Sunday, March 11

The Portrait Game

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Seattle Public Library I discovered an exceptionally swell book by the name of The Portrait Game. In autumn of 1856 Ivan Turgenev was visiting Château de Courtavenel, the French country home of singer-actress Madame Pauline Viardot--the very same location where Turgenev spent a lonesome winter working on A Sportsman's Sketches. One evening, while he and the other guests were socializing in the drawing room, Turgenev invented a simple game in which he sketched a profile at the top of a long sheet of paper. Turgenev then wrote a brief description of the freshly invented character, folded the paper over to conceal his writing and passed the paper around the room, with each participant writing their own description (some as short as one sentence, others much longer). The sheet of paper would eventually find its way back to Turgenev and he would read aloud each of the descriptions.

Remarkably Turgenev saved these pages with his drafts and they were published in a slight, and apparently long out-of-print collection titledThe Portrait Game. The book was a fun and unexpected diverengence from my somewhat scholarly pursuits in the Russian literary criticism section. Turgenev’s drawings are greatly detailed and varied given the apparent brisk pace of the game. It was interesting to read how each player responded to Turgenev's drawings (often quite similarly) and even though, as the writer of the bunch, Turgenev's descriptions are generally the more artistic, I found just about all of the responses to be worthwhile. Here are a few of my favorites from Tugenev’s pen:

Wanton, under a cool chaste look; good-natured but insignificant, without a truly interesting quality; she will only be liked by insignificant people.

By nature a horse-traded; repulsive creature. He's an American or Englishman —— very raw. An ignoble buck —— I spit on his goatee, soaked with vile swindler's sweat.

Big English farmer——a brute bull, and nearly wild——eats eight pounds of bloody meat per day and drinks eight bottles of porter——imperious, despotic, and violent——not without a kind of wiliness. A voice hoarsened by fat——has a lot of money——if he hadn’t, he would be capable of killing for it.

Just as an aside, it was interesting to learn that Turgenev was hopelessly in love with the married Viardot, and indeed it seems he rather sadly followed the couple around Europe—the group played portrait game eight years later in Bade-Baden. Also, it was inspiring to discover that the drawing room at Château de Courtavenel was, in fact, actually used for drawing!

No comments: