A few years ago I was captivated by Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s novella I Was Jack Mortimer, a fast-moving, offbeat crime story set in 1930s Vienna. I read it pre-blog but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere (especially since the release of a new edition in the Pushkin Vertigo livery towards the end of last year). Back in November 2015 Pushkin Press published another of Lernet-Holenia’s works, Mona Lisa, which I was lucky enough to receive for Christmas. It’s hugely enjoyable story told with much wit and verve, a perfect gift for lovers of art and literature.
As the novella opens towards the end of 1502, the King of France is dispatching his Marshal, a certain Louis de la Trémoille, to Italy to assist two French governors following heavy losses at the hands of the Spaniards. King Louis XII assures La Trémoille that he will be ‘showered with glory,’ as he leads the French army to victory, spreading grandeur far and wide in the process. While the King is willing to fund the trip from the municipal reserves, he also trusts that La Trémoille will do everything in his power to recover the costs of the campaign, so much so that he leaves his Marshal with the following parting shot:
“…Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command…” (pg. 11, Pushkin Press)
Unlike an earlier Italian campaign – one that generated a significant haul of booty for the previous monarch – La Trémoille’s initial efforts give rise to very little in the way of money or valuable artefacts. As such he decides to spend a few days in Florence in the hope of procuring some suitable objects of art to placate the King. Despite finding art ‘a terrible bore’, La Trémoille hears of Leonardo Da Vinci’s reputation; and so, accompanied by a small posse of French and Italian noblemen, he decides to pay the great painter a visit.
It is at this point that the focus of Lernet-Holenia’s story shifts from La Trémoille to one of his companions, a young nobleman by the name of M. de Bougainville. During a highly amusing and somewhat farcical exchange between La Trémoille and Leonardo, Bougainville is charged with catching a fly in order to settle a difference of opinion. In so doing, Bougainville catches a glimpse of an unfinished painting, a portrait of a woman with a rare luminescence. It is, of course, the Mona Lisa, and Bougainville is instantly smitten.
The woman, whose face was turned towards the viewer, looked a little sideways to the left, where Bougainville stood, and she smiled. Her smile was enchanting and mysterious, as if glimpsed through fine shadows or a veil, though it exuded a luminosity which dazzled the eyes; and in the background, where sky-blue streams wound around huge mountains, the azure glow was more enchanting than the lustre of paradise. (pgs. 29-30)
Even though he has only seen her image for a few moments, Bougainville falls hopelessly in love with the woman in this painting, and so he questions Leonardo in an attempt to discover her identity. After a brief pause, Leonardo reveals the name ‘Giaconda’, adding that she is no one of consequence. On leaving the artist’s workshop, Bougainville probes the Florentines about this ‘Giaconda’ only to discover that the one possible candidate, Mona Lisa (the wife of a local gentleman named Giacondo), died some two or three years ago. Bougainville is crestfallen; he is desperate to believe that the woman at the heart of Leonardo’s painting is not Giacondo’s wife but another woman, a woman who might still be alive. Consequently, he decides to pay Leonardo another visit. On further questioning Leonardo maintains that his painting depicts Giaconda; and so Bougainville implores the painter to tell him everything he knows about the woman whose enigmatic beauty has captured his heart:
“Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth is, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves…” (pg. 40)
In spite of everything he has heard, Bougainville remains convinced that his Giaconda is still alive, a belief that only strengthens when he sees the painting once again; after all, as he says to Leonardo, that smile appears to be immortal. Here is a snippet from the painter’s response.
“…Every smile is a mystery, not only of itself, but in every other respect too. But I have no clue to this mystery. I know not what she is smiling at. […] Only the real is perfect.” And after a pause he added, “Not until the woman in this painting becomes real will it be said that she really smiles.” (pg 42)
Coming in at around eighty pages, Mona Lisa is a brief yet very satisfying story. As such, I’m a little wary of revealing too much about the plot. Let’s just say that Bougainville goes on a mission to discover whether his Giaconda is actually dead or still alive, a sequence of events that results in all manner of mayhem for our protagonist and his companions.
This is a very entertaining tale of the captivating power of art, of how we project our own emotions and feelings onto the images we see before us. It’s a charming tale about love, life, and the search for beauty. There are other pleasures to enjoy too, not least in the author’s descriptions of the Florentine milieu. In this scene, Bougainville is visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce in search of Giaconda’s tomb.
It was about midday when, accompanied by a servant who carried a garland of dark red roses, he entered the church. The Mass that was in progress was for late risers, the “scented Mass” as it was known, attended by richly turned-out and heavily perfumed nobility who actually came only to see and be seen, to criticize, to laugh and to gossip. As for the priest and what went on at the altar, no one bothered in the slightest. (pg. 45)
As well as being a very prolific novelist, Lernet-Holenia was also a screenwriter, and it shows in Mona Lisa; with its witty storyline and lively dialogue, this story would transfer very well to the stage or screen.
Before I finish, just a few words on the physical book itself. This lovely Pushkin Press edition is beautifully illustrated by the graphic designer Neil Gower, whose wonderful little sketches are dotted throughout the story. As per usual with books in the Pushkin Collection, it is a gorgeous little thing – definitely something to treasure.
Grant (of 1streading) has also reviewed this novella.
Mona Lisa is published by Pushkin Press – first published in German in 1937. Source: Personal copy.