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.
It was in April 1927, nearly ten years after the first meeting, that the relationship between Janácek and Stösslová took a decisive turn in the course of a brief visit by Janácek to the couple’s home in Pisek. Janácek’s letters suggest that he was not an unsensual man – even when the relationship was officially just friendship, Stösslová sometimes sounds like something wholesome he would like to eat – yet for all that time he nourished himself solely on her image. That she existed and scrawled a kindly letter from time to time was enough. He seems to have seen something in her instantly – simplicity, cheerfulness, warmth – that he needed like a missing vitamin. ‘I do so like happy people,’ he had written in 1918; for himself, he was ‘isolated, shut in on myself’, drugged with work. In 1924 he was still drawing on a brief stay in Pisek:
And believe me, Kamilá, there were no more beautiful days for me in my life than those few spent in your company ... You were like an open window: one could see through it all just as it was. I had nothing to hide, it was peaceful and so pleasant in my soul. I saw you in your household, always natural in your behaviour, not artificial, with slippers and even bare feet; some sort of secret flame always shone and one warmed oneself up with it. Not with starchiness, affectation. No one looked for a speck of dust on the furniture.
Though otherwise well-edited, both these collections of correspondence suffer from the lack of a biographical introduction that would give some idea of their subjects’ earlier lives, so we cannot learn why Janácek’s marriage was joyless – it was always so, he says in later letters – or how his two children died. Nor do we know whether there were other great loves in his life, though presumably if there had been they would be mentioned in the notes. In the photographs the couple look much of a pair – stout and twinkling. Perhaps he saw in her an earlier and happier twin of himself that he needed to recapture.
Neither simply lovelorn nor possessive, he wrote in 1921 that it was her youthful affection for her husband that gave him the spark for Katya Kabanova. Before this she had sent thank-you presents to him and his wife after a visit; his was a silver pen, and he sat down to write an opera with it. ‘And Katya, you know, that was you beside me ... That’s why there’s so much emotional heat in these works. So much heat that if it caught both of us, there’d be just ashes left of us.’
Over these years of platonic inspiration Stösslová herself, at home with children and housework, had perhaps changed. It is not surprising, especially if marriage grew boring, that unfailing adoration from a man she realised was eminent made its impression. When Janácek made a brief visit to her home in 1927, something momentous happened – perhaps an avowal, or a kiss. ‘Never in my life have I experienced such an intermingling of myself with you. We walked along not even close to one another and yet there was no gap between us.’ From here on the letters become even more ardent; about two-thirds of those selected by John Tyrrell are from the last 15 months of the relationship. Janácek went on to explain more about his feelings to his wife, and wrote to Kamilá that he felt things drawing towards a decision. She wrote back to him: ‘I’ve not longed for anything else, my life just went by without love and joy. But I always went along with the thought that that’s the way it had to be. Now I think that God was testing you and me and when he saw that we’ve been good and that we deserve it he has granted us this joy in life.’ Janácek’s composing continued to flourish. He called his latest quartet – ‘our quartet’ – Intimate Letters. ‘And Kamilá, it will be beautiful, strange, unrestrained, inspired, a composition beyond all the usual conventions! Together I think that we’ll triumph! ... Oh, it’s a work as if carved out of living flesh. I think that I won’t write a more profound and a truer one. So I end.’
He did not plan to end. He was planning a trip to take Stösslová to his country cottage for the visit he had waited so long for. But meanwhile her mother was dying, and when he wrote to her plaintively she turned on him: ‘who’s suffering more than me but what can I do? ... You’re at home all year long without me so why carry on so?’ He did persuade her to come to the country with one of her children, some days after her mother’s death. What happened is not of course recorded in the letters; but within a week Janácek fell ill with pneumonia, and within another few days was dead.
It is not necessarily an enviable fate to be a famous man’s ferne Geliebte. What the double bereavement must have been for Kamilá Stösslová we can only imagine. She was excluded by widow and biographers, and herself died only seven years later, at 43. Her husband had to go to court to claim Janácek’s legacy to her of royalties from Katya Kabanova, and the letters had a long way to go before they reached publication.
Was she ever a real person to Janácek, or merely someone who had to glow from afar in order to bring out his music? Did the old man die of the shock of having his dreams come true? He had written that she could be drawn on continually, never used up; but in ordinary living there is a lot of using up. He had said earlier that they had a private world between them, ‘but what’s beautiful in it, these desires, wishes, the Tva and all, all just made up!’ He told Zdenka that ‘this imaginary world’ was ‘as necessary for me as air and water’. And he was triumphant that ‘now it’s known how love helps a composer to make his work dazzle.’ But is it?
The imaginary world and the real world, the intricacies of illusion, were always central themes for Pirandello, a more demanding and tortured man than Janácek. A madwoman mistaking a bundle of rags for a baby is just as happy as if it really were one, he writes to his love Marta Abba – à propos the photograph of her on his desk. He does not suggest that he is inventing her out of a bundle of rags, but perhaps Abba felt he was, for his letters are monotonously plaintive and her replies – none actually included here – evidently brisk. Not only does she address him as ‘Maestro’, she uses the formal Lei for ‘you’, rather than tu (the Tva that Janácek refers to).
The two had met when Abba, a little-known actress, was auditioning for the company he was forming. She was taken on by the maestro, and travelled with the company for three years. This relationship too, it is clear, was a platonic one. The notion of a muse has a different twist here: rather than glowing from afar, she had to be present to be moulded by Pirandello in the roles he created for her. ‘It is excruciating to see my drama interpreted by others,’ he wrote. ‘You were Fulvia for me, you were Ersilia, you were Signora Frola, you were the Stepdaughter, you were Silia Gala, you were Evelina Morli ... They are all dead; and I am dead with them.’
It must have seemed a great piece of luck for a young actress. Pirandello was very famous and very prolific. But the fact that after three years she left the company to take on other roles (thus initiating this correspondence) suggests she may have come to find it stifling. Pirandello scarcely separates her from himself; all his dreams are for their mutual triumph. ‘Now, in our case the true truth is this: that I am your true father, and that you are my creature, my creature, my creature, in which all my spirit lives with the very power of my creation, so much so that it has become your thing and you are all my life.’ ‘My Marta’, he begins every letter. His appeals for her affection are monotonously desperate; but he has never understood her at all, she evidently says in one of her replies. And he makes it clear that he does not want her for discussion of the plays, that when he did discuss one of them with her it interfered with the writing. She must just be there, and embody the roles he invents for her.
Apart from the recurring plaints of love and loneliness, much of what Pirandello talks about in his letters to Abba is not of great interest except to historians of Italian theatre. There were peaks in these late years of his career – he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934 – but also troughs. Plays unexpectedly flopped, cinema contracts, because of the Depression, failed to come through (his comments on the new talkies are scandalised). Money seems to have been a recurring problem, though the notes make it clear that it need not have been; and there were embittered family quarrels. There is something paranoid about Pirandello’s repeated statements that his own country cares nothing for him or his work, and something grandiose in his plans for a great future. For a time he had hopes of support from Mussolini, though it would be wrong to conclude that he was a paid-up Fascist – theatre was all that concerned him. When he found that the Duce had no intention of setting up the network of theatres that he had hoped for, Pirandello returned to his view that Mussolini was ‘rough and coarse human material, made to command mediocre and vulgar people with disdain’ – though unfortunately needed by Italy for the moment.
Pirandello alludes continually in the letters to suicide and death. His last letter to Marta Abba, in December 1936, ends with a sense of ‘horrible loneliness, like an abyss of despair’. He was 70. Six days later, pneumonia had finished him off, as it did Janácek. Marta Abba lived till the age of 88; she married a rich American called Severance A. Millikin, divorced, made a late comeback to the Italian stage. Two years before her death, she gave a reading from Pirandello’s letters at Princeton, to which she had just donated them. She was by then in a wheelchair. Perhaps she read this letter, which uniquely reveals how creativity can be invested in the image of one person:
What not only matters but is also absolutely necessary for me this moment is to think that I’m writing for you ... I follow this image of you, in the situations in which I placed it, and little by little it finds for me the words and creates for me the scenes, and carries me ahead ... Without being aware of it, from so far away, perhaps not thinking even a little bit about me, taken by other thoughts, other preoccupations, you are doing my work ... Ah, my Marta, I absolutely must think that you are the same for me in order to continue to work as I am working. If for one moment I feel certain that you have already detached yourself from me ... then everything dies inside me. I feel my soul and my breath falling apart; every light goes out in my brain, and my hand falls on the paper, motionless as a stone. Help me, help me ... Do not abandon me; think that not only I would die, but also your work ... The one who dictates inside is you; without you, my hand becomes a stone.
That such intense investment is fostered by absence is suggested by Significant Others, a collection of essays from America on ‘creative partnerships’ – close alliances, whether temporary or permanent, heterosexual or homosexual, between partners who are both working in the arts. The outcomes of these are mixed. At best, these artists and writers could say, as Robert Rauschenberg did of his alliance with Jasper Johns, that ‘we gave each other permission.’ And ‘there was that business of triggering energies,’ Johns said. At worst, there is André Malraux saying to Clara Malraux: ‘Better to be my wife than a second-rate writer.’ The talented Clara Malraux did cling onto him as sole ‘significant other’ long after they separated, but Isabella de Courtivron, the author of this chapter, considers that the angry tenacity prevented her from achieving as she should have done.
There are characters, like Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, who did each other good but – fortunately, no doubt, for them – were much too self-absorbed to ascribe dominance to someone else. One cannot imagine either saying: ‘The one who dictates inside is you.’ More temperately, Nin wrote to Miller that ‘you gave me reality and I gave you introspection, but we have to keep ourselves balanced against each other.’ And there are couples who, like Sonia and Robert Delaunay, managed by dividing the artistic field: easel painting for him and applied arts for her. ‘One made one thing and one made the other,’ she said. She also said that she chose to play second fiddle: ‘Robert had brilliance, the flair of genius. As for myself, I lived in greater depth’ – which sounds like a justifiable claim to first-fiddling. Several of the women partners here are seen using forced strategies to define the boundary of their art against their partnerships.
Two asymmetrical couples from Bloomsbury are discussed. Though one cannot agree with Louise de Salvo that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s affair ‘became the most significant and longlasting in each of their lives’, Sackville-West certainly was for a time muse to Woolf. Woolf wrote Orlando for her, one of the lightest and most easily written of her books. The editors of Significant Others bring in the transatlantic phrase ‘mothering the mind’; such long-term mothering was surely provided by austere Leonard Woolf and his cups of hot milk. Woolf did, incidentally, write in her diary that if her father were still alive she could have written nothing: a significant other can be damaging. Of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Lisa Tickner points out how Bell’s art flowered during her first years with Grant. It also declined thereafter; and the deep sadness picked up by the portraits and photos of Bell suggest that the price paid for the odd alliance may have been heavy. Overall, these shifting, difficult, hardworking companionships are as various as those of Janácek and Pirandello are similar.