Sara Wheeler MacedoniaI’m writing a book about Russia: the Golden Age of literature, woven in with my stories of travelling in Russia. This week I began chapter three, which is based around Ivan Turgenev (the photo shows me at his house, Spasskoe Lutovinovo, where he wrote five of his six novels).

I’ve decided I like him the most of them all and would choose him in that game when you select a dinner companion from history. Blue-eyed  Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev was six feet three and handsome, spoke 15 languages, played chess to an international standard and was a fabled raconteur as well as an immensely popular landlord whose serfs chirruped songs in praise of him.  You’ve known  his characters all your life: a Rakitin, agonisingly alert to his own superfluity, and Natalya, torn between passion and self-criticism.  ‘We sit in the mud, my friend,’ he wrote in his masterpiece Fathers and Sons, and reach for the stars.’

The veranda in this picture appears in Fathers and Sons (the title in Russian is actually Fathers and Children – Atchi I detti )

Nikolai Petrovich, however, continued sitting with head bent, and his eyes contemplating the ancient steps of the veranda, up which a stout speckled hen was tap-tapping its way on a pair of splayed yellow legs , and thereby causing an untidy, but fastidious looking cat to regard it from the balustrade with marked disapproval. Meanwhile the sun beat fiercely down, and from the darkened interior of a neighbouring granary came a smell of hot rye straw.

In my book I’m trying to see what has changed between then and now (turns out to be nothing), and to pick up themes of the nineteenth-century greats and apply them to today’s Russia. I have avoided Moscow and Petersburg as they are unrepresentative, and I normally do homestays.  Have battled to learn Russian – yikes.

A propos of that quote earlier, I am thinking of calling my book, Mud and Stars. Any comments?