A Difficult Lover and an Anti-Communist

A Difficult Lover and an Anti-Communist


“Marek asked me to come and tell you that he loves you.” The young Polish writer Marek Hlasko took German actress Sonja Ziemann’s breath away when he turned up on the film set of Eighth Day of the Week in Wroclaw in 1956. He didn’t speak a word of her language; he found a go-between and refused to give up. Soon they were together.

Sonja and Marek in the tourist village of Kazimierz, not long after meeting

Sonja and Marek in the tourist village of Kazimierz, not long after meeting

It’s a story I would like to have written, as a fly on the wall, for all that was at stake, politically and artistically as well as emotionally. After the war the big industrial city in Poland’s west was a hotbed of avant-garde cinema. Director Aleksander Ford was adapting Hlasko’s novella of postwar working class life that had been a runaway success. But the country was Communist, with an official ideology, and the authorities weren’t happy. They demanded Ford tone down the hopelessness that thwarted the young lovers in Eighth Day. Crumbling apartments and drunks littering the streets didn’t belong to the Communist dream. Ziemann’s seedy agent, who fancied his own chances with the doll-like actress, wasn’t keen on Hlasko either and so concerted efforts were made to keep the author off the set. But Hlasko’s mind was made up from the moment he saw Germany’s answer to Audrey Hepburn. And so an ideological struggle turned into a personal one.

Ziemann’s memoirs, published in German in 1998 as Ein Morgen gibt es immer (There’s Always a Tomorrow), richly document Hlasko’s tragic short life. Her understanding is limited. She loves him too much. Nor does her hugely detailed account of her fifty-year career cast light on her own character. Devoted to her own career, and to her son by her first marriage, she nevertheless becomes lover, wife and helpmate to a man driven by aggression and passion and fuelled by drink. He hits her, smashes the furniture, demands to know how she can have ‘left me four times’. The memoirs are a nightmare. The relationship lasts on and off thirteen years, until Hlasko’s death from an overdose of barbiturates in 1969.

Hlasko’s fiction, which packs such a punch, is better read in ignorance of what happened to the author. As a critic I’m not keen on the biographical approach to the text. But for me as a writer of fiction Hlasko and Ziemann are both stories in their own right.

Hlasko was effectively turned out of his native Poland by the Communists he then hated for the rest of his life. They played a trick on him when he landed abroad and wasn’t allowed back. His first problem was how to earn his living and his second who to be. In Poland he had done manual work since his mid-teens and all the material for his fiction came from what in 1991 the German news magazine Stern would call “proletarian sadness in the midst of the workers’ paradise.” Ousted from that tense, coercive, downtrodden postwar east bloc, he had nothing else to write about. As Sonja put it: “A prosperous democratic society with a social safety net had nothing to offer him as a writer.” The study the Ziemanns created for him in their upmarket townhouse in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district remained a study in name only. It was the place where he wrote nothing. Though talked of in connection with a Nobel Prize (as Sonja reported), Hlasko spent his first years in the West days drunk and displaced, an airless existence with little pockets of intense personal happiness in between.

Together: an attempt at a public image

Together: an attempt at a public image

When he took the chance to go to Israel in 1959 (nothing to do with religion, he was a Roman Catholic) he thought he was going to work on a newspaper but ended up labouring for a pittance in the desert. Worse still, when he came back to West Germany, the public thought this husband of one of Germany’s most successful and glamorous actresses was indulging in champagne socialism, reverting to work as a bricklayer. Hlasko was not only trapped in an image he couldn’t get out of. Labouring was also the only economic reality open to him, for as long as he couldn’t support himself with writing. Evidently he felt some affinity too. He was a macho man, a body-builder, and saw his writing almost as an accident.

They eventually got married on 20 February 1961 at Caxton Hall in London. Sonja, having broken off the engagement before, was now routinely feeding Marek anti-alcoholism pills as part of the standard treatment then. After each pill he would kiss her hand. But no sooner were they happy than history dealt them another blow, when the Berlin Wall was suddenly erected, on 13 August 1961. Hlasko may not have done much writing there, but Berlin was finally his new home. He fitted well in the family and was a friend to Sonja’s father and now eight-year-old Pierre. But Communism reaching west destroyed that security too, and the whole family fled to Munich, in the far south of Germany, to feel safer.

I’m portraying Hlasko as a homebird, which he wasn’t at all. He often took off. In Munich he had Polish compatriots working at the American anti-Communist propaganda station Radio Free Europe who became his drinking friends. If stimulant addiction always loomed, so did a fondness for women. Filming in Paris Hlasko had an affair with his director’s wife which seriously threatened his marriage. “You are like a clear stream for me, that cleanses me,” he said, trying to hold on to a jealous Sonja, before and after a major overdose. Between March 1963 and March 1965 he spent 242 days in a clinic.

Tragedy befell Sonja. While she was away filming, a quack paediatrician over-immunized her son against polio, and then disappeared when the boy developed symptoms.  As she wrote, summing up their marriage years later: “To be Marek’s wife was an all-consuming task which I was not up to after my child fell seriously ill.” In fact Hlasko seems to have taken off for the United States when he could no longer be Sonja’s priority. Of course, the offer to work as a screenwriter for Roman Polanski wasn’t something to pass up lightly, but it led to an estrangement, and officially to a divorce, although inevitably Sonja and Marek were together again, and again …

His death in 1969 was quickly followed by Pierre’s the following year. Marek had been thirty-four, Pierre not quite seventeen.

Sonja, bildhübsch, pretty as a picture, played Eliza Doolittle in the German stage version of My Fair Lady and was the all-dancing, all-singing star of many, many film, theater and tv productions besides. She was Blanche in the first German production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  Meanwhile her husband the James-Dean-lookalike (an image he enjoyed), may have been an arch-manipulator, but no Pole of his day wrote like that. As Sonja said, he was a very conservative man in private life (which meant he was irrationally jealous of her). Somehow his Catholic faith survived a lifetime in which he treated his own flesh abominably and hers not well either. He had a difficult, more or less estranged relationship with his mother, which Sonja tried to make good. Out of this, despite it, came literature no one else could have written, like Killing the Second Dog.

Evidently it was the time in Israel that gave him the background for that novella, but you can probably see there too, set against the desert background and the torturous immigrant life, something of Hlasko’s happy relationship with Sonja and Pierre. Pierre in particular is the young son of a mother without a husband and who needs a father to idealize. Hlasko himself is suspended between confidence trickster, true lover and an exile who just needs to survive, from job to job, country to country.

These, if you like, are the bonus stories that hover in the background of the published work.


This post is courtesy of Lesley Chamberlain, British journalist and novelist, who wrote the Introduction to Killing the Second Dog. You can read this post and many more at


A Discussion with Julita Mirkowicz, wife of Hlasko translator Tomasz Mirkowicz

Julita Mirkowicz translated various works of American literature into Polish, including Being There by Jerzy Kosinski and several novels by Paul Auster. She is also the wife of the late Tomasz Mirkowicz, who translated two books by the Polish writer Marek Hlasko. Killing the Second Dog was published by New Vessel Press in March 2014. In December 2014, New Vessel Press will be publishing another of Hlasko’s novels, All Backs Were Turned.

Born in Warsaw in 1953, Mirkowicz translated into Polish the works of Ken Kesey, George Orwell, Jerzy Kosinski, Harry Matthews, Robert Coover, Alan Sillitoe and Charles Bukowski, among others. He was also a fiction writer and critic, and the recipient of the Literatura Na Świecie Award for Best Prose Translation of 1987; the Polish Translators’ Association Award for Best Prose Translation of 1988 and the FA-ART Short Story Contest Winner (1994). Tomasz Mirkowicz died of cancer in 2003.

How did Tomasz learn English?

Tomek’s father worked in the Ministry of Commerce. In the 1960s he was sent to Egypt as a trade representative. The whole family—father, mother & Tomasz—spent 4 years in Cairo. Tomasz attended the Cairo American College, which was actually a grammar school.

In 1967 or ’68 they returned to Poland. Tomasz went to a high school where knowledge of English was obligatory (some of the classes were held in English). After high school he studied for one semester at Politechnika Warszawska, The Warsaw University of Technology, in the Department of Power and Aeronautical Engineering, but he decided that instead of learning how to build planes he preferred reading books. So in 1972 he passed his exams and became a student at the English Institute at Warsaw University.  In 1977, he wrote his M.A. thesis on the fiction of Robert Coover.  In 1980 he began his PhD studies, then took a break. Tomek resumed his PhD studies one year before his death and almost completed his thesis on the novels of Harry Mathews.

How did he first get into translation?

As a student Tomasz took part in a competition organized by the Polish Writers Union and a popular literary monthly Literatura na ŚwiecieLiterature in the World. A select group of beginning translators from different languages, with about 15 people working in English, were then taught the art of translation by older translators. These “lessons” lasted for about half a year and later they were continued by a well-known translator who took a group of us under her care. We met with her once a week for about 4 hours, for 3-4 years.

Tomasz translated some great American authors. Did he always choose writers who were close to his heart, or was his choice of translations more a result of what the publishing houses were interested in?

Both. Beginners can’t be picky. But Tomek always knew what he wanted to translate. At that time there were just a few publishing houses in Poland that published translations, and about 10 books from the English language appeared from each. However, Polish money could not be converted into foreign currency, so there was no way to pay the authors. The only way was for the author to come to Poland and spend his zlotys here. Many did come, encouraged by Tomek, who made friends easily. He organized many of their trips. I forgot to mention that we went to the States a few times – in 1981 and 1986. Both of us had USIA grants and we travelled all over the US. And in 1991 Tomek received a one-year scholarship from the Kosciuszko Foundation. Many brilliant American writers and poets were our friends.


Translator Tomasz Mirkowicz

When did he dare (because it is quite a daring thing) to translate for the first time into English, as opposed to into Polish?

Steve Schrader, the first publisher of Hlasko and owner of the now defunct Cane Hill Press, came to Poland with his elderly, but extremely vivacious father. If I remember correctly, his father wanted to find his Polish roots. I’m not sure who gave Steve our phone number. But Steve called Tomek, they met and of course instantly became friends. Tomek never before thought of translating anything into English. But Steve started asking questions about Polish writers (“Who would you, Tomek, translate?”) and eventually asked him to do one of Hlasko’s novels. It was a gentleman’s agreement, just a handshake, no contracts. Steve said he’d pay Tomek and either publish Hlasko or not, depending on whether he liked the book. He did, and he published it. And then he asked for another novel by Hlasko. Tomek also translated a third book for Steve, Robot, by the science fiction writer Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg, which however never appeared in English. I’m not sure whether Steve didn’t like it or if by that time he had already decided to close his publishing business.

Tomek was not only a translator, but also a literary critic and a writer. He published one underground novel during the martial law period in the early 1980s. He followed that with a collection of stories – lipograms – with each story missing a letter. In the first there is no “A,” in the second no ‘B” and so on. Tomek’s third book was set in Egypt …

What was Tomasz like as a person, and do you see that come through in his work?

Tomek was considered one the best translators of English & American literature into Polish. He was incredibly intelligent, had vast knowledge in different fields, was extremely well read and loved reading. At the same time he was funny, sometimes shy, sometimes (but only sometimes!) humble. He was also very outgoing. He loved meeting new people and seeing friends. He helped many younger translators—he checked their work, made suggestions and corrections, etc.—and he loved cats. He loved to travel. He loved Egypt, and Africa (we visited Ghana, Togo, The Gambia). He loved literature, art (he used to paint and sculpt). He was not too interested in sports, and not too interested in music. I don’t think his personality traits are visible in his translations, but they are visible in the books that he wrote – especially his incredible imagination and knowledge.

What was his process like?

He was a night person. He slept late and worked mostly in the evenings and at night. And usually he’d wait until the deadline was close – then he’d gather speed and energy.

Was he always a translator?

Yes, he started translating as a student and just kept going. He stopped about 5-7 years before his death and started writing his own stuff. About two years before he died, Tomek was asked to teach American literature classes at the English Institute, which he did with a passion up until December 2002.

Finally, what about your life as a translator? How did you begin translating?

As a child I spent four and a half years in Canada, then four and a half years in India as a teenager. I finished high school in New Delhi and completed one year of college there. Then I studied English and American Literature at the English Institute at Warsaw University. That’s where Tomasz and I met. I started translating as a student for Literatura Na Świecie and just kept going. I don’t know why I started. Maybe because at first it was a challenge. Later it became a passion.

Who were some of “your” authors?

I translated, among others, John Gardner (The King’s Indian); Peter de Vries (Glory of the Humming Bird); William Gaddis (Carpenter’s Gothic); D.H. Lawrence; James Dickey (Deliverance); Dashiell Hammett; Donna Leon; Winston Groom (Forrest Gump Gump and Company); Ken Kesey (The Last Go Round); Toni Morrison (Jazz).

Memorable ones?

Favorites: Probably Gaddis, Kesey, Kosinski – because they were friends of ours.

Most difficult: Gaddis, Morrison.

Most fun: Winston Groom.

Least favorite:  An old science fiction novel by Henry Kuttner called Time Trap.

Christine Shuttleworth, Translator, on Fanny von Arnstein

Christine Shuttleworth is the translator of Fanny von Arnstein: Daughter of the Enlightenment, which was published by New Vessel Press in 2013. Christine’s mother, Hilde Spiel, was the author of Fanny and the grand dame of Austrian letters; her father, Peter de Mendelssohn, was a German writer. Here, Christine reflects on how she got her start as a translator, and what it’s like when the author is also your mother.

By Christine ShuttleworthChristine Shuttleworth, Translator

When my mother, Hilde Spiel, asked me to undertake the translation into English of her biography of the eighteenth-century social and literary hostess Fanny von Arnstein, it was entirely thanks to her encouragement and confidence in me that I went ahead with the challenging task. From my London home, I sent her my work by post, chapter by chapter, along with endless lists of factual and stylistic queries, which she promptly answered from her apartment in Vienna with her unvarying professionalism. I found I enjoyed the task immensely, finding it much more rewarding than if the text had been by an author unknown to me.

These were the days before email, and I can’t help thinking how much more quickly the work would have proceeded if we had been able to take advantage of the technology we all rely on so much today. My translation of Fanny von Arnstein, Hilde Spiel’s favorite among all her books, was eventually published in England in 1991, a few months after her death.

My previous experience of professional translation had been minimal. An early attempt (at my father’s suggestion) at translating Lenz, an unfinished novella by Georg Büchner, was dismissed by him as inadequate. I had not read the story before, and in fairness to myself it was perhaps rather ambitious for a novice to attempt the translation of such a complex and imaginative piece of prose.

Thus, Fanny was my first full-length translation from German, and it gave me incentive to pursue a career as a literary translator. This was something I had never considered before, although I had had a good knowledge of German from my childhood: my parents had emigrated to England in 1936 and spoke a mixture of German and English at home, and we had spent two years in Berlin after the war, where my mother was employed as a theatre critic and my father, Peter de Mendelssohn, worked for the Control Commission for Germany. He later became a biographer of Winston Churchill and Thomas Mann.

Both in Berlin and in London, the two cities where I spent my early years, my parents would often begin a sentence in one language and end it in another, or insert an English word into a German sentence, or vice versa. They spoke to each other and to my younger brother and me in the same way, presumably keen that we should become equally fluent in both languages. This worked better for my brother than for me. Somewhat inhibited and lacking in confidence as a child, when addressed in German I would invariably reply in English. I knew that any error I made in German would immediately be corrected by my parents, and I hated to be corrected.

I have been asked what it was like to grow up with such literary parents. I think most small children accept whatever situation they find themselves growing up in, and cannot envisage any other. My schoolfriends, visiting me at home, would marvel at the number of books shelved in the living room, but to me, being surrounded by books was the norm. A house without books was unimaginable to me. Of course I had thoughts of becoming a writer myself, but never managed to produce any creative writing of particular merit – perhaps the standard set by my parents’ work was discouragingly high.

After leaving university, I worked in a series of publishing houses as an editorial assistant, first on books and then on magazines. While working at the London publishers Thames & Hudson, I was asked to translate some passages of German text for a book of images of London by Oskar Kokoschka, a task I achieved without too much difficulty.

From book publishing I moved into the world of periodicals, and it was then that, almost by chance, I took up indexing. I was working on an art and antiques magazine, which had never been indexed. The publisher appointed me to the task of producing an index, not caring that I had had no experience in this craft. In my lunch hour, I was wandering in the Fleet Street area of London, close to my office, when I came across St Bride Library in Bride Lane. This is a library primarily devoted to printing, book arts, typography and graphic design. I looked for books on indexing and came across Indexing, The Art of, by G. Norman Knight.  This wonderful, entertaining as well as instructive manual aroused my enthusiasm for indexing. I later bought my own copy, which I still treasure (it is now out of print). With its help I managed to produce a reasonably serviceable index to the art and antiques magazine.

After this I joined the Society of Indexers and gradually built up a clientele, so that eventually I had enough work to take the step of becoming self-employed as a professional indexer. I still had no thought of becoming a literary translator until my mother convinced me that it was within my capabilities.

Some years after the original publication of my translation of Fanny into English, I decided to translate my mother’s memoirs, which were first published in two volumes by Ullstein in Germany: the first, Die hellen und die finsteren Zeiten, in 1989 and the second, Welche Welt ist meine Welt?, in 1990, the year of her death. This time I felt even more personally involved than with the earlier book, for the subject was even closer to my heart. As I wrote in my Introduction to the new translation (which was published in one volume, as The Dark and the Bright: Memoirs 1911-1989 by Ariadne Press in Riverside, California, in 2007): “I found myself deeply regretting the fact that I could no longer consult her whenever I hesitated over a phrase or reference which was obscure to me.” Without the experience of her sympathetic guidance and counsel when I was translating Fanny, I can’t imagine that I would have undertaken this second labor of love.

“Her place of birth”, Hilde Spiel wrote of her heroine, “was a Europe torn by the battles of kings, by the uprisings of nations, by war and revolution.” Like Fanny von Arnstein, her biographer lived in turbulent times of national and international upheaval and, like her, acquitted herself “with grace, spirit and dignity.” I imagine that if they had lived in the same era, they might have been close friends.

I still find pleasure in both tasks – indexing and translation – and cannot say which I prefer. What the two apparently disparate occupations have in common is, of course, that both are ancillary processes, designed to give the reader an additional way of approaching the text. The task of the indexer is to provide a key to the book, to make it more accessible to the reader, while that of the translator is to convey another writer’s style and content as closely as possible in the words of another language. The advice of T S Eliot in Little Gidding, to my mind, expresses the creative responsibility of the translator as much as it does that of the author:

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together.

One task I have found particularly interesting as a translator is that of rendering the vocabulary and turns of phrase of earlier eras. I like to think that, as a result of wide reading in my youth, I have acquired an ear for vocabulary, grammar and phraseology and can manage to produce a passable version of the foreign text as it might have been translated in the same period, or where appropriate a period-neutral version (to coin a term) which at least avoids jarring stylistic and verbal anachronisms.

Fanny von Arnstein provided a particular challenge in this respect, as many 18th-century German sources are quoted, and I enjoyed rendering them in what I hope and believe to be an acceptable style, without either glaringly anachronistic or unnecessarily archaic phraseology. Here is one example, from Chapter 7, “The High Priest’s Blessing” (Der Segen des Hohepriesters), which may also serve as an introduction to our heroine. It is taken from a letter written by a young Bavarian visitor to Vienna. First, the original:

“Die Baronin von Arnsteiner, oder wie man sie hier im allgemeinen nennt, die Fanny, ist eine Frau von einigen und 30 Jahren und von Geburt eine Berlinerin. Sie ist eine Tochter des wegen seines Reichtums, seiner Wohltätigkeit und redlichen Gesinnungen bekannten jüdischen Handelsmannes Itzig; er war ein aufgeklärter Mann, im guten Sinne des Wortes, Beweisthümer seiner hellen Denkart, die ihn über die großen Vorurtheile seines Volks und der damaligen noch geringen Kultur desselben erhoben, sind die Erziehung und Bildung, die er seinen Kindern gab. Jede der Itzig’schen Töchter ward mit so vieler Sorgfalt erzogen, genoß in allen Fächern der Sprachen und Wissenschaften einen so reichlichen Unterricht, daß sie, wenn es Wille des Schicksals gewesen wäre, den Stand der Fürstinnen nicht verunziert haben würden. Urtheilen Sie hieraus, wie angenehm man in diesem Hause sein muß, wo die Frau desselben den guten Ton und die mit diesem gesellschaftlichen Vorzug befreundeten Tugenden in sich vereinigt. Sie hat Verstand und Charakter und wird nur selten, wie andere ihres Geschlechtes, von Launen tyrannisiert.”

And here is my version:

“Baroness von Arnsteiner, or Fanny, as she is generally called here, is a woman of several-and-thirty years, and by birth a Berliner. She is a daughter of the Jewish businessman Itzig, known for his wealth, his philanthropy and honest disposition; he was an enlightened man, in the good sense of the word; evidence of his clear-sightedness, which lifted him above the great prejudices of his people and their, at that time, still meager culture, are the education and upbringing that he gave his children. Each of the Itzig daughters was educated with so much care, and enjoyed such abundant instruction in all branches of languages and sciences, that, had it been the will of fate, they would not have disgraced the rank of princesses. Judge from this how pleasant it must be in this house, whose mistress unites in herself good breeding and the virtues associated with this social advantage. She has good sense and character and is only seldom enslaved by her moods as are others of her sex.”

Seeing the book in print again has been a moving personal experience for me. It is certainly my mother’s best book as well as the one dearest to her heart. I hope I have done justice to it and to her.

Arts Fuse reviews Killing the Second Dog

Troy Pozirekides at The Arts Fuse gives lengthy treatment of Killing the Second Dog, calling it “captivating as a stormy sea.” To read the full review, visit:


Some Day Makes Three Different “Best of 2013” Lists!

We’re very pleased to announce that Some Day by Shemi Zarhin has appeared on several lists of Best Books of the Year for 2013!

Praising the “lovable cast of characters” and “cinematic details, wry humor, and masterfully interwoven stories of love, lust, and magic,” World Literature Today, Words without Borders, and Tweed’s Magazine all placed Some Day on their list of the best books from 2013.

The Missing Year named one of The New Republic’s Best Books

The New Republic has named The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal one of the Best Books!

“Narration and evocation perform a savory duet in the Argentine novelist Pedro Mairal’s story of an idiosyncratic artist’s immense autobiographical murals and a son’s quietly impassioned efforts to do justice to his late father and his work. This surefooted exploration of the painter as a quixotic dreamer gives a South American twist to Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, with the seventeenth-century Parisian genius of the Frenchman’s classic tale replaced by a twentieth-century Argentine provincial whose work has come to the attention of a major European museum. Mairal’s quickening prose moves from the ordinary to the opulent and back again without skipping a beat. The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierrea will surely leave some readers thinking of Henry James’s tragicomic accounts of the artist’s life,” writes art critic Jed Perl.

Read the whole article and see the entire list here.

World Literature Today’s Notable Translations of 2013

Some Day by Shemi Zarhin and The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal were both recognized by World Literature Today on their list of Notable Translations of 2013!

The magazine, which has done interviews with translators Yardenne Greenspan (Some Day) and Nick Caistor (The Missing Year) in the past, called these books some the most exciting publications of the year.

Click here to see the entire list.