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Izabella Laskos in Dawn

March 22, 2021

The journal Dawn started off with Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов), Dickens’s “Holiday Romance,” and Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right in 1869, plus “The Eternal Husband” (Вечный муж) by Dostoevskii in 1870, but it wasn’t popular and only lasted until February 1872, when its editor and publisher Vasilii Kashpirev ran out of money.

Dawn was ideological enough that Pisemskii wrote to ask what neo-Slavophile points he should work in to Men of the Forties. In 1871 its cover spelled Заря as Зарѧ—at least I think that’s the right long-obsolete Cyrillic letter. The first issue started with a poem by Apollon Maikov (“Я люблю, перед иконой”) about the feeling of standing before an icon pondering who might have lit the candle in front of it. It had articles on Belorussian schools and Polish history. A Czech story got this footnote:

Translator’s note. This story by Karolina Světlá, printed in the newspaper Kvěly, presents one of those types that is little known to the Russian reader, but quite clear for the Austrian Slav. While Rus was putting everything she had into foreign culture, at first aware neither of the foundations of her own nationality [narodnost’], nor of the historical progression of the Western European Enlightenment, the Austrian Slavs had already felt the full wickedness of an alien culture eating away at their nationality. We find the type of the Czech Slav who has come to understand the wickedness of Germanization well captured in the following story by Karolina Mužákova, known in literature as Karolina Světlá. (253)

You get the idea. So when I randomly read a Russian novella in Dawn, I wasn’t expecting it to be a story where a hurdy-gurdy player from Florence sings a Swedish song in Paris at a critical moment, without a single Slavic character or any allusion to Russia beyond the language the story is written in.

The novella was Magnolia (Магнолья, 1871) by Iza G., who turns out to be Izabella Laskos, née Grinberg (1830 or 1833?–1877).

It opens with a crowd around a private house in Florence waiting to hear the beautiful voice of a Swedish woman, Inna, who sings every evening. The silent and mysterious Castelli is there (along with a cook who loves music and a talented poor boy who plays the hurdy-gurdy), and in fact he’s everywhere the singer goes, to the point that she’s worried. As he stalks her, he overhears her admiring a magnolia, which she would buy for herself if she hadn’t left her money at home. He buys it, is invited to her house, and becomes a constant guest and friend of the family. They fall in love.

On an excursion outside the city, they sit under a magnolia tree; he picks a flower from it and kisses her. That night, she goes out to her balcony, where

She was engulfed by a joyous and powerful feeling of happiness. It was not unexpected for her. She had long known it could be no other way. She had long sensed that he loved her and was aware that she was entirely his. And that kiss today had given her to him forever before God. She would be his before people as well. “So this is happiness!” whispered Inna, welcoming the bliss of life with all her being. All the stars in the sky shone brighter, celebrating with her her great, her sacred joy. (153)

We’re not to the end yet, though. She drops the magnolia he had given her onto the street and superstitiously decides the magnolia’s fate will be hers. It looks like a group of young people will pick it up, but instead a man suddenly crushes it with his shoe. The bad omen comes true: Castelli, given bad advice by a man he knows is a cynic, breaks up with Inna for her sake because his fortune isn’t enough to support them both. She leaves Florence, falls ill, sees him again in Paris, and dies just as he sees the error of his ways. Yet another magnolia wilts as she dies; Castelli had neglected to water it.

The story has a moral: don’t let poverty be an obstacle to love. Inna is right, and Castelli is wrong. They could have been together and happy, working and living frugally. Love and friendship are enough, and if they weren’t, the baker and hurdy-gurdy player prove people much poorer than Castelli can find happiness through art.

But Magnolia is fun to read because it has more supporting characters than it seems to need. Doctor Laurenzi pines after Inna and follows her to Paris to treat her, but she doesn’t love him. The young Ninetta loves Laurenzi. Laurenzi’s sister Carlotta has a wardrobe full of keyhole dresses and thinks the most desirable men in Florence are in love with her, but too discreet to allude to their feelings. Castelli’s calculating high-society acquaintances are the opposite of Inna and her pure kindred spirits. Inna’s father gives his daughter unlimited freedom but won’t listen to his doctor and cut back on his academic work.

Best of all is Inna’s former wet nurse Ulrika, who has gone with the family from Sweden to Florence to France. Whenever things are about to go wrong for Inna, Ulrika sings a mournful lullaby from Inna’s childhood over and over, which Inna, unlike the stereotypical Russian noble, finds creepy. The nurse has a whole backstory, which boils down to “men leave you, and children die young.” Magnolia ends with the nurse, who had buried her own son decades before, singing the lullaby over Inna’s dead body.

Laskos also wrote a play banned in Russia but performed abroad in her own German translation, The Patron (Меценат), and another performed in Russia, The Poor Niece (Бедная племянница, 1862). The latter play is negatively reviewed by an anonymous critic (Saltykov-Shchedrin?) in the same March 1863 issue of The Contemporary that has the beginning of Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?), though the critic concedes “there can even be found poor nephews who enjoy [the comedy] and loudly cry out for the author of The Poor Niece” (190). Laskos’s prose includes “The Memoirs of a Samovar” (Воспоминания самовара, 1869), another story with a flower title, “The First White Rose (A Christmas Story)” (Первая белая роза [Святочный рассказ], 1870), and the novel At Court (При дворе, 1876–77), plus the article “Jews in Vienna” (Евреи в Вене, 1875).

See Iza G., “Magnol’ia,” in Zaria 3.9 (September 1871): 229–52 and Zaria 3.10–11 (October–November 1871): 129–187. Did she use the initial “G.” to conceal the Jewish-sounding surname Grinberg? (Of course, many women writers used pseudonyms of this kind.)

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