A recent title from Calypso Editions, Ilona: My Life with the Bard was published at the tail end of 2014 to vanishingly little press. Jana Juráňová, while entirely unknown in the United States, is renowned in her native Slovakia as a writer and publisher, having co-founded the feminist journal ASPEKT in 1993 (during that period of cultural exploration following the end of Communist rule and the separation of former Czechoslovakia). ASPEKT did well and eventually morphed from anthology to publishing house, bringing out the first edition of Ilona back in 2008.
This slim novel positions itself as the life story of Ilona Nováková (1856-1932), “known” to history only as the wife of Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849-1921), one of Slovakia’s most revered poets, though now little read outside of classrooms and rumored to be all but impossible to translate. He never mentioned his wife in his work, they had no children, and so she has vanished from history. But Ilona was an educated woman from a well-off family, married to a great poet. What was it she wanted? To what did she aspire? Was she content with the only role available to her or were her thoughts filled with the heady mix of ideas that spread through and defined Europe during the fin de siècle and which so animated her nationally-conscious husband?
Ilona is therefore a feminist work but this is an undogmatic feminism capable of a nuanced look at women in recent European history. Rather than portraying Ilona as a free spirit shackled to a misogynist pig, Juránová chose to tell of a truly ordinary life. Ilona is bright, modest and accepting of the limits of her time, finding a measure of happiness in what she’s offered. She possesses so little daring that the book is more unsettling than any number of novels with ahead-of-their-time, freedom-seeking heroines, reassuring modern readers with their similarity of outlook. This story is told in a narrative looking backward as a gray-haired woman recalls the past. We know at the beginning what the end will be:
She stretches out to reach the leaves of the houseplants. She is here, she is still here. All alone, without him. He has slipped away from her. Just like he had always done. To his study, for a walk, to the health resort. And, eventually, to the cemetery.
Just as Ilona is depicted as a woman of her time, the same measured treatment is allotted to Hviezdoslav. A flawed gentleman, grateful to his wife, respectful of her in a limited way and clumsily kind but also fussy, needy and of low self-esteem in the very thing that defines him as a poet and a person. He shores up his confidence by receiving admirers, fretting lest he fall out of fashion or be forgotten and Juránová treats his suffocating stature with gentle irony: The visits usually consist of conversations relating to the Bard’s work. This is the Great Poet’s favorite topic, although he feigns reticence. As a matter of fact, he is finding every other topic increasingly tiresome. Of course, it does happen that a visitor also has other matters to discuss but fortunately, one way or another, these usually also relate to the one and only topic that is of interest to him, such as the publications of his writings, his participation in some festival or other, or the translation of his works into other languages. Her husband is not vain. He is very modest. This is a well-known fact; it’s what everyone says about him.
More sobering is the reveal that his feelings will not permit him to let his wife take any part in the creative process: Early in their relationship, once or twice she pointed out to him that a particular passage was too wordy or that another passage was too lengthy. He didn’t take it well and stopped speaking to her for a day or two, or just mumbled something. And although subsequently he was embarrassed to have reacted like this, he just couldn’t get over it. So she stopped offering her criticism. Most likely these matters were beyond her anyway. That last sentence shows her own failing. Ilona has no fight in her and lets Pavol’s frail ego and poetic requirements rule her life. One chapter outlines all the things she learned in finishing school (drawing, singing, geography, gymnastics, etc) and how she let all of it slide as soon as she married. Even though a man doesn’t leave a perfectly good wife because she does exercises in the morning.
In a way, Ilona is very similar to her husband – where his ego revolves around his status as an eminent poet, hers is every bit as tied up with the thought of being a perfect wife. So she tiptoes around her life-partner, making more concessions than he even asks her to. She tends him, tends her flowers and cleans the house obsessively. Her entire identity is bound to her role and it’s clear she takes pride in it. While it’s true she was hemmed in by her time period, women throughout history have bucked tradition. She had leisure time, she could have written or sketched or pursued something of private importance but she didn’t. The one thing she wanted very much was to have children, which unfortunately did not come about, though they ended up adopting her brother-in-law’s children, Jarko and Sidka, when his drunken widow proved incapable – a consolation of sorts. Throughout she tirelessly plays a role, allowing herself paltry self-expression, to what end?
This is not to wholesale “blame the victim” as Juránová depicts very well how tradition was stacked against Ilona finding any means of fulfillment outside of her marriage and she often primes the perfect targets of chauvinism to skewer. Hviezdoslav is a conservative man and his wife is not his equal. Juránová portrays this casual imbalance simply but unsparingly and it was the following scene, excerpted on B O D Y, that convinced me Ilona would be worth it:
When her husband decided to go to the seaside she hoped she might accompany him. She wanted to see foreign countries with him, she wanted to see famous paintings in famous galleries with her own eyes. But he chose to travel without her, taking her brother instead. When the protestant church in Dolný Kubín burnt down in 1893, Ilona’s brother went to Germany to collect money for a new one. He invited his brother-in-law to come along. She wanted to join them. But they would not let her.
During the preparations for the trip she kept raising the subject with her husband, trying to persuade him, hoping he might yet change his mind. But he was adamant. Sometimes he did not even respond to her. She went so far as to bring up the subject in the company of strangers but it was no use.
Once, when they had visitors, he asked her suddenly: “Tell me, my dear wife, what should a good husband and wife be like?”
“One body and soul,” she was quick to respond.
“You see. And when I go to the seaside it’s as if you were there with me.”
The company laughed appreciatively at his wit. She couldn’t contradict him. Had they been alone she would certainly have come up with a sharp retort. She wanted to say something after the visitors left. But he locked himself in his study because he needed his peace and quiet. And then he glossed over the whole thing. It was all very civil, well-mannered, as befits a good couple.
The novel ends up telling a very sad story about the common run of things. A life with its sorrows, growing older, losing family – only in this case sharpened by Ilona’s stunted sense of self. She ages gracefully but seeing the colors have vanished somewhere wonders which of her faces is the real one. Comparing her own safe existence with the unhappy lives of the rebellious women she’s known, she feels a chill – as if she had walked into a dead forest. Juránová gives regular glimpses into the lives of Ilona’s peers, women who divorced or betrayed their husbands, whose motivations she cannot begin to fathom and to drive the point home Timrava has a cameo.
Timrava (1867-1951) was the most notable woman writer of the time and like Ilona she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She lived with relatives most of her life and never married. She held a few jobs, didn’t make much money from her writing and traveled even less than Ilona did. That was her decision. It was Ilona’s decision to be conventional. Women make that choice all the time – some find it miserable and others make the best of it. There are Ilonas everywhere. They go to college because it’s expected of them, then they marry and forget it all. Some raise families and are fulfilled, some get divorced and try again.
So was Ilona’s choice “wrong?” Does being a good wife and loving foster parent count for less than leading an extraordinary life? After all, it’s only those who leave footprints that are remembered and Hviezdoslav wrote no love poems. A happy marriage–isn’t that more than a complete poetic oeuvre from which nothing is missing? Their love wasn’t for sale after all. … She’s been the lifetime companion to a Great Poet, a part of his life. Part of his life, for sure, but not part of his writing. But what is more? Literature or life? And is this the right question to ask?
Juránová asks these questions and more as she charts an ordinary life lived in the shadows of the intelligentsia. Aside from the cover art, I have no technical complaints to make. The translation by Julia and Peter Sherwood is quite good – I had previously been confused by the text’s tendency to see-saw between past and present tense but have since heard from the translators that this was based on the complex time shifts of the original work, which it could not have been easy to convey from one language to another.
In short, Ilona is a fine book. Subtle, moving and thought-provoking, the sort of novel that should be featured in feminist literature studies. I am left curious and hopeful that more of Juránová’s work will be brought stateside.