In Herbert’s tale, the poet Francesco Petrarca – Petrarch – receives a letter from a former schoolmate, Guido Noia, telling him their “unforgettable preceptress,” Donna Novella, has died. “She always spoke from behind a curtain because her extraordinary beauty—it was universally claimed—might distract the attention of her audience.” Before burial, her body was wrapped in a black cloth and arranged on a bier in the Church of Santo Lorenzo. A “scoundrel” entered the church and reveals Donna Novello’s face is scarred and pock-marked, her skin “swarthy like the skin of a common peasant woman.” She is bald.
In his reply to Guido, Petrarch says he has no memory of Donna Novello: “The idea that I loved her, dear Guido, is the work of your fantasy.” Petrarch reminds his friend that he hated the study of law, that he “lost irretrievably seven precious years of my youth.” (Herbert studied law at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and received a Master of Law degree. He never practiced law.) Petrarch adds that he just received a codex containing, amidst much trash, a copy of the Bucolics:
“He did not return to reading Virgil. He was seized by panic, by a horror that destroyed all thought and feeling. Guido’s letter was an attack, yet another attack on the sacred secret of his soul.”
Herbert tells us Petrarch has only ever loved one woman – not Laura, his famed fiction, but Donna Novello. “He had invented Laura in Avignon and never met any young lady of that name, which lent itself like no other to erotic wordplay.” He even had a “Sienese master” in Avignon paint a portrait of Laura. “A real voice was united to an invented name and figure,” Herbert writes. “Laura became a shield covering Petrarch’s singular, defenseless love. The rest was just a matter of poetry.” Other writers question the existence of Laura but Petrarch defends her reality with ferocity. Even Boccaccio argues Laura “should be understood allegorically.” Herbert’s narrator parenthetically notes: “(the human passion for destroying all that is beautiful and pure is truly fathomless).” In a 2004 review of recent Petrarch translations, Eric Ormsby considers Laura’s reality:
“Is Laura, his great poetic subject, a real woman or a phantom of the poet’s brain? Is she merely the personification of love in a particular form, a Platonic simulacrum of some transcendent archetype? Is she the breathing embodiment of all his ambition and striving? Or is she, as seems more likely, all of these, and none of these, at once? We are no longer at ease in addressing—let alone falling in love with—archetypes; nowadays, any poet foolhardy enough to install his beloved on a Platonic pedestal would be more liable to see stars than perfected eidolons.”
And the loss, of course, is ours. Herbert resolves nothing. His story/essay is worthy of Borges:
“So we have strayed onto tricky ground riddled with uncertain circumstantial evidence and indiscreet inferences,” Herbert writes. “A criminological-literary method that strives to determine incontrovertibly the place, time, and victim of the crime of love, a pettifogging investigation into the reliability of the witnesses for the prosecution and defense, both aim to announce triumphantly that Laura never existed. Laced with smug nihilism, it is all pedantically arid and futile.”
Herbert suggests we not seek Laura, that we respectfully leave her alone: “May she lie in the alabaster tomb of three hundred sonnets.” Petrarch only became Petrarch when he abandoned writing about Donna Novello and wrote of his love for the possibly non-existent Laura, who then became real. After the poet’s death, Herbert concludes, “Laura would be inviolable, strong, immutable, and vivid as Penelope, Dido, Isolde, and Beatrice” – and Natasha Rostov.
[“Voice,” as translated by Alissa Valles, can be found in The Collected Prose 1948-1998 (2010). An earlier translation by John and Bogdna Carpenter was published in 1987 in Parnassus (vol. 14, no.1) and collected in Parnassus: Twenty Years of Poetry in Review (ed. Herbert Leibowitz, University of Michigan Press, 1994).]