The People of Ljubljana!
‘And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’ These were the last words Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on 8 March 1941, before she filled her pockets with stones and stepped into the river. It seems that even Virginia Woolf was unable to ‘write’ certain things; obviously there are things which simply cannot be captured in conceptual nets, theorised, thought about - not at the moment, at least, when they strike. And death - our own or someone else’s, planned or not planned - certainly belongs among these.
A good hundred years earlier (literary history tells us the exact date also in this case: 29 December 1819), at the other side of Europe, far away from the dullness of England and in none other city than sunlit Milan, the thought that it is possible to ‘deal with’ things by writing them down came to the mind of Henri Beyle, still young from today’s point of view, and who, under the name of Stendhal, had only published one work, not at all his best, by that time. However, in that distant December there was no question of fish and sausages and death, as in the case of Virginia Woolf, but of the writer’s strong and unfulfilled love for Lady Mathilda Dembowska. That was the time when Stendhal took off his soldier’s uniform for the second time, and came to live in Milan. Being short and fat and wearing a beard which looked as if it had been glued onto his flat face, he looked rather like one of Snow White’s dwarfs. His trump cards, however, were distinct: the sharpness of his mind and the power of his words opened the doors of the Milan salons to him where he fostered conversation, collected material for his writings on music and painting, and chassait le bonheur, until one day, like a bolt from the blue, he was struck by a passionate love for Mathilda: beautiful, clever, dedicated to the national cause, the mother of two not particularly young sons. The lounge lizard turned into a notorious fool: he made one faux pas after another. But when his friends hinted that he had a good chance with the Lady, things turned around. Stendhal was desolate, he wrote letters giving lengthy explanations of his pure intentions. No, it had never occurred to him to threaten the good name of the Lady; anything that seemed at all indelicate was nothing but the expression of the hearty wish of a melancholic lover longing to be near his beloved. The Lady, however, did not change her mind. She restricted his visits to two a month, and she permitted him to write to her only under the strict condition that his letters showed no traces of love, and that his feelings for her were never even mentioned. Stendhal embarked on the romantic myth outlined by Barthes: by describing/writing down his love he wished to create an eternal work. He wrote the first drafts for a novel in which he aimed to recount his drama; he altered the names and changed Milan to Bologna. But after four hours he stopped, partly because he knew, of course, that such a novel à clef would only enhance the embarrassment of Lady Mathilda, and partly because he was undoubtedly aware of the ‘illusion of expressiveness’ or rather because he could no longer make pretences about the effects of language, that, for example, the word ‘suffering’ does not convey any suffering, and ‘by using it we do not express a thing, what is more, we very soon become angry (not to mention seeming a fool)’ (Barthes). He needed only four hours to discover what most writers never understand: that the self cannot write its own love story, that only a third party can write about the two of us. Thus he kept the role of the third one for later; he became the third one, ‘this outward, mythical story’, and wrote novels with which we are all familiar. But with that stroke of brilliance which hit him on 29 December 1819, he finished with his own love story by turning it into a scientific argument1; he dissected his own unfulfilled love, cut it up and divided it, classified it in chapters and sub-chapters, arranged it in points and constantly appended new examples. It seems likely that his work brought him some consolation, while his Lady took it - and not, after all, without reason - for revenge. A reputed Frenchman once made a statement which today has become a topos: ‘Il n’y a que des rencontres manqués.’
Poetry (literature) is the art of time - but that is precisely why it cannot capture the moment. Painting, the art of space, belongs entirely to the moment. It cannot capture time, but it can respect it. One can always insert one more sketch between two existing comic strip sketches: what could have happened in between? The cadence of Zvezda and Odeon’s images was defined by the turns of the phases of the Moon - or is it perhaps that the monthly comic strip dictated city time?
(translation B. C.)
1Recently a twenty-three year old Englishman of Swiss descent and educated at Cambridge made two textual amalgams on the same subject, combining novel, essay, scientific argument, and more. In view of the number of copies sold and the numerous translations he clearly captured the spirit of the moment, the time being such a tricky one.
The works mentioned in the text:
Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, The Hogarth Press, London, 1953.
Stendhal, De l’amour, Gallimard, Paris, 1959.
Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Seuil, Paris, 1977.
Alain de Botton, Essays in Love, Macmillan, London, 1993.
Alain de Botton, The Romantic Movement. Sex, Shopping and the Novel, Macmillan, London, 1994.