“there was so much of the world” (Adam Zagajewski)

armenian church

                     To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
about eternity.
I have written about Lviv (also Lvov, Lemberg, Lwow, and more) before. In 2019, I spent the last days of my time in Ukraine in that beautiful city. In a way the city I saw was the one written about by Adam Zagajewski. Born in Lvov in 1945, he was expelled with his family to Poland when it became part of the Soviet enterprise. In his memoir, Two Cities, Zagajewski wrote this: “In October 1945, my parents, my sister and I endured a two-week journey from Lvov to Gliwice. The family graves stayed in the east. The household spirits probably hesitated before they decided to accompany us on that uncertain journey in cattle car.” In that account is a distilled history of the 20th century. And Lviv stayed in place, slightly renamed, though its churches were used for grain storage, its monuments toppled, its ghetto still haunted by those who’d been murdered on the streets or else transported to Belzec. The lines above are from Adam Zagajewski’s extraordinary poem, “To Go to Lvov”. It carries the reader through loss and memory, and details with loving attention the ambience of the city:
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf…
I’d hoped to attend an opera at the magnificent Lviv Opera and Ballet Theatre but nothing was scheduled on the days I was there. On a tour of the building, the guide talked about the brilliant soprano Solomiya Krushelnytska of whom Puccini wrote, “The most beautiful and charming Butterfly”. As young people blocked scenes for a forthcoming theatrical performance on the stage, I stood on the balcony and imagined Solomiya’s lyric voice:
See you? Now he is coming!
I do not go to meet him. Not I.
I stay upon the brow of the hillock, and wait there
and wait for a long time, but never weary
of the long waiting.
Instead we visited Solomiya’s grave in Lychakiv Cemetery on a cold day after a storm. Many trees had fallen and there were groups of workers deciding how to proceed with the clean-up. But someone had placed fresh flowers on the singer’s stone.

I am remembering the city now, a few days after Russian missiles landed near its airport. Lviv has become a haven for refugees. I think of the Armenian cathedral not far from our hotel, a place I walked to several times. The market square. The narrow streets. The Opera House with the the high notes of Butterfly’s aria lingering still in the old wood and heavy curtains. I began a novel last spring set partly near me in a village I’ve called Easthope and partly in Lviv. It’s not autobiographical, not really, but asks a question about something I’ve asked and couldn’t find an answer for. Couldn’t. Probably never will. But in fiction the question can be asked and answered so that’s what I hoped to do. Then I put the work aside because I needed to work on final edits of Blue Portugal. Then the Russians attacked Ukraine and I couldn’t bear to write anything at all. Why bother. Why bother with fiction when people are leaving their homes, when hospitals are being bombed, children killed in their schools. How could I write of Lviv.

On Friday, though, I opened the file and read the correspondence the main character is having with a cousin she didn’t know she had. A cousin in Lviv. Because the main character has already appeared in an earlier novel of mine and sort of agitated to be written about again, as a woman rather than the child she was in that earlier novel, I realized, doing the math, that this novel needs to be set about 8 years ago. (I hadn’t really thought about a specific time for it. I’d just been writing it more or less in the present. But the present tense of the narrative is actually nearly a decade ago.) So I decided to keep writing, to let the plot unfold like the textiles in the small museum run by the cousin in Lviv, a city as haunted as any, and even if I can’t return, my character can go for the first time. She can hear an opera, drink coffee on Serbska Street, look at old books at the market by the Fedorov monument, and sit with her cousin, drawing the tree that gathers them both into its root system, families on each spreading branch.

                  there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want
to leave the house.
Note: Adam Zagajewski’s “To Go to Lvov” was translated by by Renata Gorczynski

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