Mona-Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia is a jewel of a novella, seamlessly blending theories about the power of art with slap-stick comedy. The premise is simple enough – reminiscent of the Pygmalion myth, a young French nobleman called Bougainville finds himself in Florence, in the home of the great Leonardo di Vinci. Wrapped up in the task of trying to catch a fly in Leonardo’s workshop (in order to settle a sudden argument about how many legs the insect has), Bougainville accidentally reveals the artist’s most famous painting, whose bewitching smile had been hidden behind a curtain. He immediately experiences an overwhelming feeling of love for Di Vinci’s subject, and resolves to find her. Leonardo explains that she is a fiction, a combination of many women both real and imagined –although in an effort to get the young man out of his house, he implies that she may have been loosely based on the young wife of a Florentian nobleman. The woman, he explains, died some years ago, but Bougainville cannot believe this to be true. He convinces himself that she must be alive and in peril, hidden from the world by a jealous husband. His search gets more and more frantic and, as he blunders through the city, he manages to make himself both a figure of fun and deeply tragic.
The tone of the story is unusual, and perfectly judged. At times it is, as I say, extremely funny. There is one scene in particular in which Mona Lisa’s mostly-naked husband, interrupted by the questing Bougainville and his cronies in the middle of the night, slides down his banisters in a bid to escape their questions. In another, Bougainville’s furious commander berates him whilst at the same time retying his shot-brocade trouser laces tighter round his thighs – since, we are told, For over a century trouser laces were wound round the thighs, and for over a century they did not stay put, but slid down the legs. It’s pure Monty Python. In among these farcical scenes, however, are moments of real feeling – because as ridiculous as Bougainville’s love is for the woman in the painting, there is no doubt that it is sincere. As he says towards the end of the story, Nothing is capable of separating two people who love each other – these binary stars eternally revolving round each other – not even God. He is willing to sacrifice everything for the image of a woman he has never met, and in his sincerity manages to humble even Di Vinci.
Ultimately the blend of absurdity and tenderness poses genuine questions about our relationship with art; whether it is possible to feel real love if it is inspired by someone fictional or unknown; whether dreams can, in fact, be more authentic than life itself; and indeed, if we ever really know the people we love, or if their true selves are as removed from us as the Mona Lisa is from her audience. Bougainville may be a fool – but aren’t we all when we experience love for the first time, no matter how inappropriate the object of our affections?
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.
As a post-script, I had never heard of Lernet-Holenia before, but he sounds like an absolutely fascinating figure with a complicated story of his own. Veteran of the First World War, author of what has apparently been called “the only Austrian resistance novel”, part of an army film unit for the Germans during the Second World War…I intend to obtain a copy of I was Jack Mortimer as soon this long, lean month is finally over.