From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1994, Vol. 14.3
DOROTA SOBIESKA: I have plenty of questions but prefer this to be more of a conversation.
TADEUSZ KONWICKI: Yes, but I have something to start with, and the best questions are silly because they give one the chance to say something. Clever questions always contain the answers themselves. Those very ambitious Polish scholars ask a question which goes on for ten minutes . . .
DS: To which you answer “Yes” or “No.”
TK: That’s right. Or, trying to be equal to a task, I begin to repeat myself, talk nonsense, things like that. So silly questions are the best.
DS: In your writing about the territory you are from, there are usually two sides: the ideal one and the one full of conflicts between the nationalities living there. For instance, in “A Dreambook for Our Time” you show the conflict between the Poles and the Lithuanians during the Second World War. What is happening there now and how do you feel about it?
TK: I don’t feel particularly good about it; that is, I experience contradictory emotions because I root for both the Lithuanians and the Poles there, and they are in continuous strife against each other. This conflict subsides and then becomes aggravated again, and it is very painful to me because it is a result of various petty political games both in Lithuania and in Poland. And these matters are easy to solve, but only when there is good will on both sides. The case is very dramatic because the Poles there were under double occupation for fifty years: Soviet, but also to some extent Lithuanian. The whole Polish intelligentsia left this place—all the more active, more educated social classes repatriated themselves. Only peasants and workers stayed there, or that part of the intelligentsia that deteriorated because of persecutions. That is why they are weak, and that is why they opted for the Soviet system. On the other hand, Lithuanians were not in the best system either. The were terribly persecuted right after the Second World War. Almost one third of their population was taken to Siberia. They put themselves together with great difficulty. But this is a very strong, hardened nation. These people are not at all like the Polish, but more like Scandinavians: hard-working, moderate, taciturn, stubborn, reliable. And of course, clearly, after those years of persecution, nationalism had to burst out, especially because their past is troubling from our point of view. After all, they opted for Germany in the last war. Their reasons of State could have been such that they had to hold with the Germans, but from the European point of view, and especially ours, it is troubling. So, both sides have their faults, various old hostilities. But when it comes down to the real conflict, it is like a quarrel between two villages. I come from the Wilno Colony, and there were the Upper and the Lower Colony. The Upper Colony was always rumbling with the Lower Colony. And this conflict with the Lithuanians is, in fact, a domestic one because we are so intertwined ethnically, historically, culturally, and even, though it may not seem so, linguistically, because in Eastern Polish there are a great number of Lithuanian borrowings. I even take delight in using them. For instance, in the Wilno area, to say that we wanted “to ride on a sled,” we used to say “wazyniac sie,” when “vaziuoti” in Lithuanian means “to travel, to ride.” I use the word “dyrwan” for “wasteland,” to say that the boys are running or the geese are waddling on the “dyrwan.” This is simply Lithuanian “dirvonas.” “Rojsty,” the title of one of my books, is simply “raistai,” which means “marshes, bogs.” Similarly, in Lithuanian there are many Polish borrowings, and understandably so. And I will remind America that many outstanding Americans, I am thinking here about movie directors, writers, journalists, actors, admit the descent which we can roughly call the tradition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
DS: You were there after the war.
TK: I was. In 1956. I was there two days by a miracle because then the Soviet Union was still closed to us.
DS: This is in “Kalendarz i klepsydra,” on your way back from China.
TK: That’s right. It was the most unpleasant stay of all for me because Wilno was then completely Soviet, that is, an Asiatic city in which I recognized some architectonic traces dear to me. Even the natural surroundings were familiar. All of it, though, was swarming with Asiatics, this most unpleasant Russia, the czar’s, from the end of the nineteenth century. My impressions then were terrible. It seemed to me that it was a lost cause. Years later, in 1988, I was there because of my film “Lava,” which is based on Adam Mickiewicz’s “Forefathers,” and I saw Wilno a little recovered, in a somewhat better condition but still with obtrusive, importunate Russianness, which appears not only in the language, signs, clothes but in certain manners quite disagreeable to us. I was there a year later when I showed my “Lava” in the fall, and I saw a more Lithuanian city. On the streets one could see young Lithuanians perhaps even in the majority and could hear their language. Good-looking young people, with European aspirations, dressed like the rest of Europe. These were the good signs that I saw from the Lithuanian point of view. But from my point of view, I do not see any good signs; and I think that I will not be returning to Wilno if I don’t have to. No . . . no, I won’t be going because this city, or its appearance, is recorded in my memory as different. Even if it were supposedly a Polish city, and I visited it after a few decades, it would seem to me somehow alien. And because it is after all Lithuanian—even with these Polish, Jewish, or Belorussian enclaves- it is a city whose character is changed. This Wilno, which I remember, passed to the memory, to our European cultural archives. At the same time, I have to stress here that it lives splendidly in its new circumstances. There is a tremendous scholarly interest, especially among Slavists, Polish scholars from Europe, and European historians. Every so often they devote conferences to the culture of the prewar Polish Eastern borderland, where Europe clashed with what we used to call Asia, where the Latin culture met the Byzantine. This borderland was extremely fertile. And we know that all borderland territories are interesting. If we look at America, I, as an unprofessional observer, see that the American South is closest to this ethos. Why? Because of a mixture, a clash of cultures.
DS: I am thinking even of the mentality based on a certain tradition: manor houses, large families, and family ties.
TK: Here you extend the comparison which I talked about: that is, a certain form of feudalism met and interacted with contemporary capitalism, if we allow ourselves some Marxist ambitions to use these terms. Those similarities exist and I can feel them. When I watch American films that take place in the South or read books or even listen to their music, I can see traits of custom, some kind of distinct resemblances to our ethos, to our moral and cultural syndrome.
DS: You often speak of yourself as “a guest,” someone passing by. Is this connected with your place of birth or the passing of generations or what?
TK: There are many reason for that. First of all, you have to consider this geographical territory, this borderline, certain customs and morals connected to a certain mentality, and, even more, certain ethics. I am an orphan, and to be an orphan carried a special status there—even, in a way, a kind of profession. Families were interrelated, entangled; half of the Wilno country, I may say, were my relatives. So I was at someone else’s house all the time, at an aunt’s or uncle’s or grandparent’s. This must have developed in me the habits of a vagrant. Another thing, when we observe these people’s customs, we can see that in terms of civilization it was a backward European region—very fertile culturally but not at all industrially. Long distances scattered human settlements, difficult communication among people—all these formed certain attributes of one’s character. For instance, self-restraint, a kind of asceticism. Religious life—I am thinking of my Catholic environment—was very austere. This religiousness was perhaps even more stern than the Protestant. All this shaped a certain kind of man, his character, dignity, as well as his sense of humor, but above all asceticism. What is it? A lack of appetite of the kind middle-class societies have, restraining, controlling it as something reprehensible. Pushing one’s way through to be first or lying to show off was disgraceful. That’s why I have no motives, like possessiveness, that middle-class societies have. I was relatively free here even in the worst times [the Stalinist period] because there was nothing to punish me with, there was nothing to take away from me—because I am not greedy, grasping, possessive, because I don’t care about most things. That gives me freedom. That’s why I can say that I am only passing by. I am not entangled in affairs, coteries, cliques, lobbies which fight for literary position and money. And in Poland there is always an especially fierce fight for the seat of the bard, the poet-prophet, the father of the nation.
DS: But unlike in America, in Poland such a position exists.
TK: Literature there does not have the national and messianic significance that it has in Poland, because in Poland literature’s life-history is the life-history of maintaining this society’s identity. Thanks to literature, this society somehow survived all its bad fortune, but the situation brought upon it awful habits, such as servility or the obligation that, like the Catholic church, it has to fight with fists raised against all enemies. Such a position lent literature wings, honor, position, but at the same time restricted it to expectations. So, summing up, with my disposition, I am outside the game of interests. I am an exceptional outsider, even though I show up in the city, make jokes, and so on; but I am excluded from the game, from all this. I do not participate in the exchange, the races. But it is not a bad position, and it’s a voluntary one. I am in a way independent, though showing of one’s independence is stupid because we are all dependent on the climate, Bush’s whims, and I am even dependent on my wife of whom I am a little afraid. So the only thing to do is to diminish the degree of dependence.
DS: You went through so many changes, periods like Wilno, partisan war, Stalinism, Gomulka, and so on. Now, with all the recent changes in Poland, a certain world has ended and a new epoch has begun. How do you feel in this new system of values?
TK: As always. I was always the same. I felt the same before the war and in the partisan troops. I was also an outsider. Even though once I was in the Party, I was never a brilliant activist, but rather a nobody. But what’s important is the question of what is happening apart from these political changes—it’s astounding! We see that the so-called evil empire, which seemed impossible to shake or to crack, collapsed under its own weight. No American bombs or Marines crushed this empire; it fell under its own weight. Yet another important thing is that the end of the century is coming and, what’s worse, the end of the millennium. Those numbers are obviously arbitrary, but people are nevertheless influenced by them—the phenomenon of autosuggestion. And this affects our frame of mind, our decadence. But I think the greatest influence on the second half of the twentieth century was World War II. And I think that the holocaust produced a continuous sense of guilt and despair, which is manifested in moral nihilism. All anarchistic movements, all trends of liberation from moral conventions—hippies and other movements of young people, women’s or homosexual’s protests—all these resulted from the moral crash that happened during the war. All that edifice of human thought and morality which we had built for 2000 years suddenly tumbled down because of the Nazi genocide. And even you, the young, are born with the thread of hunger containing the sense of guilt that we all have, a sense that something happened not quite right, that these 2000 years of human efforts were wasted if such a catastrophe could occur. All these factors create the general unrest that we feel—that values are changing, that certain habits are breaking down, that generations appear that want to articulate something new but are unable. But we remember what Roitschwantz says in Ehrenburg’s novel: if they dismiss this one, it means that they will accept a new one—that if certain values break down, it means that right away new ones will appear because this is how the market of life operates. So I do not see any magical meaning in this time, do not exaggerate. I do not think that anything extraordinary is going on but only what always happens in human destiny. I think that all generations that enter life resemble in their psychological profile individual people. I mean, there are hysterical generations and there are sober ones, ones with exuberant imagination and ones without any. It is as if you looked through the last hundred years and observed all these ways to live connected with the generation’s frame of mind. That is why I do not believe in canons of art. There are none! This is chaos! Every generation creates its own canons. One generation likes this, and the next comes and likes something else. And we see it even in fashion, clothes. Now I watch films from the sixties and women’s clothes appear to me terrible, but in fifteen, twenty years they will be attractive again.
DS: Except, perhaps, shoes. They rarely come back.
TK: As for shoes, I have a very peculiar attitude. Shoes were my childhood and youth complex. Why? Because we had immense snows in the Wilno country, and I was a passionate sportsman, and because of my boots, my feet were always wet from skiing or skating.
DS: In “Rojsty” (Marshes) this motif is omnipresent, like the young nurse whose feet are frozen.
TK: Where I lived, shoes had a biological practical function. They were necessary for life, whereas now days shoes are like gloves: chosen to match the clothes and thrown away after a while. They have moved from the practical sphere to the aesthetic.
DS: But American shoes still tend to look practical.
TK: That’s right, because their civilization is a few centuries late. Their pioneers had to have solid boots, unlike Parisians who in the eighteenth century had pavements.
DS: Coming back to the new system of values in Poland which is geared towards money . . .
TK: It doesn’t befit you, an American, to accuse me, a Pole from Warsaw, of a money motif. All American art is based on the money syndrome—a little bit about sex, but money is the real issue. So it is quite normal that money begins to play an important part here now. But I am anxious about something else, and that is the changes in our thinking conditioned by the Catholic church and even by rationalistic circles which were hidden, persecuted, inactive for decades and now have a chance to demonstrate themselves. These are unwelcome signs in a world afraid of nationalisms, smugness, and quarrelsome parochialism. But this seems to be temporary, too. This society was uncorked, like a bottle with a terribly fermented liquid. All the bubbles, gases, have to escape from this society. I think that the Polish intelligentsia, thanks to its tradition, is strong, and we are able to take control of our society’s mentality, unlike the Russians who are afraid—the Russian intelligentsia still feels weak, though in my opinion it is strong. But its self-confidence is not very dynamic. They are afraid of these vast territories, these crowds which no rational thought can subdue. But we are not in such a bad position because we never lost strong ties with the West, with European and world thought.
DS: Recently I read a long report by Ryszard Kapuscinski (a Polish journalist), who visited Russia, traveled there, and went to a mine because its workers were on strike. Then he came back to his friends that belonged to the Russian intelligentsia and asked them why they weren’t there, why they did not formulate the worker’s demands. They were puzzled at his questions. In Poland there were always some ties between the intelligentsia and the workers, but not in Russia.
TK: That’s what I am talking about. I think that the Russian intelligentsia is already strong, and only has to be more decided, has to have the will to want it. But we have to remember that there is a kind of global consciousness. And this global consciousness also affects Russia, and Russia has to yield to global moral, social, and intellectual processes. So it must not be too bad. Because if it is bad, the world will end. The so called end of the world will come if we continually slide down. But because those biped mammals—those humans—are an awfully vital and resourceful species, I think that they will manage to persist and still pollute the air.
DS: Coming back to some of the things you have said before, could we say that you are a Pole from the East?
TK: It sounds better to me . . . but please hold this question because it is a good one. I would prefer to call myself a European from the East because of all my biography, my coming from this borderland. I am not a particularly zealous patriot, which is something that rankles the people here. But already public opinion has become somewhat used to my not being constantly serviceable in these matters. Of course I sympathize with those people who live by the Vistula river. I am very ambitious for them and often defend them when I see them suffering from injustice done them by other nations. But I am not a particularly fervent patriot. I feel myself to be a European, an inhabitant of this little piece of the big continent where so much started. I even feel emotional ties with America. In “Rzeka podziemna, podziemne ptaki” I write about Manhattan, which seems to me a torn-away piece of my Wilno country, a piece that sailed the ocean and now hangs beneath America’s belly. I do not feel that America is strange or alien to me. Of course, this is also connected to the fact that America was created by immigrants and especially my countrymen, that is Belorussians, Jews, Poles, and others; whoever emigrated from these territories founded big movie companies, newspapers, theaters, business, clothes production . . .
DS: So you say, your countrymen Belorussians, Lithuanians . . .
TK: Tartars . . .
DS: Jews, Karaites . . .
TK: That’s right.
TK: Here an ignorant Pole awakes in me. Here, I feel a certain reserve . . . even more so because Russian culture is captivating, and I am under its huge influence.
DS: As you wrote in “Moonrise, Moonset,” you are a “hideous hybrid formed at the boundary of two worlds,” that is Polish and Russian.
TK: I like Russianness. I feel an unhealthy attraction to it, and that is why I recoil from saying such things, because this Russianness was a mortal threat to us. That is why I hesitated here, and restrained my enthusiasm for Russia. But indeed yes! Indeed yes! I remember once I was in San Francisco, invited by the Department of State. They ask me, “What would you like to see? There is a film festival in San Francisco.” “What do they show?” “Tarkowski’s ‘Rublov.’” I never saw it before and was not really inclined to. I say, “Of course,” and go. Some kind of a hall divided by a cherry-red curtain. The festival was very modest, to say the least. The audience stands waiting. A thousand White Russians stand in their coats with their velvet collar’s from the czar’s times. They chat. They came to see a Russian film. I am there alone, unexpectedly, because the only Americans are ushers. And I almost cannot resist shouting, “Hey, there, listen! I am your man, I am one of you!” So this is clear proof of how many threads intertwine in me. And, I have to confess, I think that’s good . . . that’s good. This is where Europe is going. That is, I would have liked it best if we had a Europe of regions, so that villages would fight rather than countries, like the Upper Colony with the Lower Colony—those from the village pick up our girls, so we have to beat them black and blue—not that wars are fought for some bombastic ideological principles.
DS: I have a couple of questions connected with Mickiewicz and his Polish national epic “Pan Tadeusz.” Let’s take the very beginning of it: “Lithuania, my fatherland!” A Pole will say that, of course, it is Polish, and so is Mickiewicz, whereas a Lithuanian without hesitation that he is Lithuanian.
TK: Aleksander Malachowski, a journalist and member of Parliament, once said very nicely about Mickiewicz: half-Jew, half-Belorussian, the greatest Polish poet, begins his epic with the words “Lithuania, my fatherland!” And that is the essence of what I am telling you from the very beginning about all these matters and myself.
DS: While reading your “Bohin Manor,” I had a feeling that it was written in direct relation to “Pan Tadeusz,” perhaps because of a manor house, a Jew who is an important character.
TK: Elias here is, in fact, a test. I wanted to see how our public opinion would receive this love story, how deep our anti-semitism runs. The test came out all right. The novel was well received even though I designed the love story somewhat disturbingly: a woman from Polish nobility with a Jew. But of course all these circumstances, landscapes, moods. The action takes place several decades after Mickiewicz’s times. In the territory things didn’t change so fast, not civilization nor custom nor ways of thinking. I didn’t have to do any research, check what dishes they used or how they traveled because I still remember from my childhood Mickiewicz’s world and because the nineteenth century in the Wilno country ended in 1939.
DS: I had a similar feeling reading a book of interviews with Milosz when he spoke about this territory.
TK: He is a stray! He is from the Kowno region in Lithuania! From the Niewiaza river. He came to Wilno as a grown boy. So he is not a native of Wilno. He is a Lithuanian.
DS: You see, I can’t see the difference.
TK: How’s that? Because you, poor Poles, when you hear his poem about his homeland to which he will never come back, you think that he writes about Poland. No! He writes about Lithuania from the thirties! The homeland to which he will never come back is Kowno Lithuania, the country on the Niewiaza.
DS: With Poles, it is like this: whoever speaks Polish is a Pole. But where you come from, because so many languages coexist, perhaps the territory defines one’s belonging.
TK: Of course language determines man somehow, his homeland, but not necessarily his nationality. Anyway, all this will not matter in the future when probably all of us will have to speak English, in this terrible pidgin language of languages. In that language everything is upside down. You can’t pronounce one word normally, not even “Jesus Christ.” A certain Englishman told my friend who had a speech defect that he would speak English well because he didn’t open his mouth.
DS: Are you biased against this language?
TK: No, I just cannot learn it! I passionately tried, and the more I studied English, the better I spoke Russian.
DS: To change the subject, what is Puszkarnia in your books?
TK: You see, everybody invents magic places, like the Mormons who have their mountain where, they believe, the world will end; and I’ve got from them a piece of rock from this mountain. Every society tries to make its life more magical, to grant it greater value than the obvious, and they especially do it to some places. And this is, in fact, justified by history. Certain places that were considered magic proved to be volcanic or, like the Suwalki region, spread over uranium deposits. They affected human life. The belief that the earth influences human life is called tellurism. Every civilization creates for itself such magical places, like Mount Sinai. And I, sinfully, allowed myself to invent a few places, like the Wilno Colony, Puszkarnia, the French Mill, which is already starting to catch on in Europe, and I am very proud of it. Some English and French think that Puszkarnia exists and that something good is there.
DS: That God dwells there?
TK: Once I heard the greatest compliment. A reader of mine wrote to me that after one of my films, her four-year-old son said: “Mom, at night I dreamed of Puszkarnia,” which he didn’t know, never was there, but his imagination was inspired in the direction so dear to me.
DS: But factually, what was Puszkarnia?
TK: Probably it is an old place of manufacture, a primitive factory from precapitalist times. They must have produced artillery there in the eighteenth century. And this name survived even though Puszkarnia now bears only traces of something old. Besides, all these symbolic places are our nostalgia for the passing of time. We enjoy finding signs of old life.
DS: Staying with this territory, I would like to ask you about the storytelling that you mention in “New World Avenue and Vicinity.”
TK: This is my audacity of a sort which comes from my belief that I invented a new literary genre or subgenre. I am so used to diaries, memoirs, journals in literature. So I invented an intermediate form, a loose stream of memories, quotations, sudden recollections and digressions. They also have their justification relating to the customs and geography. If you imagine a wooded area where human settlements are scattered over several miles, where the nearest train station is forty miles away, where communication is so difficult, where everywhere around is a forest, where mail is always late, where you have no bookstores, theaters, gramophones, then forms of entertainment are restricted. People visit one another during holidays, come for Christmas or a wedding or a name day, and it lasts for a week. Then, what is the most enjoyable way to cheat time, apart from music? A talent to tell stories. There is always someone who was somewhere far away in the world or rather who knows circulating stories about legendary figures. I spend my vacation on the Hel Peninsula. One of the houses there is called America, and the guy who lives there, a Kashubian, is called America because he was in America and came back. He got a label for life. Somebody was in America, somebody was in France or fought the Caucasus—they were substitutes for books, readings, radio programs, or even movies. So this form, this ability to confabulate, was common. And also, the language was bewitching, compared to central literary Polish, because it had all these influences—Lithuanian, Belorussian, Jewish and even Russian. It was melodious, from the borderland, gaining some sounds that central Polish never had, as the disappearance of nasal vowels. It was a language, so to say, not quarrelsome, not verbose, in love with detail, with an extremely musical, song like intonation. All this constituted the form that I ingeniously attribute to myself but that was used by Wankowicz and many others, not to mention our dear Adam Mickiewicz, who in “Pan Tadeusz” created a model for the following generations. Period.
DS: In your novels you seem to use repetitively certain short expressions, such as “Achilles who some day will be a superb professor,” or ” a man who was eating a hard-boiled egg” in “Nic albo nic.” A name is followed by a short expression identifying this person. Were such formulaic expressions used in the storytelling you speak about?
TK: The point is that my generation is aware of its fate all at once. There is no way to forget the whole biography and no way to avoid saying about the man who was eating a hard-boiled egg that he had been in Auschwitz or that this woman, so well-dressed and perfumed with Chanel, survived a Siberian labor camp. So the seal of our biography, complicated and stormy, dictates such style and even the collage form.
DS: Your personal biography or historical?
TK: Of our generation. I mean biographies with war, the ideological change, crucial questions, constant wresting with the ultimate, which an American middle class man never faces. He can only have his house burned, or a car can hit him on the street.
DS: But they also have such literary forms as a collage.
TK: Yes, but for them these forms are only a literary fashion. There is no dread behind them, no real life experience.
DS: Perhaps I should have been more specific about the storytelling you talked about. Such a folk tradition . . .
TK: Of nobility, gentry.
DS: There was a tradition of storytelling in Yugoslavia, a tradition of long epic poems recited from memory. There are records and books about it. These poems used formulaic expressions that remind me of the ones you sometimes use.
TK: I invented all this to make things more interesting. I never followed any storytelling model. It is characteristic of my style to charm, chat, contradict, leap, question, speak with self-irony, and just to make it look nice, I couch it in a literary-historical thesis. It doesn’t pay off to make much of my stories.
DS: How’s that?
TK: I am very convincing even when I pull your leg.
DS: So there was nothing like that at all?
TK: See, I said it so well that you now defend it. Go ahead, we have to finish.
DS: All right . . . three more questions. The first one is about animals which so often show up in your novels, especially in the “Anthropos Specter-Beast.” What are the reasons for your feelings toward animals? Your past?
TK: Of course. Everything comes from what I said at the beginning, from this territory. We were afraid of wolves all my childhood and youth. As a partisan in the winter of 1944-45, I still heard those packs of howling wolves around the woods. Household animals were real members of the household. They were people, even though our stern religion forbade us to anthropomorphize animals. It was even a serious sin from the canonical point of view. But we anthropomorphized them anyway because those animals lived with us all the time. They were not like your dandy, doted on lap dogs, but they worked together with us. A dog was guarding a house or drove the cows to pastures, a cat was catching mice, horses worked, cows gave milk. These animals shared our fate. That is why our approach to animals is not like yours, Western Europeans, not patronizing or falsely sentimental, but matter-of-fact. I could hit a dog with a stone, but a dog could bite my calf. We were equals; that is, we didn’t hold mutual grudges. So the presence of animals was very important, including wild animals that had magic meaning connected with the woods. You have to remember that Lithuania received baptism by the end of the fourteenth century, four centuries later than Poland, even more than that. And paganism in custom and the subconscious is still there in certain relics. The woods, for instance, were sacred. Oaks, snakes, streams, marshes, forest vapors—all these things were very significant in our life. I’ve read “Perpetual Motion,” a book by a Canadian writer, Graeme Gibson, and was struck by elements of nature similar to “Wuthering Heights.” The same thing was revived among the inhabitants of Canada. So we have something in common, as opposed to the townspeople, who don’t see trees or even birds.
DS: The acacia in your books has its own life.
TK: That’s right.
DS: I am thinking again of what you said in “New World Avenue and Vicinity”: “I can’t break away from the Wilno, from that hybrid land that is both Lithuania and Belorussia and neither” or “If any time in my future life I am caught mentioning the Wilno Colony, the Wilno country, or Lithuania once more, let the nearest passerby shoot me without mercy.”
TK: True, but no one wants to. They nag me all the time to speak of those topics.
DS: So there may be real value in them.
TK: I said, I am a European, and I don’t want to be a regional bandore player.
DS: But I don’t see any contradiction.
TK: Exactly, you said it right. I want those topics to be universally relevant.
DS: A British poet, Philip Larkin, said once that he quit writing novels because novels are about other people whereas poetry is about oneself. If we go with this distinction, can we call your books poetic?
TK: Technically, yes. I write about myself because I came to the conclusion that I am most competent in this sphere. Even if I create various characters, make a plot, some chain of events, everything is saturated with me. I am present all the time, to formulate, mold, remind the reader that it’s me. I staked my writing on that. I think that, in the terrible chaos we have now, objective, transparent prose has to perish because it will be replaced by more perfect forms, like film or television. Only a person can arouse other people’s interest in societal relations. Some people are fascinating, others are old bores. We want to be with some, and we run away from others. So I charm the reader all the time and satiate him with myself, and in this way I use poetic technique. And that’s the only thing worth doing, as opposed to describing the world that we get every day from millions of TV programs, journalists, photographs, newspaper reports. We know this world inside out. We have enough dead bodies in Yugoslavia, Georgia, Palestine, or anywhere else. Finally we are haunted by a thirst to find some universal sense in all that happens. And that’s what poetry likes.
DS: My last question is really a set of questions about the portrait of women in your . . .
TK: Women are an element of beauty, loveliness, and pleasantness in the world. And many people, I don’t say all, need beauty in life. For some, valuables, trumpery, and golden glare are enough, but not for others. I talked about trees or the sky. A woman also, in her gesture, movements, silhouette, has something that makes a man stop, arrested, and look. Of course what I am saying is very old fashioned. Now we have “unisex,” and woman loses her femininity. Maybe this is a defense mechanism against excessive population. Something happened, and maybe it’s God’s gift, that women today have a different function, more utilitarian. For my generation, a woman was first of all a mystery. Secondly, she had her inscrutable dignity. And that is why for my generation, love was not just copulative acts but a whole big procedure, strife, the magic of winning this loveliness, this drop of beauty in our world, to use great words. I belong to the generation intrigued by women. To give a vulgar example, if I see beautiful women on our sidewalk, which is the New World Avenue, I, as an elderly man, look after her, unlike young men. So it’s a pity the magic place of women in our life got lost. We only have women friends, buddies, guardians, stepmothers, foster mothers. The world lost so much, but I suppose only for a while. As I said, together with Roitschwantz, if they dismiss one, they will accept a new one. If they lost their interest, then maybe they will soon start to love women hysterically.
DS: But from the point of view of American feminism . . .
TK: Why spoil this nice final note! Why look for what feminists. . . . I will tell you the truth. Feminists will die a natural death because they are ugly, ungainly, and won’t have children and will become extinct. And only beautiful girls will remain who will be feminists only so much as need be. Thank you, we have to go.
DS: Thank you, too