by Jesse Tangen-Mills
Alices Through the Looking Glass
(Feminist Press at CUNY, 2012)
If summer blockbusters are any sign, we’re as far from female protagonism as we were before the publication of the Second Sex. Heroes in our minds continue to be young and male. Not so in Goya’s Glass—a triptych of historical-fictional accounts of female protagonism in the arts: the Duchess of Alba in painting, the Czech nationalist, Boena Nĕmcová in writing, and Russian Nina Berberova in poetry. Re-telling the stories of these proto-feminists also reflects the author’s mixed nationality as an artist: Monika Zgustová, a Spaniard born in the former Czechoslovakia, is a novelist and accomplished translator of Czech and Russian literature into Spanish and Catalan.
The first story describes part of the life of the Duchess of Alba. Contrary to what you might think, the Duchess of Alba is a title, not a person; in fact, the Duchess of Alba continues to exist (another member of anachronistic royalty in the era of late capitalism). But Zgustová brings us back to the immortal Duchess of Alba of the Goya painting, the libertarian, hero of arts and pre-Enlightenment figure, María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva-Álvarez (breath) de Toledo y Silva. She is rebellious, artsy, intriguing, and fond of speaking of herself in third person. She describes herself as having been kept “under a bell jar that preserved me from the outside world the way a greenhouse preserves a rare flower.” After posing for the famous “black duchess” painting, she starts to recognize a resemblance to herself in other Goya paintings, like the once scandalous ¨Maja Desnuda” (a figure the painter would later use to decorate her grave). The eponymous “glass” refers to a gift from the Duchess that the painter kept with him, so as to capture the female muse of artistry. The Duchess would have the reader believe that she has had as much of a role in Goya’s female subjects as the painter himself, thus blurring the classic painter and often female subject dichotomy. Is it her rejection of social norms that she embodies that inspires Goya?
The Duchess serves as inspiration a hundred years later to the nationalist Czech writer, Boena Nĕmcová. Nĕmcová, too, had to cope with monarchical powers. As the anomalous female thorn in the slippered foot of King Franz Josef, Nĕmcová was meticulously monitored by the police for her subversive literary activities. Our narrator is, in fact, a spy. Through him we find out that Nĕmcová—like so many other nationalist authors of the period—transcribes folktales. Through him we also find out about the rumors that plague Prague of her love affair with a young doctor. And it is he who tries to blackmail her into a public confession of her trespasses against the king—clear foreshadowing of the kind of shadowy confessions Stalinist purges seek out in the following chapter. This unsympathetic spy also tries to have Nĕmcová’s son killed by denying him medical attention. In the end, it is hard not to sympathize with this champion of Czech and her story. The realist Jan Neruda (after whom a certain Chilean poet would rename himself) also makes an appearance, soliciting a story for her May magazine. None of this fame, however, saves Nĕmcova from a death in destitution, thanks to her publisher skimming off the top.
But before we toss the book down and join nationalist-communist revolutions (wreaking havoc upon unpaid wage labor), Zgustová leaves us in a very different Prague, that of the 1930s, brimming with Russian exiles—Vladimir Nabokov, as well as the less fortunate Alexander Blok, Andrei Bely, Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and Anna Akhmatova—all members of the Association of Artists and Writers. Who wouldn’t want to be there? Long schnokered literary debates that are actually constructive? Get inspired to write a poem and say—like one of the story’s characters does, “It’ll be a futurist poem because I’m totally drunk.” Boena Nĕmcová from the previous story is still read and admired in this later Prague. Despite all the equality rhetoric of the revolution, these female characters are still loners in a male-dominated world. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to admire them today.