Basque Devil

Zygmunt Haupt
Basque Devil
  • Czytelnik
    Warszawa 2007
    145 x 205
    672 pp
    ISBN: 978-83-07-03094-4

Zygmunt Haupt was born in Podolia, studied archictecture in Lwów, and originally considered himself a painter. Toward the end of the interwar period, however, he began to write. He took part in the Second World War as a soldier in the September Campaign in Poland, and later served in the Polish Army in France and Great Britain. After the war he settled in the United States (first in New Orleans, later in New York) with his American wife, and published his stories in the best Polish émigré periodicals and publishing houses (Wiadomości, Kultura, Instytut Literacki). In Poland, though, he remained virtually unknown until recently.
This thick volume of stories and journalistic essays by Haupt is the largest collection of his work published to date, and represents a literary event of great import. The stories are most often inspired by the author’s own biography, and as a result the action takes place in Wolin and Podolia, in France, and in the southern United States -- but the action is most often split into a number of separate threads woven loosely together. At first glance Haupt’s style has the spontaneous quality of “gawęda,” Poland’s oral traditional; yet viewed with more depth, it reveals great internal discipline. His style is immediately recognizable, governed as it is by a roaming set of associations, a counterpoint of moods and ways of seeing the world. The writer imbues the telling of his own childhood with an adult’s perspective, and manages to maintain a child’s directness and freshness of perception in relating the experiences of his adult years.
Haupt sketches portraits of his friends and family members, but also of people met in passing. He recounts the social customs of Wolin’s internal communities, those of Polish and Ukrainian peasants, Jews, small-town intelligentsia, landowners, and soldiers. With the eye of a painter he renders scenes of nature and wonderfully foreshortened genre sketches, but above all he steadies his gaze on individual characters that intrigue or move him: people in love, or embattled, people at the beginning or at the end of their lives. In contrast to the apparent insignificance of what is portrayed in these stories, it is precisely the most important of matters that interest Haupt, who is both a scholar and a philosopher: meditation on human existence. He attempts to capture the shape of human life, of fates intertwined; he scrutinizes their murky symbolism, in search of meaning.

- Jerzy Jarzębski

Zygmunt Haupt (1908-1975) – one of the “great undiscovered” Polish writers of the 20th century.

On the window ledge, in a squat, bulbous jar, sour cherries were fermenting under a thick layer of granulated sugar.  The neck of this jar was tied with cheesecloth, to keep the flies from crowding in.  And in the entryway to the house I met, or rather ran face-to-face into Czesny-the-lawyer, who was carrying next to his ear an enormous, copper-sided pot, of the kind usually used for boiling underclothes, when it’s washing time.  This habit of busying himself with household chores, including carrying in or out enormous kitchenware seemingly unbefitting to him, testified once again to how very attached he was to material things: that even a wash basin of zinc-plated sheet metal is important and worth taking care of, not to be left lying about.
I arrived by train in the morning, but even before that my father had given me the address of the people I was to stay with.  But not announcing myself to them ahead of time I gathered up my belongings, my poles, measuring tapes and prisms, and sought out the land registry: a long, gloomy, provincial office building, where over the entry gate hung a tablet with the official eagle and the inscription: “Land Registry I.”  The caretaker led me down a whitewashed corridor, where a few waiting petitioners clung like sleepy winter flies to the corners, and dust covered the window ledges.
The building was the former seat of the local magnates, but all that remained of that time was the walls, and these had been cut down to the height of the first floor and closed in with a slanting roof covered in sheet metal.  Of the former glory there remained only the gate – sandstone, with protruding cornices and baroque cartouches held up by cherubs and zephyrs, on which stood out in relief the trumpets of the family crest, and the ancestral motto:  “God Is Our Guide.”
After familiarizing myself with the tasks for which I had been sent here, it was almost evening before I headed in the direction of Czesny-the-lawyer’s home, where I was to stay.  Mr. Czesny greeted me with deliberately measured politeness: neither too little of it, nor too much –but just the amount appropriate to my status as an awkward and unformed youth, about whom one couldn’t yet say what he would amount to.  Perhaps it was the lawyer’s own short height that made the pot he was carrying appear that much larger.  His wife, too, towering over him by a full head, seemed even much taller than him than that.  She was already an aging woman, who carried herself with dignity, in a long dress and with graying hair.  She greeted me warmly, giving me her white hand, which I kissed, and I was invited to the other end of the house; we had to walk around it on the outside.
The house, which was set off from the street by a fence, looked quite ordinary from the front; but from the other side, from the garden, it was very different -- unexpectedly different -- with some kind of stone terrace and a gently falling garden, from the depths of which grew absolutely enormous trees – silver poplars.  These trees were breathtakingly tall.
They were so huge that they towered over the little town both from close up and from far away, and their tops could be seen for miles and miles, and wherever you went in this town, no matter where you turned or which way you looked, that green, silver abundance of their foliage piled upward toward the heavens.
And there on the terrace was a group of people -- and it is also there that I met Emma Bovary.
Either she had bleached her hair, or it was naturally that color; that hair, a little the color of bronze, a little of copper, combed smoothly back from her forehead and tied in a knot somehow at the back of her head. She had a pinkish-white complexion with faint traces of freckles, but only very faint, which she had concealed even more with powder. She was handsome, but somewhat ordinary.  She had a pretty neck and very pretty arms and hands.  I guessed already that she was tall – even now, as she sat there in a garden chair, somewhat listlessly, and yet guarded, and on edge.  On the ring finger of each hand she had a few rings – one with a small diamond, one with an amethyst – and she played with them absent-mindedly, trying by turns to take them off, but prevented by her knuckles.  She had on a frightful dress: a summer dress made of some kind of lilac-color, gauzy fabric – something hideous in itself, but on my Emma Bovary it took on a particular charm.  When, having been introduced, I kissed her on the hand, I was struck by a wave of perfume or musk so strong that I almost fainted.
I remember a few things from the adventure of that summer perfectly.  Even today I can still see the cherries in the glass jar on the windowsill, while other matters and even people I have long forgotten.  Who was gathered there on that terrace, I don’t remember.  Some couple with a daughter – and not the slightest thing about them sticks in my mind.  There was also some kind of local dandy – him too, I can’t remember for the life of me.  Instead I remember a detail like the fact that a little girl had black stockings and thin little yellow slippers, and when she ran around the chairs of the adults, that elegant local raconteur and joker called out after her, after the little one:
“Hey watch out there, Zosia, or your heel will run away from you!” – the little girl had a very noticeable hole the size of a coin in her heel.
And little Zosia and I even took it as a good joke – but her parents, no.  Because it was, after all, a cutting, small-town, local gibe directed at her mother – that she was a slob, a good-for-nothing to take her child out visiting, with stockings not darned.  You had to see the helpless, angry looks of the parents and the parochial delight of the others.
There were others there too:  a married couple, in-laws of the Honorable Mr. and Mrs. Czesny, and the local police chief – the guy seemed nervous, cracking his knuckles so loudly you could hear them.
But let’s get back to Emma Bovary.  As it turned out, after being introduced around I found myself standing near her, and I felt her gaze on me.  What kind?  Indolent, flustered, spiteful, inquisitive, deer-like (she did have green eyes), imploring, defiant, arrogant, languishing. Who is this bitch?  I thought to myself, and we began to make small talk.

Translated by Karen Underhill