“The Coast of Utopia” and The Romantic Exiles

Cover of 1949 Penguin edition of 'The Romantic Exiles'The New York Review of Books devotes a long article in the 31May 2007 issue to Tom Stoppard’s play trilogy, which just finished playing on Broadway.

One of key sources Stoppard acknowledges in his forward to the plays is Edward Hallett Carr’s The Romantic Exiles, which Francis Steegmuller recommended in Writer’s Choice. Serif Publishing just reissued the book, which pops back into print every 20 years or so.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of The Coast of Utopia but don’t have a theater company near you willing to undertake a nine-hour production, The Romantic Exiles is a good substitute. Like the plays, it tells the story of the life in exile, mostly in France and England, of a group of Russian political thinkers, artists, writers, lunatics, and their wives, children, maids, and mistresses. These were people who liked to “live loud and live large,” as a character in one of my kids’ first computer games said.

Carr does a wonderful job of blending first-person accounts from diaries, letters, and memoirs with the perspective of a professional historian and the dry wit of a decidedly un-romantic skeptic. Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Ivan Turgenev, and other characters carom off political theories, art, literature, financial problems, and romantic entanglements with passion and energy, committed to a “stubborn refusal to compromise with reality.”

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