It is widely known that Chopin died at two o’ clock in the morning (“aux petites heures de la nuit,” as French Wikipedia tells us) on October 17, 1849. By his deathbed were several of his closest friends, among them his sister Ludwika, who attended to him munificently until the very end, as well as Father Aleksander Jełowicki, who, shaken by the quiet, animal deceasing of a thoroughly ruined body, by the drawn-out battle that was every gulp of air, first fainted in the stairwell and then, under the rubric of some rebellion he wasn’t altogether conscious of, thought up a better version of the virtuoso’s death in his memoirs. He wrote, among other things, that the last words of Fryderyk Chopin had been, “I am already at the source of all happiness,” which was a very obvious lie, although certainly beautiful and moving. In fact, as Ludwika recalled it, her brother said nothing; in fact, he had been unconscious for a few hours. What actually escaped his lips in the very end was a stream of dark, thick blood.
Now Ludwika, freezing and exhausted, is driving off in a stagecoach. She’s nearing Leipzig. It’s a wet winter, and heavy clouds with black bellies are coming up on them from the west; it will most likely snow. Many months have passed since the funeral, but yet another funeral, in Poland, awaits Ludwika now. Fryderyk Chopin had always said he wanted to be buried in his native land, and because he knew perfectly well that he was dying, he had planned his death quite carefully. And his funerals, too.
No sooner had he died than Solange’s husband had arrived. He arrived so promptly it was as if he had been waiting in his overcoat and his boots for a knock on his door. He appeared with all his equipment in a leather bag. First he coated the lifeless hand of the deceased in fat, placed it deliberately and respectfully upon a small wooden trough, and poured plaster over it. Then with Ludwika’s help, he made a death mask—they had to do it before the lines of his face had stiffened unduly, before death had intervened in them, for death renders all faces similar.
Quietly, with no fuss, Fryderyk Chopin’s next wish was fulfilled.
The second day after his death a doctor recommended by Countess Potocka asked that the body be undressed to the waist and then, having laid an armful of sheets around the body’s bare rib cage, opened it with his scalpel in a single swift movement. Ludwika, who was there for this, felt that the body had trembled, and had even let out a sort of sigh. Later, when the sheets were almost black with blood clots, she turned to face the wall.
The doctor rinsed the heart in a basin, and Ludwika was surprised at how big, shapeless, colorless it was. It barely fit into the jar filled with alcohol, so the doctor advised they get a bigger one. The muscular tissue must not be compressed nor touch the walls of the jar.
Ludwika dozes off now, rocked by the regular clatter of the carriage, and in the seat opposite her, next to her traveling companion, Aniela, a lady appears, someone she doesn’t know, but someone she might have known a long time ago, back in Poland, wearing a dusty mourning dress like the widows of the 1830 uprisings, with an ostentatious cross on her breast. Her face is swollen, made ashen by Siberian frosts; her hands, in worn-out gray gloves, keep the jar. Ludwika awakes with a moan and checks the contents of her basket. Everything is fine. She pushes her hat back up; it had slid down onto her forehead. She curses in French: her neck is so stiff. Aniela wakes up, too, and draws the shades. The flat winter landscape is strikingly sad. In the distance there are some hamlets, human settlements bathed in a wet gray. Ludwika imagines herself crawling along a large table, like an insect under the attentive gaze of some monstrous entomologist. She shudders and asks Aniela for an apple.
“Where are we?” she asks, looking out the window.
“We have a few hours left,” says Aniela soothingly. She hands her companion one of last year’s wrinkled apples.
The funeral was supposed to take place at La Madeleine. They had already arranged the mass, but in the meantime the body was displayed in the Place Vendôme, where hordes of friends and acquaintances kept coming to pay their respects. Despite the covered windows, the sun kept trying to sneak in to play with the warm colors of the autumn flowers: purple asters, honey-toned chrysanthemum. Inside the candles had exclusive sovereignty, giving the impression that the color of the flowers was profound and succulent, and the face of the deceased not so pale as in daylight.
“The doctor rinsed the heart in a basin, and Ludwika was surprised at how big, shapeless, colorless it was. It barely fit into the jar filled with alcohol, so the doctor advised they get a bigger one. The muscular tissue must not be compressed nor touch the walls of the jar.”
As it turned out, it was going to be difficult to fulfill Fryderyk’s wish that Mozart’s Requiem be played at his funeral. His friends had managed, through their numerous contacts, to assemble the finest musicians and singers, including the best bass singer in Europe, Luigi Lablache—an amusing Italian who could impersonate whomever he wished in a manner found impressive by all. And in fact, on one of the evenings when everyone was awaiting the funeral, he had done such a perfect impersonation of Chopin that the whole company had roared with laughter, not really knowing if they ought to—for the deceased was not yet even underground. But in the end someone said that after all it was really a proof of love and remembrance. And that in that way he would remain with the living for longer. Everyone remembered how Fryderyk could so proficiently and maliciously parody others. One thing was certain: he had been a man of many talents.
In essence, everything got complicated. Women weren’t allowed to perform solos—or even to perform in the choir— at La Madeleine. Such was their age-old tradition: no women. Only men’s voices, at the most the voices of eunuchs (to the Church even a man with no balls is better than a woman, as the situation was summarized by the woman in charge of the sopranos, an Italian singer, Miss Graziella Panini), where were they going to find eunuchs in that day and age, in 1849? How could they sing “Tuba mirum,” then, without the soprano and alto parts? The parish priest at La Madeleine told them that the rules could not be changed, not even for Chopin.
“How long are we supposed to keep the body? Are we going to have to turn, for the love of God, to Rome for an answer?” cried Ludwika, who had been driven to despair.
Because October was quite warm that year, the body was transferred to a chilly morgue. It was overlain with flowers, and it was practically invisible underneath them. It lay in semi darkness, slight, gaunt, heartless; a snow-white shirt concealed the set of not particularly painstaking stitches with which the rib cage had been resealed.
In the meantime the rehearsals continued for Requiem, as well-placed friends of the deceased negotiated delicately with the parish priest. In the end it was decided that the women, the soloists as well as the members of the choir, would stand behind a heavy black curtain, invisible to churchgoers. Only Graziella complained, no one else, but in the end it was decided that in this particular situation such a resolution was still better than none.
While waiting for the funeral, Fryderyk’s close friends came every evening to his sister’s or to George Sand’s to remember him. They would dine together and exchange the latest society gossip.
Those days were strangely peaceful, as though not belonging to the ordinary calendar.
Graziella, petite and dark-complexioned, with a tempest of curly hair, was a friend of Delfina Potocka, and both women had come to visit Ludwika on several occasions. Graziella, sipping liqueur, mocked the baritone and the conductor but was quite happy to speak about herself. As artists always are. She limped with one leg because she had been mauled the previous year in Vienna during the street fighting. The crowd had overturned her carriage, no doubt in the conviction that it contained some wealthy aristocrat rather than an actress. Graziella had a weakness for pricy carriages and an elegant toilette, probably because she came from a family of cobblers in Lombardy.
“Can an actress not travel in a sumptuous carriage? Is it wrong, when one has attained successes, to allow oneself a little pleasure?” she said in her Italian accent, which made it sound like she was stuttering slightly.
Graziella’s misfortune had been to find herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The crowd, with its revolutionary inclinations, not daring to attack the emperor’s palace, which was surrounded by guards, began to ransack his collections. Graziella watched them drag out everything that could be equated, in the mind of the people, with aristocratic decadence, luxury, and cruelty. The raving crowd threw armchairs out of windows, ripped apart settees, tore the high-priced paneling off the walls. With a crash they broke the beautiful crystal mirrors. They destroyed, too, the glass cases containing archaeological treasures. Hurling fossils out onto the sidewalk, they shattered the windowpanes. In no time they had plundered the semiprecious stones; they then took to the skeletons and the stuffed animals. Some sort of spokesman of the people called for all the stuffed humans and other mummies to be given a proper Christian funeral, or at the very least for these proofs of the authorities’ usurpation of the human body to be destroyed. A great pyre was built; they burned everything they came across.
“The body was transferred to a chilly morgue. It was overlain with flowers, and it was practically invisible underneath them. It lay in semi darkness, slight, gaunt, heartless; a snow-white shirt concealed the set of not particularly painstaking stitches with which the rib cage had been resealed.”
The carriage landed in such an unfortunate position that the wires of the crinoline wounded her leg and obviously severed nerves, because the limb was left somewhat lifeless. As she was recounting these dramatic events, she raised her skirt and showed the other ladies her leg, immobilized by a leather sleeve with whalebone, held in place by the hoops that also held up her dress.
“Here’s what crinoline’s good for,” said the singer.
It was the singer’s gesture—whose voice and performance were much appreciated at the funeral mass—that gave Ludwika the idea. That gesture: lifting up the bell-shaped dress and revealing the mystery of the complicated dome that extended along whalebone and the wires of a parasol.
Several thousand people came to the funeral. They had to redirect cab traffic from the route of the procession. All of Paris came to a stop because of the funeral. When they began the “Introitus,” prepared with such diligence, and the voices in the choir struck the vault of the church, people began to cry. The “Requiem aeternam” was very powerful, and everyone was very moved by it, but Ludwika could no longer feel any sadness, having cried it all out already— but she did feel anger. Because what kind of miserable, pathetic world was this, where you die so young—where you die at all? And why him? Why that way? She raised a handkerchief to her eyes, but not to wipe tears, just to be able to clamp down on something as hard as she could, and to cover her eyes, which contained not water, but fire.
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulcra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum
began the bass, Luigi Lablache, so warmly, so plaintively, that her anger abated. Then the tenor came in, and the alto from behind the curtains:
Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur.
Judex ergo cum sedebit
Quidquid latet apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.
Until finally she heard the pure voice of Graziella shooting up like fireworks, like the revelation of her crippled leg, of the naked truth. Graziella sang the best, that was clear, and her voice was only slightly muffled by the curtain; Ludwika imagined the little Italian girl straining, intent, head raised, the veins of her neck swollen—Ludwika had seen her in rehearsals—as she belted out the lyrics in that extraordinary voice of hers, crystal clear, diamond clear, in spite of the heavy curtain, in spite of her leg, to hell with the whole damn world:
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus,
Quem patronum rogaturus . . .
A half hour or so before the border with the Grand Duchy of Poznań, the stagecoach stopped at an inn. There the travelers first freshened up and had a small meal—a little cold baked meat, bread, and fruit—and then they went off and disappeared, much like the other passengers, into the thicket by the side of the road. For a little while they just enjoyed the buttercups in bloom; then Ludwika took from her basket an ample jar with a brown piece of muscle and tucked it away into a cleverly woven leather pouch. Aniela meticulously tied the ends of the leather straps to the scaffolding of the crinoline level with the pubic mound. When the dress fell into place, it would be impossible to tell that such a treasure lay concealed under the surface. Ludwika turned away several times, covered herself up with her dress, and headed back to the carriage. “I wouldn’t get far with this,” she said to her companion. “It’s bashing against my legs.”
But she didn’t have to get far. She returned to her seat and sat straight up, perhaps somewhat stiffly, but she was a lady, the sister of Fryderyk Szopen. She was a Pole.
When the Prussian gendarmerie at the border ordered them to get out of the carriage, when they carefully inspected it to make sure the women weren’t trying to slip something into Congress Poland that might encourage some ridiculous independent inclinations of the Poles, they naturally found nothing.
On the other side of the border, in Kalisz, a carriage sent from the capital was awaiting them, along with several friends. Friends and witnesses to that sad ceremony. In their tailcoats and their top hats, they formed a kind of hedgerow, their faces pale and mournful, their heads turning devotedly toward each package as it was unloaded. But Ludwika, with the help of Aniela, who had been let in on the secret, managed to get away for a moment and extricate the jar from the warm insides of her dress. Aniela, rummaging around in lace, drew out the jar safely and handed it to Ludwika with the gesture of someone handing a mother her newborn child. And then Ludwika burst into tears.
Escorted by several carriages, Chopin’s heart did ultimately make it back to Warsaw.
From Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Olga Tokarczuk. English translation © by Jennifer Croft.