, am not quite there, yet, however. So all this came as a surprise to me. And a pleasant one, at that.
I rather suspect that of all the great Russian writers, Turgenev would have been one of the easiest to sit down with and share a meal or a drink. Don’t you rather imagine Tolstoy or Dostoevsky taking a bite out of you? Each in their own way, of course! Tolstoy would do it without thinking or even noticing. He would be so preoccupied with himself at the time he would probably eat you whole. (Tolstoy once challenged Turgenev to a duel, you know… Turgenev winced and refused.) Dostoevsky would be conducting an experiment of some kind – either on himself or on you… He’d leave part of you unchewed to see what would happen. Or Gogol slinking around darkly and weirdly and then slinking out of the room without saying anything? Or Pushkin brightly playing games with you behind your back and over your head?
Anyway, Turgenev. Turgenev and London. Thanks to a very cool blog by Sarah J. Young, we have a lot of information about Turgenev’s many visits to London, the first coming in July 1847, the last occurring in Oct. 1881. He hung out with Russian emigres, most of them exiles for political reasons, and he hung out with the hoity-toity of literary London. Young writes, “Turgenev cultivated a wide circle of acquaintances among English writers and politicians. In 1857, he met Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli, William Thackeray and the philosopher William Whewell…” One might have added, “in 1957 alone…” Turgenev was a jet-setter long before there were jets. He was all over the place, often chasing after the love of his life, the French opera singer Pauline Viardot (and her husband), but oftentimes not. He was easily the most mobile, cosmopolitan, travel-experienced Russian writer of the 19th century.
The address we study today is 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington, although, technically speaking, there is no such address today. The numbers at doors of entrance jump from 32 to 38. I didn’t have much doubt that the colonnaded window right next to 38 was the place I was seeking. There is a similar unnumbered window where 34 would be, and then comes 32, with its door. As bad as I am at mathematics, I felt sure I was okay photographing this portal as an entrance that would have existed in the mid-19th century. But it’s one thing to have a good hunch and some good evidence, and it’s another to actually know. So when a mailman walked out of No. 38 I asked him if, indeed, this is where No. 36 would have been. Yes, he said, this building took direct hits during the Nazi bombings in WWII and, when it was reconstructed, the configurations inside, as well as the outside entrances, were redone entirely. They did not renumber anything, but simply omitted those numbers where there were no longer entrances. I didn’t even realize it until I got home, but I caught the mailman in one of my photos – that is he walking past the former No. 36 in the second photo immediately below.
Another reason I felt quite sure I had found my place is a plaque informing us of the fact that William Makepeace Thackeray lived here from 1854 to 1862 (I have seen other dates for his residence, including 1853 to 1861, and 1860 for the end date). The plaque hangs down low, just to the left of the former entrance (see photo immediately below). Here is what Young writes about this address: “…on 9th May , [Turgenev] visited Thackeray at his home at 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington (another address to which he would become a regular visitor), where we have the tantalizing prospect that he may have met Dickens. Thackeray’s diary states that they both called on that date, but there is no information about whether the visits coincided.”
To get a bit of a glimpse of what the property might have looked like when Turgenev was here, you can go to the Victorian Web site, which has a sketch of the building from 1913. Obviously at this time the square was still open to the public. These days it is fenced off and there is no public access.
I have no idea how close Turgenev was to Thackeray. In a link to Leonard Schapiro’s Ivan Turgenev: His Life and Times, the internet coughs up a phrase suggesting that Turgenev “did not much like” Thackeray, but Google will not open that particular page for me, so, until I get around to buying the book for myself, I can’t be sure of what Schapiro actually wrote. I do find the following quote from Alexander Melikhov in Russia Behind the Headlines: when Turgenev told Thackeray that the Russians had a writer named Gogol who was every bit as good as he, “the Englishman laughed. Later, Turgenev would write that ‘the author of Vanity Fair is himself infected with the vice he so mocks.'”