Twilight of Love
Travels with TurgenevAuthor: Robert Dessaix
Featured in the November, 2004 magazine
(A good read)
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ExtractMEINE DAMEN UND HERREN, in wenigen Minuten erreichen wir Baden-Baden.' Gently braking. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, next stop —'
BADEN-BADEN. Gliding into the station. BADEN-BADEN. Snack-bar. Lady with lapdog. Hardly a soul about. A Hugo Boss billboard sliding by. BADEN-BADEN. The hills to the east hazy heating up. Paragliders — one, two, three. Boss again — so sleek. Another brief glimpse of the blue-green hills. We jolt to a standstill with a screech. I stare at the sign on the platform outside. BADEN-BADEN.
This was a town I remembered very well. Not this cluster of squat German buildings down by the Rhine, which was just a railway station like any other, but Baden-Baden itself, up in the beech- and oak-covered hills behind the man in Boss jeans. I even remembered the paragliders, spiralling down slowly out of the blue like drunken butterflies.
Gazing out at the half-empty platform, I could clearly picture the morning the previous summer when my bus had left the roar of the truck-clogged highway along the Rhine and swept into the long, curving tunnel through those hills towards Baden-Baden. A few minutes later we'd emerged, like lost children in a storybook, in an enchanted village a hundred years earlier — perhaps even two hundred, depending on where your glance fell.
For those first few moments, left standing with my suitcase on the cobbles in the sunny quiet, I'd felt locked in a spell. Empty crooked streets. A castle on a crag. A clock striking twelve, then silence. For just a fraction of a second I would not have been in the least astonished if Dostoyevsky himself had bolted out of a side-street, unshaven and smelling of onions, on his way to the pawnbroker's with one of his wife's rings. It had felt curiously like déjà vu — I'd never been there in my life. Then a young man talking Turkish into a mobile phone had come striding round the corner and my head had cleared.
Although I wouldn't have knocked one back, I had not come to Baden-Baden that summer to see ghosts. I had come simply to smell old Russia . Every Russian writer I loved had once visited or lived here — they'd all been great travellers. I'm not sure what I thought that looking at the streets they'd walked in, the hotels they'd stayed in or the casino tables they'd played at might give me. Like any tourist, I've often stood with a group of other blank-faced foreigners in some museum or medieval palace, staring at a bed an illustrious king or poet or navigator died in, wondering where I might later have lunch or why someone with the legs of the French man in front of me would choose to wear shorts. What are we supposed to do with the bed some Portuguese king died in centuries ago? ‘In 1521, after a long illness, surrounded by his wife and sons…' The guide is in full flight, darting in and out of an exhausting variety of European languages as she goes, while we peer at the pristine counterpane, the scrubbed walls, the dust-free floor, the view from the window, each other... What we want, at the very least, is soiled pillow-cases, a night-table littered with apothecary's potions, a royal dog snuffling in a corner, a weeping servant and kitchen smells wafting up the stairwell. We want signs of life. We know what the guide means, but in some very real sense it is not here that the king died at all. Place evaporates with time. All the same, like all the others in my group, I nose about, hoping to catch the whiff of something, something transporting, something that will catapult me back, rather than the king forward.
As it happens, dropping in to Baden-Baden was a very Russian thing to do. Tsars and tsarinas had done it (the Romanov and Baden dynasties being linked by marriage), grand dukes, princesses, generals and assorted noblemen had done it, as had writers, poets, playwrights and wealthy Russian families touring Western Europe with their retinues of servants. Russian invalids and hypochondriacs had flocked to Baden-Baden for the waters, while gamblers, adventurers and what Dostoyevsky called ‘scum' of every description had infested the magnificent casino, Germany 's finest. By the late 1860s, without any trouble at all, you could catch a train from Moscow or St Petersburg all the way to Paris , stopping off in Baden-Baden for a few days, or even a month or two, to take the cure, hobnob with the fashionable set, or try your luck at the tables before crossing into France. Nowadays you can get there from Moscow before lunch, and they're coming in droves again, dressed to the nines.
At first glance Baden-Baden seems an unlikely place to catch the whiff of anything except cakes, expensive perfumes, freshly dry-cleaned jackets, and now and again something faintly nose-pinching. Is it the sulphurous spa water? Pine resin? The tang of a million sun-drenched red geraniums? For an hour or so after settling into my little hotel in Eichstrasse, I ambled about the spotless, tranquil streets nearby, enchanted by the displays in the shop windows, Aladdin's caves of softly lit gold jewellery, Persian rugs, Meissen figurines, antique Oriental furniture and finely tailored silk shirts and blouses. Mingling with the drifts of elderly strollers, I felt almost dazed by the succession of luxury boutiques — all the crystal, perfumes, porcelain, silverware, Venetian glass — each one more discreetly exquisite than the last. In Baden-Baden even McDonald's is all marble and art deco lighting.
Dostoyevsky in his novel The Gambler a century and a half before me — or at least somebody very like him in a town very like Baden-Baden — was sickened by this vision of virtuous German toil and its rewards. He became utterly enraged by the way the Germans amassed wealth over generations, scraping up money, gulden by gulden, ‘like Jews', until they could live in a picture-book house with a stork in the chimney-pot like everyone else's. It made his ‘Tartar blood' boil. Russians, he boasted, acquire wealth through taking risks — ‘raising hell', as he put it, or ‘recklessly staking everything on the roulette wheel' — and then in the most outrageous manner squandering it.
By the time I reached the rivulet (crazy-paved to stop it getting muddy) at the bottom of the hill, I was feeling slightly peevish myself. Even Hermann Hesse, usually the very model of kindly understanding (in a Hindu sort of way), got quite snappish, limping about these same streets in 1923 with his handsome Malacca bamboo cane. What is the purpose of all these bronze lions and lizards and novelty ashtrays, he asks in ‘A Guest at the Spa', these pictures of shepherdesses and these Chinese divinities turned into parasol-handles? Why do the middle classes seek out these useless bagatelles? How can they sit, almost unable to breathe, let alone talk, surrounded by the ‘thick clotted luxury' of all the marble, silver, rugs and mirrors they've acquired? Feeling desolate and bored, he makes his way back to his spa hotel, where he's taking the cure for his mild sciatica.
Not having quite so salubrious a hotel to take refuge in, I crossed a pretty little bridge, festooned with red geraniums, to the park on the other side and then sauntered off along the river towards the casino — which Hesse had also haunted, as a matter of fact, as had Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy before him.
All of a sudden, from the direction of the casino, I caught the unmistakable strains of a Baden-Baden Bert Kaempfert wafting across the brilliant green lawns, purring something about blueness and eyes and waiting in Mexico . Leaving the crazy-paved river with its little bridges, I headed off across the grass towards the long, white casino with its columned portico, squinting into the late afternoon sun to see exactly where the music was coming from. Right in front of the main entrance a dozen couples, well past middle age, were dancing to ‘Spanish Eyes' with spry elegance, so light on their feet they seemed to be half-floating. Loud applause from the smiling crowd of onlookers seated nearby in the sunshine.
As the sun slid down behind the deep-green cloud of trees behind the casino, with our Kaempfert crooning on about love and loss and hope and hopelessness, I felt delectably swathed in melancholy, light years away from the panic stricken world I'd come from that morning through the tunnel in my little bus.And then it happened — I began to slide back into a world I knew had never existed.