Review: The Europeans by Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes’ The Europeans

by Alasdair Flett

Orlando Figes is a contemporary historian of Russia. He made his name with the weighty People’s Tragedy which traces the origins, development and consequences of revolutionary thought in the country from 1891 up until Lenin’s death. It is not difficult to guess the author’s political convictions from that title.

The Europeans, Figes’ latest, is an idealistic work that sees the anguish of People’s Tragedy forsworn for mournful nostalgia. Essentially a cultural history of mid-19th century Europe, Figes begins with the tumultuous 1840s. Britain’s railway network was thriving, Italy and Germany were yet to be unified and Paris was the centre of Grand Opera. Here Figes must be praised for directly linking technological advances to the way people thought and lived. He shows the psychological impact of being able to make a journey that would have taken days or weeks a decade before in a matter of hours, as well as highlighting the threat that posed to the post-Napoleon new Conservative Order.

This threat was made manifest across Europe in 1848. Although in most cases the revolutions failed to topple monarchs and establish the liberal freedoms they promised, it was clearly a turning point for socialist thought, prompting Marx and Engels to analyse the failures of popular movements thus far and to promote their materialist understanding of history in the Communist Manifesto. This is only alluded to in The Europeans, which is more interested in high culture. The bourgeois nationalisms that emerged from this time are examined in greater detail for their impact on the arts. Wagner’s lament against commercialisation, deference and Christian weakness in favour of national consciousness receives much more attention.

Technology’s impact on art encompasses the third chapter, which looks at how distribution and mass markets influenced the works produced; in the visual arts – early photography and prints, in literature – copyright and mass literacy, and in music – the availability of opera and symphony scores arranged for piano forte. It is a delight to read a meticulous delineation of new forms of media and their effects on creators and consumers. The giftshop postcard emerged in rising public galleries, serial magazines extended the length of the novel as chapters were written to fit the space allocated each instalment, and audiences arrived at concerts with smug, insider knowledge of the classics they were about to hear.

Figes’ section on travel and tourism resonates with our “experience”-driven, Instagrammable age. More than anything, railways led to the unification of Europe. They made what had previously only been an option for the aristocracy – the “Grand Tour” – available to Britain’s middle classes. It was at this time that Brits acquired their reputation for being the worst possible foreign guests abroad, travelling only to verify their travel guide itinerary and for the status boost having “done” Europe could grant them back home. 

Coming under further scrutiny in the following chapter, Britons are questioned by the continental cultured classes for their lack of an operatic tradition, unfamiliarity with French and German literary classics, and free trade dogma. To counter these claims Figes highlights the abundance of native writing that negated demand for translated novels. 

The crux of The Europeans is charting development of cosmopolitanism on the continent but what it, perhaps inadvertently, reveals is how embattled such a notion is. To me this proves that a common bourgeois culture alone is not enough to unite Europe and that class solidarity must form the basis of any such union. Yet again, however, Figes does not go so far as an analysis of all he has amassed. His book is a swansong for what he deems irretrievably lost and it culminates with the death and mourning of his protagonist, the liberal literary hero, serf-owning nobleman Ivan Turgenev, with whom his hopes also die. 

Death and the immortalisation of contemporary writers thereafter is the subject of the final chapter. The cult of the author takes hold and the literary canon becomes the basis of the school curriculum and library stock. In perhaps the most depressing statistic of the book, Figes describes how the concert repertoire had gone from 80 per cent contemporary works at the beginning of the century to only 20 per cent by the end. Great achievement is replaced by self-congratulation and the art world is stultified. 

In sum The Europeans, although at its core a heartfelt tribute to a nobler age, is delivered in a quasi-objective style that never ceases to offer copious information on the earnings of the figures involved and is solidly rooted in how changes in technology drove new forms of art. Much like the time, it is refined, elegant and virtuosic; its political message, though there, is draped entirely in eulogy.

Grief without hope of renewal is the final tone it strikes.