Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Coast of Utopia, III - Romantic Exiles

by Tom Stoppard

"Herzen : I don't see how the well-being of society is going to be achieved if everybody is sacrificing themselves and nobody is enjoying themselves. (...) Who has gained by it ? 
Blanc : The future. 
Herzen : Ah, yes, the future."

Completing the trilogy that comprise The Coast of Utopia, Salvage opens with Alexander Herzen resting at his home in Hampstead, England. He dreams of a pantheon of emigre friends, political refugees from Germany, Poland, France, Italy and Hungary.  It is "A dream about exiles", he explains -- an almost unreal world much like the one he himself inhabits, in the center of the vortex of those trying still to organise and cause change in Russia from far abroad.  It is five years after the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, but the turmoil and lack of direction seem pervasive among the radicals.
The First Act continues juxtaposing domestic turmoils of the Herzen family, a new German tutor for the children, Natalie and Nicholas Ogarev and others. With their tribulations in the forefront the background of change for Russia becomes a descant that is briefly heard from with discussions of the new publication, The Bell, that provides a tocsin for the opponents of the Tsar. The freeing of the Serfs as an event seems not to satisfy either the radicals or the Tsar.
 In Act Two Nicholas Chernyshevsky appears on the scene providing another opportunity for dialogue with Herzen over the best approach to effect change in Russia. There is not a definitive answer to that question beyond the continuing disagreement.  There is also the voice of Turgenev who gently opposes those who deride him and what he does, believing that his art does also serve some purpose -- and responds when asked what his purpose was in writing a fiction: "My purpose ? My purpose was to write a novel."
The nostalgia of Herzen for his homeland leads him to rue his decision to leave it even though he would likely face prison and Siberia if he were to return. The lives of the Russian exiles are romantic only in an ironic sense as the fog and mist of England mask their disappointments.

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