Ersi Sotiropoulos, author of What’s Left of the Night, discusses her book about C.P. Cavafy with Wall Street Journal literary critic Sam Sacks on Wednesday, April 24, 7 p.m. at Strand Books in New York City.
We’ve organized several readings from Italian writer Anna Maria Ortese’s seminal collection Neapolitan Chronicles, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee. Below please find a schedule below.
It’s Banned Books Week, and we’ve put together a little reading guide featuring books from New Vessel Pressand a few other great indie presses who publish literature from around the world, including Open Letter, Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum, Grove Atlantic, and Bellevue Literary Press. We’ve included works by authors whose work has been repressed by both hard and soft means: sometimes, a book doesn’t have to be put on an official “Do not publish” list to disappear from discourse. Quite often books, or authors, are simply ignored, newspapers are pressured not to review certain works, or authors are forced to flee their homelands or face severe repercussions, though all “unofficially.” This expansive understanding of “Banned Books Week” allows us to widen our perspective and think about what it means to muffle voices of dissent inside a country, or culture. We hope you’ll choose a few of these books and give them a read. They’re not only insights into foreign cultures and disturbing histories, they’re also, quite simply, very enjoyable literature.
You can download the guide here and share it with friends. Thank you!
Can be viewed here:
Salvatore Settis, author of the much acclaimed book If Venice Dies, will be embarking on a U.S. tour, with stops in Providence, Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
Tuesday, October 25, 7 p.m.
Brown University lecture; Providence, R.I.
Thursday, October 27, 3-4 p.m.
Library of Congress; Washington, D.C.
Sunday, October 30, 2 p.m.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Irma and Herbert Barness Lecture
Monday, October 31, 4 p.m.
Conversation with author and journalist Alexander Stille at NYU Casa Italiana, New York City
Tuesday, November 1, 12 p.m.
92nd Street Y, New York City
Wednesday, Nov. 2, 6-7:30 p.m.
Bard Graduate Center, New York City
The Protection of Cultural Heritage in Italy: A Short History and Some Current Issues
Saturday, Nov. 5 – 2 p.m.
Museum Lecture Hall, The Getty Center, Los Angeles
Click here to download our catalogue for 2016-17, featuring works from around the globe.
You speak about it a bit in the book, but could you tell us the impetus for The Last Supper?
For many years I’d been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the collapse of the peace negotiations in 2000 the Second Intifada began. I reported from the Palestinian side and it became clear from talking to Christian Palestinians that a shift had taken place in the struggle for Palestinian nationhood.
Palestinian Christians had always been a crucial part of the nationalist movement. The Palestinian cause was about culture, history, and language before religion, which meant the both Christians and Muslims could partake in this endeavor.
However, from 2000 the definition of being Palestinian shifted and Islam became more and more the main denominator. This meant the Palestinian Christians began to feel like strangers in their own land. On top of that the methods in combatting the Israelis also shifted to include suicide bombings, which Palestinian Christians did not want to be a part of. Hence, they where looked upon by many militant, Islamic Palestinians as traitors to the cause. Thousands of Palestinian Christians began to emigrate. They felt trapped between the Israeli military on the one side and the militant Palestinian Islamic fundamentalists on the other. Christians in Bethlehem told me that if the level of emigration continued at this pace, Bethlehem would be emptied of Christians within a few decades. I knew this had to be an enormous story in the West, that the birth place of Christ was being abandoned by Christians. However, the story never really got much attention. This puzzled me.
I also learned about Christians leaving other Arab countries. In 2006, for instance, it was mentioned that two thirds of the Christians in Iraq had fled the country following the Iraq War. Churches were being bombed, Christians kidnapped, priests killed and whole Christian neighborhoods in the two biggest cities, Mosul and Baghdad, ethnically cleansed. This too failed to create a big media story in the West, despite the fact that the Christian community in Iraq is one of the oldest in the world.
When Copts in Egypt became the target of persecution after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and began to leave by the thousands, I wrote an open letter in my newspaper, the Danish weekly Weekendavisen, calling upon the new Danish foreign minister to arrange a meeting with ambassadors from the Muslim countries and ask them how they were going to protect the Christian minorities in their countries. He never answered. I decided that it was time to pay the Christians a visit in the Arab countries and ask why so many were leaving.
What was the most difficult part about covering this story? Were you ever in danger?
I’m certainly not a reporter who would head for danger if I could avoid it, but there were a couple of dramatic situations. In Cairo for instance I went to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, with a Christian, female journalist. In one of the backstreets we were accosted by thirty or forty teenage boys who looked as if they hadn’t slept for days and were on the verge of running amok.
Tahrir Square has become notorious for the mistreatment, harassment and raping of women–three women had been stripped nude by a major crowd the day before our encounter–which is why women at that time more or less stayed away from the square unless they were completely covered up. The boys that encircled us began to harass the woman who, being a Christian, refused to wear a headscarf. We were completely outmatched, but she managed to talk her way out of the crisis and we were able to get away shaken, but unharmed. After that she said: “Don’t ask me why Christians want to leave Egypt. Ask me why they want to stay.”
There are many moving and troubling passages in this book. But one of the strangest stories, by far, is that of Andrew White, the pastor of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad. We get to meet him, of course, but tell us a little more about your experience with him, what he is like as a person.
I had heard of him in Christian circles in Denmark where he was spoken of as an almost mythic figure, because he is among the only Westerners with the guts to stay in Baghdad outside of the Green Zone during the Iraq War despite having a prize on his head from Islamist groups. Churches had been bombed in the city, Christians had been kidnapped and most of the Christians had left. But he stayed on to help both Christians and Muslims get through the horrible war with a school and medical clinic.
When I went to Baghdad to meet him he me picked at the airport with a heavily armed military escort that drove me through town at 90 miles per hour to his church in the middle of Baghdad, probably the most fortified church in the world. The vicar is huge in every way—big feet, big body, big head, big ideas—but since he suffers from sclerosis, he walks with a cane and often has to be seated. As a friend of Denmark, he had erected a monument in the middle of the courtyard with the names of the nine Danish soldiers who had died during the Iraq War. The vicar had been in favor of the war (but not how it was being fought), he cherished living dangerously while helping the poor, there were books on Jewish mysticism on his night table, and he spoke with warmth about Israel. Not many with that mindset in that city at the time, I’m sure.
You visited four “lands” – Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and Iraq. It seems as though in all of them Christians face a bleak future. However, did you see any chance for survival there, any reason to hope?
It differs from country to country. The Iraqi situation is the bleakest. I visited areas around Mosul to the northeast that were conquered by ISIS in the summer of 2014 and where all the Christians, over 100,000 of them, have had to flee. In Iraq they face ethnic cleansing. Outside the Kurdish areas there are only few Christians left. They are not likely to return any time soon, if ever.
In the West Bank, however, the situation for the Christians today is better than in many years. In 2007 the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Army drove Hamas underground and since then some Christians have returned. In Egypt, Christians are also doing better since the Muslim Brotherhood was evicted from power in the summer of 2013. However, it’s important to note that in every Arab country except Lebanon, Christians do not have equal rights. Just to give one example: A Muslim man can marry a Christian woman, and then their children will become Muslim. But a Christian man cannot marry Muslim woman. Discrimination like that—and there are many more examples—relegates the Christians to second-class citizens. In times of crisis the Christians are the group that is being scapegoated.
How long did it take you to write this book? When did you do the research?
A little less than a year, from the autumn of 2012 to the summer of 2013. I took one country at a time and wrote the chapter on each before travelling to a new country, except for the chapter on the Palestinian Christians, for which I returned to visit the Christians in Gaza.
Were you afraid that people would see your reporting as being mission-driven: in other words, that when you were writing, you already had an objective and an ulterior motive in mind? What do you say to critics who might ask, Why not write about every religious group that’s being persecuted?
I knew I would be accused of having an ulterior agenda. In Denmark and in Europe (and in the US, I guess) the debate on Islam and Muslims has been contentious for years and I knew I would be venturing into a minefield. Some told me before I began that I only was writing this book because I was Christian. This is why I make a point of saying that I’m not Christian. I was never baptized. I consider myself an atheist.
Others were certain that I wrote the book to put Muslims in a bad light. I guess the consequence of this line of thinking is that you shouldn’t write stories where Muslims appear as the perpetrators, not even when they clearly are. How this can be seen as a morally right thing to do escapes me.
Some would also criticize me for only focusing on the Christians when other minorities in the Middle East also are suffering. But despite my secularity I fail to see why being interested in the fate of the Christians in the Middle East, the origin of the dominant religion of the West, can be seen as dubious. Frankly, I have for years found it odd that it’s not more discussed than it is.
In a word: Anyone who reads the book will hopefully understand that this is a piece of journalistic work. I aim to convey that the situation for Christians in the countries I visit is so dire that we must shed light on it.
There was great controversy in Denmark after the book was published there in 2013. What were the different responses to your book? And how did you react? Were you surprised?
The book certainly received a lot of attention when it came out, mostly because most Danes were simply unaware of what was going on when it came to the Christians in the Middle East. But the book mostly got fine reviews on all sides of the political spectrum. I hope it shone through that I managed to be balanced and fair. But I’m critical in the book towards influential academics in the field of Middle East studies who in my view have completely neglected this topic and who have appeared apologetic towards the Islamic world. Naturally they were not too fond of this. However, after the ISIS attacks on Christians in Iraq and Syria, the gravity of the situation became evident to everybody. Last fall the new center-right Danish government included in its platform that it would show special attention to the persecution of Christians and other minorities around the world. I’m sure my book has played a role in this.
How would you respond to politicians and other persons of influence who might be reluctant to speak out about the persecution of Christians for fear of inflaming tensions between U.S./Europe and the Muslim world?
We cannot afford to abandon minorities facing extinction, and we are not doing the Muslim countries any favors by evading a forceful response. Christians in the Middle East have been great merchants, businessmen and artists for centuries, and many Muslims are well aware how much more impoverished and monolithic the area would become if the Christians left. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that for years Islamists have persecuted Christians all over the Middle East. As I write this, at the end of March 2016, an attack on Christians in Pakistan has just killed over 70 people. The question to those who fear “inflaming tensions” is: How has our silence helped this minority?
You wrote the book after the murder of Daniel Pearl but before the killings of several Westerners by ISIS. Are you planning to return to the region yourself to do further reporting of this kind? How do you see the outlook for similar reportage on human rights conditions in the societies you visited?
I would be thrilled to go back, but I was sent to New York to cover the US after the book came out, so the Middle East is not the topic I’ve been covering these past few years. That’s why I haven’t returned since I wrote the book.
For years there was too much focus on Israeli atrocities and way too little attention given to abuses in other Middle Eastern states. I don’t say this because I wish to shield Israel from bad press. On the contrary: I have a view that shouldn’t be very controversial—especially coming from a journalist—but in strange way it is. A critical press is good for any country. We take this for granted in the West. Although Israel dislikes the negative attention it receives from Western media (including its own) and generally doesn’t see it like this, media scrutiny is basically a service to the country; the same argument can be made for all countries. And on the flipside: the lack of scrutiny given to Arab regimes especially in the European press has been a betrayal of the Arab peoples living there. It treats them as if they were too fragile and immature to deal with the inquiry we expect the press to accord our own Western societies. Human rights groups have had the same fundamentally flawed approach to the Middle East.
Since the Arab Spring this has changed. At the moment I think we have many excellent and courageous journalists living in the Middle East doing important human rights stories.
Say something about the people who helped you on the ground.
Since Arab countries are more or less closed societies it’s crucial to have locals helping you. I’ve had help in all the countries, but in places like the Palestinian Territories and Egypt, some assisting me didn’t want me to publish their names for fear of retribution. Journalists often forget to state the obvious: that there is very little freedom of speech in some of these places. You can’t expect people to give you a truthful answer.
In Egypt and the Palestinian Territories dissidents are in fear of ending up in jail. This is one reason why it’s easier to work as a writer than as a TV journalist. People will—and this was specially the case in the Palestinian Territories—often say one thing when a camera is on, and another when it’s off. It was highly evident among the few thousands Christian who were still living in Gaza under Hamas rule. Christians—especially here, but in many other places—are in a way doubly oppressed. Not only by a government that allows little dissent from Muslims and Christians alike, but also from a dominant Muslim society where Christians are treated with contempt amid increasing radicalization. In such places you have to rely on anonymous sources.
What other stories have you covered? What have you been covering since you left the Middle East? You worked for a year as the New York correspondent for Weekendavisen. What was your favorite story here? The most interesting/strangest/most memorable place you visited?
I’ve been working as a journalist since 1998 so I’ve covered many stories and also allowed myself to do many different genres of writing, like interviews, reviews, essays, etc. I’ve also been editing for my paper over long stretches of time. A few months after writing the book on Christians in the Middle East, I helped to write the autobiography of one of Denmark’s most notorious and famous bike riders, Michael Rasmussen, the Danish version of Lance Armstrong. Of course, like everybody else he had been doping too, and he spilled the beans to me. Great story that caused a sensation in Denmark and abroad, but, well, quite different book from the one I’ve been talking about here.
I actually spent two years writing from New York: I came back to Copenhagen last summer. I’ve covered everything in the U.S. from the potter’s field at New York’s ghostly Hart Island where prisoners bury the unclaimed dead, to the water shortage in California, bull fighting in Texas, artists in Detroit, prison education inside Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, following the campaign trail in Colorado, and many interviews and book reviews. I also took the time to go to Chile to write about how former dictator Augusto Pinochet plagiarized his history professor in one of his books while serving as president, and to do a story about a soccer team in Chile, one of the country’s best, started by Palestinian, Christian immigrants. Of course, I wanted to know where they went and what they did when they left the Middle East. They played soccer, I guess.
I certainly wouldn’t mind spending many more years in the Americas.
One day, on a cold winter eve, my father took his rifle down from the rafter to clean it. In answer to my unspoken request, he took out, from under the ceiling of the apartment, tightly bundled heavy canvas sleeping bags, a threadbare, faded rucksack, marsh boots, smoky mess kits, an officer’s field desk for maps, and a geologist’s hammer—his expeditionary equipment. While he took apart the rifle and cleaned the barrels with the ramrod, I, who had never been farther than the dacha, looked at these items from his past—and I knew who I’d become when I grew up, where the blue arrow of the compass, with its cracked leather strap, would take me.
North. And East.
I don’t know or remember what my peers dreamed about. My book of desires was a geographical atlas of the USSR, a giant folio with maps on the scale of 1:2,500,000, twenty-five kilometers to one centimeter. I’d open at random to a page with a map of the Transbaikal or the Archangelsk region, drink in, swallow from the pages the names of rivers and mountain ranges, distant islands in the polar seas; I’d imagine where I’d go, alone in a dark valley, along susurrus rivers in the fog, with clear stars climbing above the glaciers at the foot of a gorge. Neither my friends nor my comrades appeared in these dreams. Only untamed spaces, and their calling out to me.
North. And East.
My parents’ friends used to gather at our apartment—the same geologists, geophysicists, the staff from polar expeditions. They held conversations over vodka, sang songs—the songs you wouldn’t hear over the radio, songs of the camps, songs of the arrestees. And an icy chill from the faraway places would blow over the table, over the simple snacks and the shot glasses, and the air of celebration abated, as if the others at the table saw what I couldn’t see—some sort of frozen abyss, where people disappeared without a trace; a dark ill-boding secret arose behind snatches of words about the abandoned barracks, exiles who were enlisted into labor, about the unknown graves.
What could I comprehend of this? Nothing. But those far-off evenings, those voices, they did something to me, mingling with the inner whisperings of blood; something further sharpened, further aimed the arrow of the compass: North, and East.
There was only one figure of childhood that was able to, if you will, divert the arrow. At my grandmother’s house—my mother’s mother—there was a hefty box of war decorations and medals. It weighed a kilogram or two. The Order of Lenin, two Red Banners, two Red Stars, countless medals; sometimes I was allowed to look at them, hold them in my hands, my fingers growing numb. My grandfather, first husband of my grandmother, was a company commander in Stalingrad, and I always knew, though nobody ever told me, that these were his decorations, the decorations of a true hero.
When nobody was looking, hesitating out my own impudence, I would pin one of the orders onto my shirt and stand in front of the mirror. And I no longer saw mountain valleys, but frozen ditches, oncoming German tanks, black smoke, misty, snow-covered fields. There was probably nobody who was more Soviet than I was at that moment, a ten or eleven year old kid, frozen in front of the mirror wearing somebody else’s—though mine, too, in a way—medal, which was pulling comically on the pocket of my child’s t-shirt.
To fight and die for one’s country; to adapt somebody else’s biography as your own—a child of the last generation of the Soviet Union, I was still open to its heroics, its myths, its hagiographies, behind which I didn’t suspect the possibility of deceit.
This ebbed when I was a teenager, of course, but still something remained deep in me: like honor or pride, like a feeling that you’re a purposive link in the chain of generations.
And then, life determined what came next—which arrived like a telegram, a sign from my own personal future, too massive to understand it at that age.
At fifteen I set off to work on my first geological expedition—there, to my coveted North, to the promised land of the East. In the city of Pechora we plunged into a helicopter to fly to the pre-polar Ural Mountains. The old Mil helicopter took off roughly from the field, gained speed, gathered height, and the striped, prison-camp color scheme of the heat electropower station flashed by, and jagged clouds, a sliver of Pechora with the scattered logs of tree felling on the shoals—and all the sudden, just like an irregular heartbeat, the entire taiga opened up for tens of kilometers all around.
There was a strange bald patch that could be seen in the middle of the taiga, half overgrown roads and toy-like houses (from the distance), with caved-in roofs, grey and black, decorated by light lilac-covered smears. Smears the color of fireweed, the plant that grows on fire sites and vacant lots. And all of this—again, from a bird’s eye view—came together into a certain scheme, an architectural draft, as if an invisible hand had scattered them all across the taiga, united by roads, decayed bridges over rivers.
Not believing, not wanting to believe, I looked at the second pilot through the open door of the cockpit. Understanding my question, he shouted in a loud voice, to block out the roar of the turbines:
“That’s a camp! A former camp!”
I’d already read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn, already understood what was being discussed around my parents’ table as a child. However, being born in Moscow, living in Moscow, I never thought that the camps existed in the same times as I did; in my time. They had to do with the deep past, the era of my parents’ youth, and it was impossible to imagine them in 1996.
When you’re on a helicopter that’s in flight, the scariest thing of all is to hear silence. That means water’s gotten into the fuel line, the turbines have stalled, and the propellers have begun to windmill.
But at that moment I heard silence. No, the turbines hadn’t stalled, there was a terrible vibrating din, but I was cut off from it all, I’d been tossed into another dimension. I sat on the seat at the side window looking down and I was sealed in a capsule of silence, was one on one with myself, just myself. I felt I was a witness, that life had changed irrevocably simply because I had seen what I saw.
Then there were seven years of expeditions; the same North and East. Deserted mines and adits, rusty rails and train cars, rotting wooden boards of former barracks, old caravan trails, sunken in the yielding tundra earth by the hooves of packhorses. We walked the areas of the former camps, gathered samples of minerals for museums there, where once inmates had labored.
There weren’t enough of us and in order to cast our wide net without gaping holes over the huge area, we walked solitary routes, a strictly prohibited technique for safety reasons. Why do I mention this? Because, of course, later this would tell upon our fate: the feeling when in the morning you lace up your boots at the campfire, and around you are the voices of your comrades; but by the time you’ve finished tying them, you take a step and you’re alone already, only dispassionate nature all around, and whether you’ll make it through depends on you.
You’re alone, and nobody will help you.
I believe this feeling helped me back then. Then, when the North and East let me go, released me, all of the sudden I felt they’d given me everything I needed, and further expeditions would simply be repetition.
My grandmother died. I went to her apartment, to get her papers in order.
My grandmother had two husbands—one, my real grandfather, the same one who was the company commander in Stalingrad, and a second one, who died when I was six months old. I didn’t know anything about the second one except his name—Aleksandr Ivanovich—and what he left behind: two fishing rods, a hat, and a folding chair, stored in the attic at the dacha.
Among the papers I found two officer’s ID booklets. I remembered how in childhood I imagined myself as the descendant of a grandfather-hero. And, spurred by curiosity, I opened the ID card of my grandfather Grigory.
But there was nothing noted in it except a medal “For Victory over Germany”—a medal given to everyone who participated in the war.
Already standing stock still, I opened the second ID card.
Aleksandr Ivanovich Erkin.
Lieutenant Colonel, B.Ch.K. (All-Russian Special Commission for Counter-Revolution and Sabotage); OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate); NKVD (People’s Commission of Internal Affairs); MGB (Ministry of State Security).
Did not fight in the war.
Was awarded …
All of these orders and medals belonged to him, my grandmother’s second husband, an executioner and murderer, twice decorated in 1937, the year of the Great Terror.
And I stood with two cardboard ID booklets in my hands, cursing myself, cursing my parents—yes, they knew whom the medals belonged to in reality, and they were silent. I stood, understanding why I wandered through the North and East, for what reason I’d seen the ruins of the former camps, stood at the foot of the unnamed graves—in order to write a book.
A book for those like me, who will one day open their family archive—and find there something completely different than what they expected.
Sergei Lebedev is the author of OBLIVION, a stunning novel about family, fate, untamed nature, Russia, and the legacy of the Soviet Union. Here’s a poem by Lebedev called “The Red Star,” which highlights some of the paradoxes and contradictions of Russia’s past. This poem, like Lebedev’s novel, was translated by Antonina W. Bouis.
The Red Star
One grandfather was a bomber pilot,
he did not see the people he killed.
He dropped bombs in the Quadrant sixteen slash seven
and pulled the plane out of a dive.
In forty-three they gave him the Order of the Red Star.
My other grandfather worked for the NKVD.
He was a senior lieutenant, the equivalent of army major.
He saw the people he killed,
when he made them kneel at the edge of the execution ditch.
In thirty-seven they gave him the Order of the Red Star.
One grandmother was an orderly
in a Moscow hospital, where they brought
seriously wounded officers.
She remembered the handful of Red Stars
left by the dead.
My other grandmother stayed in occupied territory,
in the house of her forester father.
She remembered the retreating officers
burying their red stars in the garden
in the potato bed or beet patch
in the fall of forty-one.
The sisters of my grandfathers starved to death in the blockade,
no one knows where they are buried.
The brothers of my grandmothers were privates lost in action,
surrounded near Kharkov and Orel,
no one knows what happened to them.
Two Red Stars lie in my hand,
one for a soldier, the other for an executioner.
And I don’t know how to tell them apart.
Yitzhak Gormezano Goren writes on Lit Hub about the joys of finding his novel Alexandrian Summer translated into English for the first time, and on revisiting the text as part of the translation and editing process:
“So—how come it took another 37 years to see this novel in its English version, when there’s much Israeli literature constantly being translated and reaping admirable success in the international market? Maybe this too can be attributed to the fact that these same themes of the kibbutz, the Holocaust, the Palestinians and the Jerusalem Syndrome, dominate in translated Hebrew literature and elbow Levantine Alexandria off the shelves.”
Read the full essay here:
New York Magazine has published their Approval Matrix for the week of 4/19. Yitzhak Gormezano Goren’s novel Alexandrian Summer occupies the top (right) spot.
It is both highbrow and brilliant. Officially.
The following is an adaptation of the Introduction by George Z. Gasyna to All Backs Were Turned, the novel by Marek Hlasko that New Vessel Press published two weeks ago. Gasyna is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois. He has written extensively on 20th century Polish literature, exile and immigration, and Jewish-Polish relations. He is currently writing a book about modern Polish borderland literature.
The inscription on the grave at Warsaw’s Old Powazki Cemetery reads, “His life was short, and all backs were turned.” Indeed, Hlasko was just 35 when he died – though years of eking out a marginal existence, frequently underemployed or resorting to what Poles of that generation called “black work,” and a penchant for running afoul of the law, all conspired to make him look like he was in his fifties.
By most accounts (of those who knew and cared for him, at least), the final two or three years of Hlasko’s life were a period of intense burnout, the tail end of a spectacular career that had launched him, at mere twenty, as the foremost voice of his generation—a deeply troubled generation, traumatized by the horrors of Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, and the violent Soviet-backed communist takeover of Poland that followed—and simultaneously its chief iconoclast.
By other accounts, however, Hlasko in 1969, the year of his death, was about to enter a new stage in life. Having led a peripatetic existence throughout the previous decade, shuffling between various safe havens in Western Europe, Israel, and the United States—his native Poland declared Hlasko persona non grata in 1958, following the illicit publication of one of his novels by an émigré press, while he himself was in France on a state-funded fellowship—Hlasko was seriously considering settling down somewhere on the American West Coast, ideally the LA basin. When asked why there, of all places in the world, and in light of his halting English and a relative lack of contacts in the area, Polish or otherwise, his response was simple: “LA has good weather. I like good weather.”
Was his sudden death on June 14 while staying at the home of his West German publisher, of an overdose of sleeping pills, a deliberate act, as the popular press insisted, the last spasm of stubborn contrariness on the part of socialist Poland’s original bad boy, variously hailed as an Iron Curtain counterpoint to James Dean and as a communist Angry Young Man? Was it a consequence of ongoing disappointment and heartbreak? Or a merely banal though tragic miscalculation, exacerbated by immoderate alcohol use? We will probably never know with certainty. And perhaps it does not matter. Fellow author and adventurer Jerzy Kosinski, another of communist Poland’s very bad boys and a fellow exile ultimately to the US—though his eventual suicide, in 1991, was by all accounts planned—possibly settled the matter when he declared that Hlasko “personally lived through what he wrote and died of an overdose of solitude and not enough love.”
Hlasko began writing fiction while still in high school, and was publicly recognized early and often. He had movie star good looks, a roguish smile, and an ideologically “correct” past, having refashioned himself as an orphaned child of simple laborers, a housemaid and a fireman, when his father had in fact been a prominent attorney in interwar Poland. Hlasko said the right thing frequently enough when called upon and talked his way into the front offices of the premier state-run youth-oriented literary magazine, Po prostu [“The Way It Is”]. He was being groomed for his tenure as a shining star of Poland’s new socialist culture. Hlasko was to be the poet of the transport truck and the proletarian suburb, a writer of youth and possibility – within Party-approved boundaries, of course. This was a role he initially assumed with enthusiasm, and it paid big dividends for a time, in the shape of fellowships, interviews, cash awards, vacations at writers’ colonies on the state’s dime, and the like.
Hlasko’s rise was meteoric; he became a legend in his own time, a paradoxical socialist brand. Yet he was hardly the slightly disparaging painter of everyday life of Marxist utopias-in-progress, as many critics maintained (at least in their public discourse). Rather, in a true Conradian idiom he sought to “make you see,” to partake in his own vision. And as the years passed, this vision diverged further and further away from the constraining dogmas of approved, formulaic “production novels”—novels that focused, literally, on “production” in farms and factories—towards dramas of power, lust, and revenge, dramas enacted between and among fallen men – men who are in turn elevated to the status of archetypes, symbols even.
In fact, the socialist heroes of even his early stories and novels, such as The Eighth Day of the Week, are no wise triumphant New Men with a flaw or two. Instead, they are broken subjects, unsteadily seeking their way within an inhuman system, sometimes improvising, frequently resorting to manipulations and lies as they seek to improve on impossible odds. Already in 1956, at the peak of his Polish fame, Hlasko stated that his narratives, chock-full of brutality and heartbreak though they were, simply reflected reality as he knew it, that his protagonists were looking in vain for love and fulfillment in a city that never smiles. (Post-war, derelict Warsaw was the setting here, though any number of Polish cities and towns would have fit that bill.) Indeed it was socialist realism, that bastard genre of happy tomorrows pledged but never delivered on—since infiltrators, saboteurs, and eternal enemies lurked always and everywhere and had to be eliminated first—which presented the cynic’s vision of life. The protagonist of The Eighth Day of the Week, an underemployed writer named Grzegorz, wrestles with the contradiction between what has been promised him of the brave new world and what has been borne out. In the end, he asks, “Can anything valuable come out of a world that has to use blackmail to keep from collapsing?” The indirect answer to his question, which he himself provides, is, “Waiter, half a liter, please.”
From 1959 until his death, Hlasko led a life of exile: his petitions to return home to Poland were ignored or rejected by the regime in Warsaw, and so he roamed around Western Europe and Israel. Soon, what had begun as youthful wanderings began to resemble an existential imperative. By consensus, Hlasko’s most intensely productive phase is the period between 1959-64, though even then, as an avowed “outsider,” he shuffled between West Germany and Israel.
The texts either dating from or inspired by this chapter in his life, such as the short novel Killing the Second Dog (Drugie zabicie psa, available in English also from New Vessel Press), are unusually sparse, claustrophobic, oversaturated by color and light, and punctuated by images of surprising beauty which serve as a vivid counterpoint to the stark portrayals of brutality and humiliation endured by the down-and-out antiheroes. This semi-autobiographic world is a zone dominated by men, men who are often paired in their peregrinations so as to both complement and expose one another’s weak sides. In fact, all the protagonists of Hlasko’s oeuvre suffer from major handicaps. At the opening of the novel, co-protagonist Dov Ben Dov, a former Israeli Army officer who has fallen on hard times, is on trial yet again, this time for assault in a Tel Aviv club. When the presiding judge asks him for his name and demands that he answer whether he will plead guilty to the charges of “disrupting public order in the city of Tel Aviv on June fifth,” Dov fires right back: “No. As far as I remember, there’s never been any order in this city.” Conflict is in the very bones of Hlasko’s protagonists, and of his plots, and there are never any easy answers.
Expansive and self-congratulatory male bravado fills the entire canvas, but it becomes clear soon enough that the root cause of Dov’s misfortunes, present and future—apart from his cantankerous, narcissistic father perhaps—is his spectacularly failed marriage. All the other men in the novel, whether friends, enemies, or mere bystanders, concur on this point. “She brought him down” is the laconic assessment of one of the peripheral men in the story, as he sits in a restaurant where he’s just met with Dov. “She did,” a passing waiter nods in fatalistic agreement.
As noted above, Hlasko’s novels and shorter fiction, especially those produced in the late ’50s and early ’60s, are organized around two male protagonists who share the spotlight. We often encounter the two principals while they are already on the road, in the midst of a longed-for escape from their problems, which sometimes involves their participating in some elaborate swindle or dealing with similar reversals of fortune fate has thrown their way. And while they despise significant elements of each other’s personalities, they desperately need one another – much the same way as Beckett’s characters in Endgame or Waiting for Godot depend on one another’s presence even as they abhor it. The idea of setting out on the road with a companion constitutes a time-honored literary paradigm in the Western canon. Hlasko borrows liberally from the picaresque convention, but further sharpens his encounters “between men” through the cinematic twist of extreme close-ups, abrupt perspectival changes, and the deployment of recurrent objects that may foreshadow dramatic action. In All Backs Were Turned, for instance, stones play such a symbolic function, evoking—among other images—Christ’s parable on the doubtful virtue of guiltlessness and, more obliquely, the Genesis account of the contest between Cain and Abel.
The protagonists engage in pithy sarcasm and constant one-upmanship – but the situation can also turn on a dime. The stakes are deadly serious, the categories of survival starkly elemental, leaving precious little room for maneuver. And justice, here on the frontier, ends up as a cruel handmaid of forces that our protagonists, preoccupied with scraping a living, with capturing happiness if only for a fleeting moment—and thus human, all too human, tragically human—are simply unable to grasp. Wrapped up in their fragile egos, engrossed in their dramas, their backs turned, they never see that stone coming.
George Z. Gasyna
Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Nina Sparling, editorial intern at New Vessel Press, recently asked Marjana Gaponenko, the author of Who Is Martha? (translated by Arabella Spencer), a few questions about her majestic novel. Der Spiegel calls the novel “a celebration of creation and all its wonders, full of the joy of life.” Here’s what Gaponenko had to say.
NVP: There is something fantastical about this novel, but it remains so grounded in reality: the realities of history, the realities of the aging body. How did you find a balance between Levadski’s playfulness and the gravity of both his past and his present?
MG: This question raises a further question: about the tradition I see my writing belonging to. The discomfort with reality, the uniformity of the industrialized world, being drawn to mystery, playfulness – these are all attributes of romanticism; in particular, the German romanticism which can be seen as an answer to the French revolution and the “spirit of geometry”. There was no return to ornate baroque and the straight line of classicism generated the feeling of crampedness. That’s a description of my feelings in 2014. I am looking for my own romanticism and find it in the midst of reality, in irony.
NVP: What drove you to explore questions of death, aging, family and friendship through the eyes of an ornithologist? What kinds of research went into writing this novel? Did you know anything about birds before you started writing?
MG: I have long sought a suitable career for my lonely Levadski, something poetic, it should be something light, uplifting. Thus the birds came in handy – which raise him above his misery. And yes, I have learned a lot for the book, reading and analyzing different books on birds, observing them, I spent a lot of time in nature. I am now so fond of birds that I cannot help but to observe them and study their behavior. It has become a love for life.
NVP: The last few chapters of the novel strike a beautiful counterpoint between the disintegration of body and mind and the blossoming Levadski’s friendship with Habib, a human connection the reader doubts Levadski has ever known before. What does the friendship they form teach Levadski?
MG: This connection gives him the feeling at the end of his life, that his little modest and reclusive live was beautifully and worth living – just in the moment when he doubts this. He had no family and no grand circle of friends – but that was his way. Habib’s sympathetic silence in Levadskis suite allows him to taste a joyful, socially fulfilling life in a short time. Although the proximity of the butler is bought, it is a voluntary gift of youth to the old, of a stranger to another stranger, of a Palestinian to a Jew.
NVP: Throughout the novel, Levadski’s mother hovers in the background. Both have suffered tragedy, and suffered it together. Does he return to Vienna to find something of her before motherhood?
MG: I imagine that one wants to return at the end of one’s life to the old sources to lighten up again the old good times and to close life’s circle. One can do this mentally but also physically. Levadski returns because of sweetness. Because sweet was the taste of the Imperial pie of his childhood. Now he is back in the old hotel and eats the pie for two, for himself and for his mother who had experienced many hardships.
NVP: The question, “Who is Martha?” persists throughout the book. We only hear about her twice – at Levadski’s birth and death. Why Martha? What is the significance of this?
MG: READ THE BOOK TO FIND OUT …
Nina Sparling, editorial intern at New Vessel Press, recently asked Milena Michiko Flašar, the author of I Called Him Necktie (translated by Sheila Dickie), a few questions about her impressive English-language debut novel. The book has received praise from a diverse range of voices, from O, The Oprah Magazine to Ruth Ozeki, to the Smithsonian’s book blog. Here’s what Flašar had to say.
NVP: How did you find yourself writing a novel about a hikikomori as he begins to weave himself back into the world?
MMF: Characters who are turned inward on themselves have preoccupied me for a while and I have repeatedly written works in which these characters appear. There were countless openings and beginnings that I rejected, until I got to the point where I told myself: “No, stop, that’s not right. I haven’t yet found the story. I’d rather sleep on it for a night.” And then I’d already gone to bed, was already half asleep, when the phrase came to me: “I called him necktie,” precisely the title and the first sentence of the book, and then it was clear to me: The character who is turned inward on himself needs to have a second one at his side, namely this him, the necktie. And that was the starting point for writing a novel that was less about being a recluse and much more about emerging. A book about encountering and friendship.
NVP: The friendship between Hiro and the salaryman is stunning. They both face a sudden shift in routine and in that uncertainty open up to one another. Why did you choose to have Hiro befriend a salaryman, of all the people he might have encountered on a park bench?
MMF: The salaryman is not just an ordinary salaryman, but rather someone who having become unemployed has fallen out of the system and has created a bubble of illusion around himself. For this reason he seems to me a fraternal mirror image of the younger one; they are similar to each other and related to one another, they can simultaneously be teachers and students for one another.
NVP: I love the line in the opening, “I came here to try and work out whether the crack in the wall, that hairline fissure crossing above the bookshelves had any meaning internal or external.” In trying to work out the meaning of the crack, Hiro engages in a deep examination of the self. Through observation of the spaces and movement around him, Hiro discovers his own meaning and worth. What are some of the places and rooms that have been most formative in your life?
MMF: What shaped me most is definitely the space of my childhood. The “wilderness,” in which I moved around with my girl friends back then, out of our parents’ sight. Today I’m grateful for the great freedom I was allowed back then. Basically the space in which I grew up was a trust that was offered to me, and it protectively surrounds me even now.
NVP: Networks, webs, and weaving return as themes throughout the book. His journey out is a slow unraveling of that web while he begins to build another based in human relationships. The friendships Hiro builds are so grounded in physical space, and seem to challenge or contrast with many of the virtual spaces that exist today. In reading the novel, it seems clear that the author has a deep sensitivity to the power and importance of people being in the same space together. Does the novel comment on the ultimate simplicity of our needs as people, relating to one another, in light of this?
MMF: Yes, my novel is primarily about storytelling as a form of revelation and understanding, in which listening is given as much importance as the narrative itself. That becomes clear when one lends the other an ear, without judging what is said. A simple, at the same time attentive “Hmm,” that’s all it takes to give somebody the feeling that they share one and the same space, that both people have the right to be here just as they are.
NVP: I found the line in Necktie, “I had practiced forgetting how to speak for two years,” remarkable. Hiro has a powerful voice in this novel, and you render its development with a great attention to detail and sensitivity. How has teaching language influenced your writing, in terms of both style and subject?
MMF: By teaching a language one obtains a distance from it, one stands a bit to the side, only to find oneself back in the very middle with much greater awareness. I think that this far and near relationship has decisively influenced my writing.
NVP: What do you find most exciting about seeing your work in translation? What do you find most difficult?
MMF: It’s exciting to see how your own book broadens your range, as it goes on a journey, so to speak, and how as an author you travel with it, and you’re astonished where you end up. The hardest thing is certainly to let go, since on every journey there’s a departure from the familiar, which involves the greatest risk and at the same time the greatest relief.
NVP: The novel is divided up into short chapters – brief episodes and memories. The sentences are short and not a word is wasted. What connections do you see between this form and the narrative?
MMF: The characters speak their own language. Both Hiro, the hikikomori, and Tetsu, the salaryman conceal themselves, and their language mirrors this condition. Both have missed out on something decisive, both are prisoners of their conscience. The incompleteness and brevity of their sentences is the expression of what connects them internally. Their encounter marks also the beginning of an opening, an opening up to the other, to empathy and responsibility, that I wanted to make clear through the absence of quotation marks. In the end, it’s one person who speaks, one who expresses himself from his heart. Speech flows from one to the other, and in the end it (almost) doesn’t matter who’s actually speaking.
NVP: I was also interested in the question of how little is necessary to create a certain mood through language. How can something that seems simple and straightforward be described in all its depth.
MMF: I deliberately intended the brevity of the chapters (as in both of my previous books as well). I think of them as spoken images, as small images that gradually complete themselves in the mind of the reader.
The following is the first chapter of a novel called The Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic by Octave Mirbeau, a French author (1848-1917) with a reputation for good writing and good scandals. Nina Sparling, the editorial intern at New Vessel Press, is currently translating the novel, and this excerpt is courtesy of her. We hope you find Mirbeau to be as funny and elegant as we think he is.
Summer, style, or caring for one’s health, which is also a style, each pushes us to go on holiday. As an affluent bourgeois, wholly obedient, respectful of urbane custom, one must, at a certain time of year, leave his business, his pleasures, his easy idleness, his dear companions, to go, without entirely knowing why, immerse himself in the great world. In the discrete language of newspapers and the distinguished people who read them, this is called a trip, term much less poetic than a holiday, and so much more correct! … Certainly, the heart isn’t always ready to take off, one could say it almost never is, but we owe this sacrifice to our friends, our enemies, our providers, our servants in relation to whom one must maintain a prestigious social position, because a vacation assumes money, and money all social superiorities.
And so, I vacation which prodigiously bores me, and I travel to the Pyrenees, which makes torturous my general boredom with vacationing. What I hold against the Pyrenees above all, is that they are mountains … However, the mountains, whose enormous and wild poetry I nevertheless sense as well as another, symbolize for me all that the universe can contain of incurable sadness, of black discouragement, of unbreathable and deathly atmosphere … I admire their grandiose forms and their shifting light … But it’s the soul of this that terrifies me … It seems to me that if there is a landscape of death, it must be mountains upon mountains, like those I have here, before my eyes, while writing.
It’s perhaps because of this that so many people love them. The particularity of the city where I am, and the “sublime idyllic beauty” of which the excellent Baedecker, a tongue-and-cheek German, sings in extravagant lyricisms, is that it is not a city. Generally, a city is made up of streets, streets of houses, houses of residents. However, in X … there are neither streets nor houses, nor indigenous residents, there are only hotels, enormous constructions, akin to barracks or insane asylums, which stretch one after another, indefinitely, in one straight line, at the base of a foggy and dark gorge, where a small stream hacks and spits ceaselessly like a bronchital old man. Here and there a few stands are set up on the ground floor of hotels; bookshops, illustrated postcards, photographic images of the cascades, the mountains, the lakes, assorted climbing equipment, and all that the tourists require. And a few villas scattered on the slopes … and, at the bottom of a hole, a thermal establishment that dates from the Romans … ah! yes … the Romans! … and that is all. In front of you, the tall and dark mountain; behind you, the dark and tall mountain … To the right, the mountain, at the base of which lies a lake; to the left, the mountain still, and yet another lake … And no sky … never the sky overhead! Enormous clouds that drag their heavy, opaque, sooty masses from one mountain to another …
But if the mountains are sinister, what to say of these lakes — oh the lakes! — whose fake and cruel blue, which is neither the blue of water nor the blue of the sky, which doesn’t fit with anything surrounding it nor is reflected in it? They seem to be painted — oh nature! — by Monsieur Guillaume Dubufe, when this artist, so beloved by Minister Leygues, elevates himself to the ponderous grandeur of symbolic and religious compositions.
But maybe I would pardon the mountains for being mountains and the lakes lakes if, to their natural hostility, was not added the bother of being the pretext to unite, among their rocky gorges and on their aggressive banks, the most unbearable specimens of all humanity.
In X … , for example, the seventy-five hotels overflow with travelers. And it’s with great difficulty that I could, finally, find a room. There are all kinds of people, Englishmen, Germans, Spaniards, Russians, and even Frenchmen. All of these people come here, not to cure their sickly livers, nor their dyspeptic stomachs, nor their ill skin … they come — pay attention here — for their own pleasure! … And from morning to night one observes them, in silent groups or dismal lines, following the strip of hotels, collecting themselves in front of the vendors, stopping for a long time at one precise spot, and pointing enormous spyglasses at an illustrious and snowy mountain that they know is there and which is there, in theory, but which they never see under the thick mantle of clouds which eternally covers it.
This whole world is enormously ugly, with that ugliness particular to spa towns. Scarcely once a day, amid the thick masks and heavy stomachs, I am surprised by a pretty face and a svelte allure. Even the children seem to be elderly. A dreadful sight, because we realize the decrepitude of bourgeois values; and all we encounter, even the children so poorly hatched in the putrid marshes of marriage … it’s already the past … !
Last night, I had dinner on the hotel patio … At a neighboring table a gentleman spoke loudly. He said:
– The climbs? … Oh, yes, the climbs … I’ve done them all, me, talking to you … and without a guide! … Here, it’s a joke … the Pyrenees, it’s nothing at all … they aren’t mountains … In Switzerland, at the right time! … I’ve been three times to Mont-Blanc … like sitting in an armchair … in five hours. Yes, in five hours my dear sir.
The dear sir said nothing, he ate, his nose to his plate. The other took up again:
– I’m not talking about Mont-Rose … nor Mont-Bleu … nor Mont-Jaune … I’m not being clever … And here, me, talking to you, one year, at the great Sarah-Bernhardt, I saved three Englishmen lost in the snow. Ah! if I had foreseen Fachoda …
He said yet more things that I didn’t quite hear but throughout he repeated ceaselessly “Me! me! me!” He continued to insult the waiter, send back entrées, discuss the kind of wine, and, addressing himself once again to his companion:
– So let’s go, let’s go! … Me, I’ve done the hardest. Me, I crossed, by oar, in four hours, the lake of Geneva, from Territet to Geneva … Yes, me … me … me!
Do I need to tell you this gentleman was a true Frenchman of France?
The music of the Tziganes stopped me from hearing more, because yes, there is also the music of Tziganes … You see that it’s all here …
So what better can I do if not to present a few of my friends, a few of the people with whom I brush shoulders here, all day long? They are, for the most part people, a few grotesque, a few repugnant; generally, perfect rascals whom I would not recommend young girls read about. I understand well that you say of me “And here, a gentleman with amusing ideas” but I have many others which are not in the slightest amusing and of which I never speak, because I cherish them infinitely. I ask you, then, dear readers, and you too, gentlewomen, not to apply to me the famous proverb “Tell me who you haunt …” Because these souls whose often ugly physiognomies I show you, whose instructive stories and nearly always scandalous propositions that I recount you, I don’t haunt them, in the proverbial sense … I meet them, which is an entirely different thing, and does not imply any approbation on my part, and I set this meeting, for your amusement and for mine, on paper … For mine!
This preamble is to explain to you that my friend Robert Hagueman is not my friend. He’s more someone I knew, before, who speaks to me casually, whom I speak to casually, and whom I see, once in awhile, randomly and without pleasure.
You know him too, from elsewhere. My friend is not an individual, but a collective. Large gray felt hat, black jacket, pink shirt and white collar, white pants with a well-marked middle pleat, shoes of white leather, they are at beaches and in the mountains; they are, at this moment, thirty thousand like Robert Haguemen, for whom we could believe that the same tailor fashioned the outfits and souls — bargain-priced souls, you understand, because these are souls made from an easy cut, a shabby fabric.
This morning, as I was leaving the drink stand, I saw my friend Robert Hagueman. He wore a morning outfit of an impeccable propriety, which did not surprise the admirable plane trees of the driveway, eminently philosophical trees, and who had seen many others, since those Romans, founders of elegant baths and the captors of the world’s power. I feigned, at first, passionate interest in the maneuvers of a worker who, armed with a pot, collected water from the stream and then spread it across the driveway, under the fallacious municipal pretext of watering them … And still, hoping to give my friend the time to distance himself, I began a conversation with the workman about his curiously Neolithic implement, but Robert Haguemen had noticed me, too.
– Ah! But it can’t be! he said.
He came to me, effusive, thrusting out his hands, gloved in white skin.
– How can it be you? … And what are you doing here?
There is nothing I hate as much as having to reveal to people my petty infirmities. I responded:
– Why, I was just taking a walk … and you?
– Oh! me! I’ve just had a treatment … It’s the doctor who sends me here … I’m a bit run-down, you see …
The conversation immediately took a banal turn. Robert spoke to me of Paul Deschanel who was expected the next day; of the Casino, which was not brilliant this year; of the pigeon hunt, which didn’t go well … etc.
– And no women, my friend, no women! … he concluded. Where are they this year? No one knows … Quite the season, you see! …
– But you have the mountains! I cried … with ironic enthusiasm … it’s excellent, here … it’s paradise on earth. Look at this vegetation … these phlox, these leucanthemum grown to the height of beech trees … and these gigantic rose bushes which seem to have been brought back from who knows what dreamland, in the hat of Monsieur de Jussieu!
– Oh, how you are young!
– And the streams, and the glaciers … All this really means nothing to you?
– You’re humoring me … responded Robert … Do I really have the air of a man who falls for that sort of thing? I’m not excited by streams. And what’s marvelous about the mountain? … It’s the Mont-Valérien, a little bigger perhaps, that’s all, and frankly less amusing …
– You prefer the sea, then?
– The sea? Ah! What’re you getting at? … Come, my boy, for fifteen years, every summer, I’ve gone to Trouville … well, if I can brag about one thing, it’s … to not once have looked at the sea … It disgusts me. Oh! no … I think I’ve got better things on my mind, than going to marvel at what you call the sights of nature … I’ve had my fair share of that sort of thing, don’t you know?
– So, you came here for you health? … Are you at least following a treatment?
– Strictly … said Robert … Without that! …
– And what are you doing?
– As a treatment?
– Well, you know … I get up at nine o’clock. Walk in the park by the drink stand … Meet with someone or another … you relax a bit … then one recounts to the other what annoys him … we criticize the uniforms … This gets me through just until lunch … After lunch, a poker game at Gaston’s … At five, Casino … stand around a listless game of baccarat … maybe a game of push pennies, the family bank … dinner … the Casino again … And that’s it. And the next day, it begins again … Sometimes a short interlude with a lass from Toulouse, or a Phryné from Bordeaux … Oh! my my! my dear friend … Well, do you believe it? This so lauded resort which cures all sicknesses … it does nothing for me … I’m as run down as when I arrived … What a joke, these thermal waters …
He sniffed the air and said:
– And always this stench! … Can you smell it? It’s awful …
Indeed a sulfurous odor, coming from the drink stand, circulated among the plane trees.
My friend began again:
– That smells of … yes! … oh! What a memory … it smells like the marquise’s….
He began to laugh loudly.
– Go figure … one evening … we were supposed to, the Marquise de Turnbridge and I, dine at a restaurant …You remember the marquise … the tall blonde who I was with for two years? … No? … You don’t remember? … But, my friend, everyone knows that in Paris! Anyway, no matter …
– What was it with this marquise? I asked
– A very chic woman … my friend … Former washerwoman in Concarneau, she became, by the grace of I no longer know whom, a marquise, and marquise de Turnbridge, again … And an intellectual, I can only tell you that! … Well, so, instead of dining at the restaurant, as it was first decided – on a whim – that the marquise would prefer to eat at home … Of course! … We went back to her place … but hardly had the door closed again, when a terrifying odor suffocated us in the foyer: “My God! … said the marquise … it’s my mother still … I’ll never get her to stop doing that …” And, furious, she directed herself towards the kitchen. The noble mother who was steeping a pot of cabbage soup was there … “I don’t want to you to make cabbage soup here! … I’ve told you twenty times … It plagues the apartment … And if I had brought another man than my lover … how would I have looked, with this stench of toilets? … Is this understood, at last?” And turning towards me, she added “My God! you would think a whole regiment of soldiers came to fart here …”
He got all melancholy at this memory … and he exhaled:
– She was nevertheless a marvelous woman … you know? … And so chic!
And he repeated:
– Well, this odor following you here … it makes me think of the cabbage soup of the mother Turnbridge … It’s the same thing …
– The memory of the marquise must make it easier to handle … I said.
And he, extending his hand:
– So, to better health … I’m interrupting your treatment …
– Is that so … Am I …? said Robert.
But I had hopped across the lawn, in an instant placing, between my friend and me, the width of a giant redwood.
“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.
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.
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
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 Świecie – Literature 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.
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).
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 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.
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.