Jana Juráňová, Ilona: My Life with the Bard, trans. Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Houston: Calypso Editions, 2014), 143 pp.
On the off chance you haven’t figured it out yet, one reason for this series on Slovak novels in English is because Slovak literature is so poorly known in the English-speaking world. Actually, it’s poorly known pretty much anywhere outside of Slovakia; Czechs might have the only slight advantage. Some few Slovak books have been widely translated—Don’t Cry for Me, for example, and Three Chestnut Horses—but even these are hardly household names in the U.S.
If you spend any time in Slovakia itself, the one name you are sure to come across as the Bright Shining Star of Slovak literature is Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav—whose surname, incidentally, is a pen name meaning “the glory of the stars”—to whom a big old statue is dedicated on the appropriately named Hviezdoslav Square (Hviezdoslavovo námestie) in Bratislava.
Slovaks certainly are proud of him. The thing of it is, they don’t actually read him anymore, except in school. He was one of the early nationalist poets and played an important role in the nineteenth-century cultivation of a distinct Slovak consciousness, but nowadays his kind of long, descriptive, flowery poetry just isn’t a hit. Good for exam questions, bad for leisure time.
Like most famous artists, Hviezdoslav’s life was not nearly as Bohemian (pun intended!) as the movies and popular misconceptions would have it. He worked hard and steadily throughout a stable lifetime. Which is to say, his story would not make a thrilling subject for a novel. But in Ilona: My Life with the Bard, author Jana Juráňová takes this homely stability’s lack of intrigue and ratchets it down a notch by telling the story not of Hviezdoslav, but of his wife.
“Behind every great man there’s a woman,” the old saying goes—but what was her life like? What did she think about being “behind” all the time? Did she ever wish for something more? History knows virtually nothing about Ilona Országhová, other than her finishing-school education in Prague and her presence at the unveiling of a bust of her late husband, so fiction has to fill in the gaps.
What results is not a thriller, or even a plot, exactly. It’s a very strict third-person-limited narrative of Ilona’s life (with one brief departure to inhabit another character’s consciousness—I can’t quite tell if this was deliberate or an accident on the author’s part) in the meandering, stream-of-consciousness style associated with Virginia Woolf. Memories are interspersed with the daily routine of feeding the bard and tending the flowers; little anecdotes are reported to the unidentified audience of Ilona’s thoughts and sometimes to hero-worshipping visitors. In bits and pieces we learn about Hviezdoslav’s painfully shy courtship, and the female admirers at the heyday of his career, and his visits to spas and foreign countries without Ilona, and the awkwardness of her attempts to offer constructive criticism of his poetry. And then every so often, Ilona permits herself the opportunity to wonder—what would I have done? what would I have written? could I have tried this, or that?
The impulse for a modern reader, especially a woman, will be to want more. We’d prefer to see the rage and tragedy of a brilliant artist squelched by the injustice of her era. We’d prefer a heroine who wanted something more, greater, public, world-changing—and was denied it by some clear evil that we can name and therefore battle.
Juráňová, however, just barely hints at the possibility that Ilona might have wanted some kind of work other than being the famous poet’s wife and caretaker, but it’s not the central theme of the book. We are forced to reckon with a woman of her time, who accepted the limitations placed upon her and made the best of them, and felt no more discontent than anyone else by the end of life’s vagaries.
I sometimes wonder if the hardest thing for women of today to accept is how many of our foremothers put up with so little, and protested that fact so little. Juráňová apparently wonders that, too, but in a subtle artistic way asks us simply to accept these women for who they were instead of staging a moralistic showdown. At the same time, she invites us to remember forgotten women like Ilona. She is every woman's great-great-grandmother.