The Triumph of Mrs. L.

Josef Sudek/© I & G Fárová Heirs
Photograph by Josef Sudek from his ‘Glass Labyrinths’ series, 1963–1972

In our modest Silesian town after the war, a certain lady, an acquaintance of my parents, composed musical works, which she then sent to eminent personages, to the pope, the queen of England, the president of the United States, the president of France. The works were never performed, but all these distinguished individuals, with their vast staffs of secretaries and assistants, thanked Mrs. L. for her compositions. And Mrs. L. would read these thank-you letters to her friends and acquaintances, letters from the pope, the queen of England, the president of the United States. True, the letters were signed by the secretaries of these eminences and not by the eminences themselves; still, they were written on letterhead so beautiful that its very appearance in a small town was a great event. It’s enough to recall the shoddy paper for sale at the local stationery store, the ugly paper on which my father wrote his memoirs…

That the answers acknowledging receipt of Mrs. L.’s compositions and thanking her for them were written on paper so unusual that it revealed mysterious watermarks when held to the light, marks guaranteeing their authenticity, that the signature was ordinarily accompanied by a round seal, like a nest holding an eagle, an owl, or a hawk, proud heraldic animals, mythical, in no way resembling their poor cousins dwelling in the real world, an ordinary forest, this very fact turned defeat into victory. Defeat? Why defeat? Mrs. L. desired nothing more. She had her thank-you letters emanating from the offices of the high and mighty. Her works were never performed, but they had their virtues; no critic could attack them. She stood beyond criticism. She was independent. She corresponded exclusively with the world’s great ones; that whole comic subspecies of critics, reviewers, spiteful ordinary people, failed artists, journalists consumed by envy, didn’t dare to touch her work. She towered above them. She moved in a different sphere. The pope and presidents. Perhaps the UN secretary-general. This was her public.

She had attained artistic fulfillment, even though her compositions went unplayed. She had discovered a new way of existing in art—a leap from completed but unplayed work to public acclaim. Mrs. L. practiced conceptual art. The intermediate step (all those rehearsals, concerts, ovations, hisses) proved unnecessary. When she received guests, persons of quality, acquainted with the hierarchy of that world, she would take these letters from a special drawer and read them out loud. Her guests were moved; thanks to these solemn letters, they suddenly, temporarily entered a higher sphere, the highest sphere.

They lived, after all, as Polish refugees in a provincial German town, which had never achieved any kind of renown—it was remembered, if at all, only because World War II had begun here in some…



This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $79.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.