Once a week I send my husband off to work, my little daughter to her playgroup and I get a feeling of elation.
No, it is not because of the few hours of respite from my small but very loud family. It is because this is the time I get to meet up with my friend here in Vicenza.
I met Vanya by pure chance right after the week when I had decided to stop trying to become friends with a local group of expat mums who kept me at arm’s length no matter how polite and nice I was to them. You know the feeling when you move to a new country and your social circle suddenly gets from a carefully cultivated through the years number of people down to a disheartening zero?! That was me last year and I really needed a friend – someone to talk to, discuss the deeper points of life, laugh and even share a bit of gossip with.
So, scarred by my experience with the expat mums and just as I had decided that that was it, that I was not going to bother with female friendships for the foreseeable future, along came Vanya – a fellow Bulgarian in this Northern Italian city of Vicenza which we currently call home.
From the get-go it was a blast. Vanya and I found common ground and it has been over a year now that we keep talking, sharing and interjecting about writing, history, places to visit, current events, and which patisserie makes the best coffee and sweets in town. Ours are always very animated, engaged conversations. So, if you see two women here having coffee, laughing like mad and speaking a weird language, that’s probably us.
Now, the interesting bit is that when we first met, Vanya had just finished the first draft of her first book which was to be published by none other but Oxford University Press. The book, told me Vanya, was about Marie von Clausewitz. Never to pretend that I know more than I actually do, I looked at her and said: ‘Ah, OK! Sorry, but I have never heard of this lady!’
And it is quite amazing really, as not only now I know a lot about Marie, but I have come to be convinced that she is a woman who every woman needs to know about. You know how behind every great man there is a great woman?! That’s Marie for you.
Her husband, the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote the seminal work ‘On War’. Originally published almost 200 years ago, it is still one of the (if not THE) most important books on military strategy ever written. Its concepts have been adapted and applied in practice by a medley of historically important figures like the American general Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Chairman of PRC Mao Zedong, so different in their approaches to the world and humanity that it is really crazy to see them using the same book as a point of reference. Nowadays ‘On War’ is part of the curriculum of military schools and academia all over the world and a point of departure for historians, strategists and everyone who would like to understand the mechanisms of war both in the past and the present.
Believe it or not, ‘On War’ may have never happened, had it not been for Marie – the highly educated and perspicacious German aristocrat who married the young Clausewitz and remained devoted to him all through his short life. Still, until recently only very little was known about Marie and her important role in Carl’s life and work.
And here comes Vanya.
Speaker of German and English, an established TV and press journalist in Bulgaria and with a Master’s degree in Military History, a lucky chance helped her come across the full correspondence between Carl von Clausewitz and his wife. Hundreds of fragile, centuries-old letters filled with spidery handwriting and revealing the full story of their romantic relationship and intellectual partnership. Letters which have always been considered long lost.
The deciphering of these priceless historical artefacts took a long arduous time, with Vanya carefully decoding each word in German, translating the full correspondence in English and using it as a basis for her book. A completely new picture emerged. As it turned out, Marie was not a silent background figure as long it had been thought, but a highly intelligent partner who inspired Carl’s work, informed his opinions and after his death was instrumental for the collating, editing and publishing of ‘On War’.
Vanya shows me a page filled with illegible to me handwriting. This is all Carl’s work, his notes, which after his death were organised and edited by Marie. ‘See here!’, Vanya points a tiny remark scribbled in the margin. ‘In Marie’s handwriting it says: ‘War is a mere continuation of politics by other means!’, she excitedly tells me.
In other words, Carl von Clausewitz’s most famous postulate could have actually been borne by the hand of his devoted wife.
Over the course of the past year, as Vanya had been working on her book, I came to learn a lot about Carl and Marie. I got to call them by their first names, such is Vanya’s infectious enthusiasm for their lives and achievements. I am also a silent, distant witness to the creative process which consumes all of her time – rounds of editing her manuscript, the publishing of the hardcover book, the articles she writes to promote it, the glowing reviews in prestigious journals and publications.
And then the moment when military historians, strategists and theorists realised what a groundbreaking work Vanya’s book is. How it throws a strong beam of light on the historical facts surrounding the creation of ‘On War’, how it redefines established assumptions.
Nowadays Vanya is very busy – accepting awards and giving lectures across two continents. She is still part of my Vicenza and my life in Italy though, so during one of our meetings I told her: ‘I need to interview you for my blog, about your creative process and writing in Italy.’ And then I reminded her of a little anecdote she had told me when we first met: how when she and her husband were looking for a place to rent in Vicenza and their options were a city centre flat or out of town apartment in a remodeled villa, her husband told her that every writer should have the experience of writing in an Italian villa. I am curious to know how her creative process was helped by the country we currently live in and, happily, she agrees to be featured here.
So, this is the interview we made. It is very enjoyable to read with many anecdotes, deep striking thoughts and some practical tips for writers woven in. And it reveals Vanya just as I got to know her – open, friendly, knowledgeable and a really great person to spend time with.
You can get ‘Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War’ by Vanya Eftimova Bellinger here.
First things first! Please, introduce yourself.
My name is Vanya Eftimova Bellinger. I am a journalist and a writer. Born and raised in small-town Bulgaria but then, at age 25, I moved to Berlin, Germany. After a few years living a crazy life in Europe’s hipster capital, I met my husband, who is an American. We moved to the States for a couple of years. Now we are back in Europe, for the time being. I guess, you can say that I am from everywhere and belong nowhere…
How did you come to write a book which is both about a deep love connection and an intellectual partnership? Moreover on a topic which is so closely related to war?
I’ve always been curious about the world around me, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I started working as a reporter in high school. I always wanted to work on a longer format, a book, but for a very long time I just couldn’t find a story to devote my time and energy to. Then I heard the story of Marie and Carl von Clausewitz’s extraordinary marriage. Clausewitz is the West’s foremost military theorist and his seminal treatise, On War, is at the heart of modern military doctrine. However, Clausewitz actually died before publishing it and the task of fulfilling his life work fell on his widow, Marie. Yet, as I discovered, no-one had ever studied her role in depth.
I speak German and know my way around libraries and archives. Thereby I decided to do some research on the subject. In the summer of 2012, while on vacation in Europe, I visited different archives in Berlin. The archivists showed me just a few documents, some of them not even related to Marie. All in all, it was very disappointing. Yet they also promised that if something were to appear someday, they would let me know. Fast forward to December 2012 when I got an overly excited email from the Prussian State Privy Archives informing me that an aristocratic family has deposited their archives and the dusty boxes contained the complete love correspondence between Marie and Carl previously thought to be lost. In a way, my book found me.
Then, while we were getting ready to move to Italy, Oxford University Press-USA learned that I am working on Marie’s biography. So between packing boxes and getting our cat vaccinated, I also wrote a book proposal. A few days later, the publishing house offered me a book deal. It was crazy. I never thought it would happen so quickly. We were still living in a hotel, still trying to get used to the major change that is starting a life in a new country, and now I had to finish my manuscript within nine months. But things worked out and now my book, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War, is out.
Where in Italy do you live and how long have you been living here?
We have been living in Vicenza since May 2014. So many things have happened that sometimes I feel I’ve been here forever.
Which are your favourite places and sights in Italy inspiring your creative process?
When my brother visited me for the first time, he was perplexed: “How come that the Italians, as we think them chaotic, often tardy, radically individualistic and on top of that having such a turbulent, violent history, have built all this?” And if you look around, Italy and Italian art and architecture are just incredible. You go in the smallest village and you still find so much beauty.
This question made me think long and hard. I came to realize that the rest of the world got it all wrong. We believe that we have to wait to achieve some level of stability, peace, and wealth and only then start creating great things. This tranquility and order, we think, should give rise to magnificent works of art. But if you study Italian history, the time of the greatest artistic explosion, the Renaissance, was also an incredibly turbulent and violent period. Michelangelo worked through the Florentine Republic’s bloody upheavals and channeled all his conflicting feelings about the Reformation and the growing brutality in Europe in the Last Judgement.
So I learned from Italy, first and foremost, that one should always find time for beauty and creativity. Don’t wait for some imaginary time of ultimate peace and happiness to start enjoying art and culture because it would never come. Indeed, in a turbulent world full of upheavals, just as it was for Michelangelo, one could find peace and fulfillment through creativity.
This was really perceptive and so applicable to the times we live in! How Italy is different from other places you have lived in and wrote about?
Italy has its rhythm and Vicenza as a mid-sized city also possesses its very own, peculiar one. In the morning, people go for coffee. Most of the businesses close at lunch for riposo (Note by Rossi: a three-hour long break). Stores shut down by 7:30 pm. On Sundays people walk around the town in their most stylish clothing.
In the beginning, I was really annoyed when I went to the bank at 2pm and it was closed. But once I learned the rhythm, I came to enjoy it. I think that this slower, steadier pace is better for a writer. The first thing everyone who’s written a book tells you is that you have to have a routine. Rookies tend to think that they should write as much as they can, as fast as they can, but this is the surest way to overwork yourself and hit the blockage. The trick is to work steady and regularly, every day. Finish a certain amount of words, then get a rest, and do the same tomorrow. The life in Italy, with its daily rituals, helps you keep this routine.
Usually I write from morning to about 3pm, then go out, see people or run some errands. The predictability of life and the slower pace make it easier to keep this routine.
Any advice you would like to give to people trying to make it as a writer/author and how Italy can help them get inspired?
Embrace the country and explore as much as you can. There is a reason why so many great books are written about and in Italy. It’s a country that is so diverse, dynamic but yet upholding its traditions, incredibly beautiful but also with incredibly confusing bureaucracy, its people lovable although often not easy to comprehend. It’s a place where a writer gets so much food for thought, so many storylines and ideas.
Even if you don’t write about Italy, in particular, the traces of Italian culture will be all over your texts: the attention to detail, the joy of life, the search for beauty, the exploration of deeper meaning, and the complex questions of what makes us human, happy, and content.
People around the world like to read stories about Italy, Italian way of life, Italian cuisine. Maybe because they dream to travel, live for extended period or retire one day here. Anyway, Italian pieces are very popular in the US media. Yet, I find that for an article on Italy to work, the writer has to do his homework and think about the complex context. So don’t compile just a couple of colorful details about pizza, loud neighbors, and crazy traffic. Dig deeper and tell us why things happen the way they do, why in our society they are different, how the modernity is challenging the tradition, etc. The topic really allows it because when imagining Italy, people think about history, culture, beauty and they generally want to hear more. Ultimately, every writer studies the human condition, in its various appearances, missteps, challenges. And Italy is the perfect country to observe how complex is the way we live, think, operate.
One more practical advice is to get a press ID card. If you are not a long time journalist, you can become a member of various professional organizations that also accept freelance writers and they will issue you an ID. Most museums in Italy are free when you show a press card. It will save you a ton of money.
Many thanks, Vanya, for your time and your beautiful and inspiring words! Good luck with your writing and I can’t wait to see what’s next for you.
Vanya Eftimova Bellinger is the winner of 2016 Society of Military History Moncado Prize for the article “The Other Clausewitz: Findings from the Newly Discovered Correspondence between Marie and Carl von Clausewitz” (The Journal of Military History, April 2015).
You can listen to her presentation ‘Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War’ given on 26th January 2016 at Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago, USA here. You can also follow Vanya on Twitter at @vanyaef.