Happy you!

Rosemary Dinnage

  • Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamilá Stösslová edited and translated by John Tyrrell
    Faber, 397 pp, £25.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 571 14466 7
  • Pirandello’s Love Letters to Marta Abba edited and translated by Benito Ortolani
    Princeton, 363 pp, £24.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 691 03499 0
  • Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron
    Thames and Hudson, 256 pp, £14.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 500 01566 X

Reading the passionate letters of Janácek and Pirandello, two elderly men writing to two much younger women, one is led to wonder whether relationships quite like this would be possible today – even assuming the telephone did not exist and letters were still written. The Twenties were not so extremely long ago, not a period of fans and fainting fits and cabriolets. But we are accustomed now to think of inconsolable yearning at least as a more feminine than masculine habit, and a rather neurotic and undesirable one at that. If an eminent sixtyish man today fell hopelessly for a girl forty years younger, would he reveal it in letters? Would she herself be flattered, embarrassed, brisk, amused? We shan’t, in the telephone age, have the chance to find out in any case; letters like those in the books reviewed here must be, along with Kafka’s to Felice Bauer, some of the last to document how it is to live for and feed off the image of an absent person.

Janácek and Pirandello were both distinguished men both habitually addressed by the women they were writing to as ‘maestro’. Pirandello was 58 when these letters to the 24-year-old actress Marta Abba start in 1926; Janácek 63 when in 1917 he sent roses to 26-year-old Kamilá Stösslová with the message: ‘You look on the world with such kindness that one wants to do only good and pleasant things for you in return. You will not believe how glad I am that I have met you. Happy you! All the more painfully I feel my own desolation and bitter fate.’

Pirandello’s wife had been hospitalised for mental illness for years and he had fallen out with his children; Janácek had lost both his children and was tied to an openly unhappy marriage. Both men, in other words, were deeply lonely. On a solitary visit to a spa town near his home in Brno, Janácek had seen Kamilá Stösslová sitting on the grass and, to put it simply, picked her up. But this was not the pick-up as we know it. He was afterwards introduced to her husband and children, polite compliments and invitations were exchanged; and for the next ten years the mainly epistolary relationship remained very proper. Invitations to concerts and proposals for visits were extended to the young couple but were mostly refused; much was made of commissions for antique carpets and food parcels, for Stösslová’s husband was something of a wheeler-dealer. Zdenka Janácek wrote in her memoirs that Mrs Stösslová’s letters to her at this time were friendly and those to her husband ‘irreproachable’. ‘I thought she was quite nice,’ she said after the couple’s first visit, ‘young, cheerful, one could have a really good talk with her, she was always laughing ... One thing that was certain was that they brought action and laughter into our quiet sadness.’ Stösslová was uneducated. ‘Her letters were full of spelling mistakes. In music she was totally ignorant, knowing almost nothing about composers. She called Leo’s pieces “those notes of yours”, and hadn’t heard of Wagner ... She was completely unimpressed by my husband’s fame, and also by his person.’ Zdenka Janácek went along with the friendship, she said, when she saw how desperately her husband wanted it.

Janácek’s letters to Stösslová make it very clear how he clung to contact with her – he needed it as ‘the dry weather needs the rain, the dawn needs the sun.’ With her, die ferne Geliebte, he could entrust ‘my thoughts, my longings, to reveal my internal life – and to know that it’s as safe in your mind as if it were hidden in mine’. A few letters from her are included, artless and unpunctuated; at times she mentions boredom, and a husband constantly away travelling. ‘Dear Maestro’, her letters begin; ‘Dear Mrs Kamilá’ his. But if it were not for her, he says, he would not want to live. Meanwhile Jenufa has its premiere, Katya Kabanova and the Glagolitic Mass are composed, a biography of Janácek by Kafka’s friend Max Brod is published.

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