Sunday, 2 June 2013

Pamiątkowe rupiecie - book review

Two paragraphs below are an adapted and abridged translation of the book’s blurb.

Wisława Szymborska was anything but delighted to have learnt Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczęsna were writing her biography. As she found personal confessions inappropriate, she avoided like a plague telling stories of her private life. Despite this, the authors managed to persuade the poet to meet, which resulted in unveiling several astounding stories and facts from the past of the Noble prize winner. During a series of meetings Szymborska amazingly and humorously commented on various stages of her life and work. The story is supplemented with memories of the poet’s friends and pieces of poetry interspersed throughout. 

The book is a first full-scale biography of the Noble prize winner, substantially complemented in comparison to the first edition, issued after the Noble prize was awarded. The authors added chapters covering eventful last fifteen years of the poet’s life. They investigated hitherto unknown details from her life and enhanced the content with first-published photographs. The portrait of Szymbowska grew in dignity and depth, yet has not lost any of its lightness. The poet’s death marked the end of some era in the history of Polish literature. While reading this fascinating biography, full of anecdotes and poems, descriptions of journeys and testimonies of friendships, we can taste the climate of Szymborska’s era…
Encouraging, isn’t it? Even if the translation (mine) is imperfect…

Had a chance to read this book during early May weekend, yet have hung back on review, on account of, as usually, being short of time.

As indicated by the blurb, the insight into the poet’s private life was extremely hard-gained and it makes the book even more valuable and attention-gripping. Whatever you could say about Wisława Szymbowska, she was anyone, but a celebrity. The last thing she needed was publicity and as much as she could she avoided public appearances, which usually made her feel uncomfortable. Compared to most contemporary public figures who feel at ease being in the limelight, she was a misfit. I somehow feel sympathy with her in this respect…

The poet’s natural modesty, as emphasised repeatedly in the book, was her outstanding feature. And when encountering the poet, when observing her behaviour, you could feel this was not a feigned modesty, not a mask worn to gain accolades. Her manners exuded naturalness, you could almost sense her attitude to life was genuine, no room for acting…

Just to mention a few moments from the poet’s life that seem to deserve most attention in the context of how Szymborska will go down in history and controversies arousing around her. She survived WW2, witnessed inhuman cruelty and then the land she was born became a part of the Soviet bloc. The war brutality and duplicity of Church observed in the childhood put her faith in God to a test. Out of religious teenage girl, she evolved into doubting and seeking woman. She could not claim to be an atheist, yet rather an agnostic. Such openly declared beliefs turned against her in 1996. When she was awarded the Noble prize, right-wing lunatics instantaneously raised outcry over her steering clear of Catholicism and some other facts from her life she would never conceal.

These inconvenient facts Szymborska would never hide was her was post-war fascination with communism. Just like many people she wholeheartedly believed the new system would bring equality and common happiness. She actually discerned inhumanity of communism, but in the period of being totally besotted, she, and many of her peers, took in all the justifications for the system’s cruelty. She was infamous for writing an elegy after Stalin’s death (you can find it in the book), or writing commendation of North-Korean soldiers fighting capitalist invaders. She lost her faith in communism after the system thawed out in the second half of 1950s and in the 1960s she threw away her party membership card. She would never withhold her immature fascination with communism and claimed this was genuine, not opportunistic. She brought herself several times to account for this, yet the time could not be turned back. This stage in her life and poetry should not be forgotten, yet definitely should be forgiven.

Pieces of Szymboska’s poems have been deftly interspersed throughout stories from her life. I must admit the match is in most cases perfect – facts from life are marvellously illustrated with poems, often created on the spur of the moment. Or maybe the stories have been selected and put into apposite order to fit messages hidden in the outstanding poetry?

For the ones who have not been very familiar with Szymborska’s work, the book offers an opportunity to delve into remarkable poetry. As soon as you read several short poem, you realise the Noble prize was undeniably well-deserved. Some of the poems are translated into foreign languages, including English. The translation I read (I can’t quote it now, the book was borrowed and I forgot to scan the relevant page) was noteworthy and deftly rendered the poem’s message, while retaining natural flow and rhythm.

Szymborska’s artwork exudes with unique combination of simplicity and complexity. Striking a balance between the two in any genre is a challenging task and attaining it with a huge dose of sensitivity seldom happens. This only proves the poet’s uncommon aptitude that should outlast next generation of Poles.

Expect the next posting in the second half of June – holidaying until 16 June again ;-)

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