Frenchies and Russkis

(Ivan Turgenev and Pauline Viardot)

Ivan Turgenev was born two hundred years ago, on 9 November 1818, in Oryol, 220 miles southwest of Moscow; he died near Paris in 1883. Exiled in 1852 to his estate in Spasskoye when an obituary that he wrote on Gogol provoked disapproval, he spent most of his later life in Baden-Baden and Paris, always close to the singer and composer Pauline Viardot. He was long associated with the French realists, Flaubert, Zola, the brothers Goncourt.

I’ve read half a dozen of Turgenev’s novels in translation, mostly the work of Richard Freeborn, otherwise that of Constance Garnett. Probably because of the unfamiliar alphabet, the ‘original’ text seems even more distant than is the case with other languages and I’m more conscious that I’m reading the words of a translator. I’ve tended, in any case, to read those words through the eyes of Ford Madox Ford, for whom Turgenev, perhaps above all other writers, remained ‘a talismanic figure throughout his career’.[1] Unsurprisingly, I see that almost all the notes I’ve made or phrases I’ve marked in Turgenev’s books link back to Ford, some quite directly, some by more circuitous paths.

In 1878, Henry James published French Novels and Novelists, the eighth chapter of which concerned one ‘Ivan Turgénieff’. This is our man, his name spelt in a dashing Gallic manner. Richard Garnett remarks that Turgenev had ‘authorised and supervised, if not actually written, French translations of his works himself. Without ceasing to be a Russian he had become an honorary Frenchman.’[2] A good many English readers knew Turgenev’s work in French, even though English translations were becoming available. By the turn of the century, Constance Garnett had translated most of Turgenev’s fiction. Ezra Pound refers to ‘Turgeneff’ in a 1912 letter to his mother, possibly influenced by James in this instance,[3] but he certainly advises his mother to ‘take the things in french, if you can.’[4]

Turgenev visited this country a dozen times, often in the company of his friend—and translator of one of his books— W. R. S. Ralston. Ford, as a child of seven, had met them both in the studio of his grandfather, Ford Madox Brown. Forty years after that meeting, Ford wrote a novel called The Marsden Case. Sending a copy to his friend Edgar Jepson, he wrote: ‘I believe that, as “treatment,” it’s the best thing I’ve done—but the subject is not a very good one, though it’s one that has haunted me certainly ever since I was eighteen on and off. It’s the story of Ralston, the first translator of Turgenev—a man I liked very much. At any rate, that suggested it to me.’[5]

On another 9 November—1894—Olive Garnett confided to her diary that Ford’s brother Oliver, having been to Blomfield, where Ford (still Ford Madox Hueffer at that date) and his new wife Elsie were living, had passed on his ‘graphic account of the ménage’. Both Ford and Elsie were, apparently, smoking shag in a cutty pipe constantly on their walks. They were known, Olive noted, as the Frenchies, and their society ‘was that of the Vicar & his pretty daughter’.[6]

Constance Garnett and her son David, known as Bunny, mid-1890s

(Constance and David Garnett, 1890s)

Twenty years on, Ford was writing about Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Ford viewed Dostoevsky as Romantic, as against his admired ‘French Realist School – in which I should include Turgenev’.[7] The following year, writing about two other Russian writers, Ford again mentioned Turgenev, suggesting that he was ‘something more than merely Russian’.[8]

All these citizens of – somewhere, of several somewheres, managing to transcend the narrow bounds of nationality, reaching beyond borders, whether actual or imposed. Not that aggressive nationalism was ever entirely absent from the story. In the 1930s, Ford recalled seeing John Galsworthy give a presidential address to PEN. To French writers then, Ford remarked, Maupassant was ‘the Nihilist enemy’ and Turgenev ‘an alien ugly duckling who once disgusted the paving stones of Paris with his foreign footsteps.’ Ford described how, when the applause subsided, ‘poor Jack went on: Yes, he repeated, all the art he had had he had had of the French. If he stood where he was, if he was honoured as he was, it was because all his life long he had studied the works, he had been guided by the examples of . . . Guy de Maupassant and of him who though a foreigner by birth was yet more French in heart than any Frenchman—Ivan Turgenev!’[9]

Ford was himself a man of multiple roles, selves and aspects; born to a German father, possessed of Italian uncles and an aunt through his Aunt Lucy’s marriage; never divorced from his English wife; his third daughter born to an Australian painter while his partner by the thirties was a painter of Jewish family born in Eastern Poland; his closest literary relationships were with a Pole and an American; he fought in the British Army still bearing a German surname; and wrote in half a dozen different genres. He once observed—surely with a strong sense of recognition—that Turgenev ‘was by turns and all at once, Slavophil and Westerner, Tsarist and Nihilist, Germanophile and Francophobe, Francophile and Hun-hater’.[10] Homo duplex, homo x-plex. In 1925, he wrote to a friend that Some Do Not. . ., the first of the Tietjens novels, had done well in America but that, ‘Otherwise I am rapidly becoming a French writer.’[11]


(Jean Metzinger, Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire, via Christie’s)

Curiously, exactly one hundred years after Turgenev’s birth, 9 November 1918, Guillaume Apollinaire died in the flu pandemic. Poet, prose writer and influential art critic, this ‘Frenchman by everything except birth’[12] had been born in Rome and then named Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki.

Here you are beside me again
Memories of my companions killed in the war
The olive-branch of time
Memories that make only a single memory
As a hundred skins make only a single coat
As these thousands of wounds make only a single newspaper article
Impalpable and dark presence who have assumed
The changing shape of my shadow

(from ‘Shadow’, translated by Christopher Middleton)

At the time of his death, Apollinaire was just thirty-eight years old.


[1] Max Saunders’ phrase. His ‘Ford and Turgenev’ is the most thorough reading of this literary relationship: see Ford Madox Ford’s Literary Contacts, edited by Paul Skinner (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 63-78.

[2] Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), 95.

[3] Richard Sieburth suggested this in Instigations: Ezra Pound and Remy de Gourmont (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1978), 96. Ford was referring to ‘Tourgénieff’ around this time: The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 59.

[4] Ezra Pound, Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 283.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 149. Ralston died in 1889.

[6] Barry C. Johnson, editor, Olive and Stepniak: The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1893-1895 (Birmingham: Bartletts Press, 1993), 128.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Fydor Dostoevsky and The Idiot’ (14 February 1914), reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 129.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Sologub and Artzibashef’ (26 June 1915), reprinted in Critical Essays, 176.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 141-142.

[10] Ford, Portraits from Life, 158.

[11] Ford, Letters, 166.

[12] Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963), 322.