In 1833, during the difficult illness-filled last year of his life, Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) addressed a letter to Pauline Viardot who embodied for him the feminine, erotic, cultural allure, and romance of the period. Famous from the age of 16 for her passion and technique on the opera and music hall stages, as well as for her beauty, profound charm, and social facility, she numbered Alfred de Musset, George Sands, Frederic Chopin, Hector Berlioz, Clara Schumann, Charles Gounod, and many other prominent artists of the age, as intimate friends and infatuated suitors. After hearing her in The Barber of Seville in Russia in 1843, Turgenev fell passionately in love, leaving there in 1845 and installing himself in her household. He adored her until his death in Bougival near Paris. Yet, docu- ments which give direct evidence of their relationship, are tantalizingly rare and always oblique. A letter he tenderly addressed to Viardot from this time is being offered in Freeman’s April 10 Books, Maps & Manuscripts auction.
Turgenev’s letter, from February 1883, followed his sojourn in Viardot’s Paris household. By then she was a married opera diva, composer, and pan-European cultural force. He writes, with all the ardor and spiritual immanence of German transcendental idealism, his most intimate feel- ings: “I have not been groaning not because I want to show stoicism, but as a result of a system, recommended by … Kant: when experiencing pain one should try to understand the nature of pain; this reduces the pain itself, because thinking at least reduces the nervous tension. The old Kant has been right and his system proved helpful to me … I cannot write anymore, I just want to send my best regards to you all and to embrace you personally.” [Transcribed from the Russian].
When considering “Russian literature,” Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Turgenev complete that pride of male literary lions who dominated this genre in the decades between Pushkin and Chekhov. With Turgenev’s letter, we are privileged to experience a unique glimpse of this master’s physical suffering, passion, and intellectual approach to pain as his life’s final chapter nears, sharing it all with the woman he loved.
In the April 2014 auction of Books, Maps & Manuscripts at Freeman's, this autographed letter signed by Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev far exceeded original auction estimates to sell for $6,250.