“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

bright hips, late roses: a meditation on history

bright hips

Yesterday I cut some sprays of rosehips from the Rosa canina that grows around my bedroom window. It is the earliest rose to bloom, early May, and its hips always remind me of those pale pink single blossoms with their golden crowns of anthers. When I go into the kitchen and see the pot of hips on the table, I wonder how the summer passed so quickly. I remember the first warm days of April and how we’d have a glass of wine and a little snack on the deck, surrounded by pots of tulips. John’s been lugging those big pots down the stairs to overwinter in protected areas under the house. How did it pass so quickly?

Two weeks ago I was in Lviv. It was a city I’d long wanted to visit. A few years ago I read East West Street by Philippe Sands and knew something of the city’s 20th century history, not exactly a happy one. Sands uses 3 families rooted in Lviv, and their particular experiences of that city and that century to weave together an extraordinary story of hope, of violence, of terrible loss, and of resilience. That the city was known by 4 different names—Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov, and Lwów— contains its own message of war, aggression, and conquest. I’d hoped we could see a performance at the Solomiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet or Lviv Opera but there wasn’t anything on during our visit.

lviv opera

We did go inside for a tour and it was interesting to see the preparations for an upcoming opera (I think it was Don Quixote). The building itself is glorious but I kept (somehow) remembering the first photograph I saw of it, in East West Street, draped in flags and bunting to welcome Hans Frank, Governor-General of the occupied Polish Territories. He attended a concert in August, 1942, a performance of Beethoven’s Lenore Overture no. 3, opus 72, followed by the Ninth Symphony. He addressed the audience from the orchestra pit:

We, the Germans, do not to go foreign lands with opium and similar measures like the English. We bring art and culture to other nations.

As we explored Lviv, I kept thinking about what happened during those terrible years. The city’s Jews concentrated first in the Lwów Ghetto and the Janowska camp on the outskirts of the city, then Belzek concentration camp: of the 100,000 Jews in the city at the beginning of the war, only about 300 remained at the end. The narrow cobbled streets and beautiful faded houses, the churches, the grand halls: they’d all absorbed the sound of gunshot and shouts, the hammering at doors, the jackboots. I know this is true for so many places in Europe (and elsewhere of course) but I was perhaps more attentive to the layers in Lviv.

Two weeks I was in Lviv. Now I’m at home, thinking and writing about how time accumulates in a city, in memory, in the bright hips of roses on my kitchen table, and in this last spray I cut from the garden just now.

late roses

Lviv won’t leave me alone. When I came home, I re-read East West Street. I tracked down poetry, history, and have peered through my reading glasses at old photographs, wanting to understand where I was in relation to everything else. The poet Adam Zagajewski was born in Lviv in 1945, though his family was expelled shortly after.

…go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

“What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”

two women, postcard Czernowitz Hauptstrasse 16, Atelier Riveria

A couple of months ago, on a Sunday, I was making dinner and listening to Writers and Company on the CBC. The host Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Philippe Sands, a British/French lawyer with a specialty in international law. The conversation was interesting and I was glad to be listening as I prepared vegetables, checked the roasting chicken. It was when Sands said the word Lviv that my ears really pricked up.

He went on to talk about the background for his book East West Street, an account of his attempts to trace his family story within the historical context of WW11 and the larger story of the Nuremberg trial. Maybe I forgot something important for the meal because I couldn’t move from where I stood as I listened.

As soon as the interview ended, I ordered East West Street and it’s been waiting for me to open it. Which I did, yesterday. During a cloudy period, after transplanting arugula seedlings and weeding the garlic bed, I sat in our living room and entered a world I know I will remember forever. Because in a way it’s my world. My family background, unlike Sands’, is not Jewish; my Ukrainian grandfather was Eastern Orthodox (I guess). But like Sands, I grew up not knowing the family secrets. And how prescient the epigraph for East West Street: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” This is taken from an essay, “Notes on the Phantom”, by the French psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham. (And of course I’ve ordered his book.) At the beginning of East West Street, after receiving an invitation to give a lecture on the origins of international law to students at the university in Lviv, Sands spends time with his mother looking through two old briefcases filled with his maternal grandfather’s papers.

the moirs box

I thought of the Moirs Happiness Package. I found this in my parents’ apartment after they’d died and I brought it home with me, along with an assortment of materials I’d never known about. There’s not much—some photographs of unknown women, my grandfather’s travel papers and his army book, two rosaries— but in a way what I have has filled me with a fierce desire to piece together my grandfather’s story. In the Moirs Happiness Package is a small photocopied map of Bukovina, the province my grandfather came from, and so I know my father must have wondered about his father, wondered if a map would help him to figure out things about the place and its history. But that was as far as he went. I know a little more than he knew and in the way that these things work, I’ve already booked a trip to Ukraine in September and the final city of my travels there will be Lviv. So this book, right now, is the book I need to read. Philippe Sands explores Lviv with three maps: “…modern Ukrainian (2010), old Polish (1930), ancient Austrian (1911).” I will take the little map my father used and try to locate a cadastral map as well. I’ve given a researcher in Chernivtsi other details—names and dates from the parish records kindly decoded for me by my son Forrest—in the hope that there might be people remaining who are related to me (my grandfather left in 1907).

One thing that Sands finds in his grandfather’s briefcases is a Fremdenpass, or a travel pass. In the Moirs Happiness Package, I also found one of these:

his travel paper

A small object, stained and brittle, but I hope it will help me to travel backwards, across water, across the Carpathians, to a village where a midwife named Rosalia Inravschi delivered my grandfather in 1879. Going back, we find ourselves waiting, waiting, for the moment when the maps show us everything, the gaps between then and now, every season unfolding and the years opening for us, including us in the old family story.