I am always lamenting that so few collections of short stories are published in Poland, while we have so many writers who are truly perfect for that genre. One of these perfect writers is Ewa Schilling. She did manage to debut with a collection of short stories, but then published two novels, enough to establish herself as the “leading lesbian writer” in Poland.
In her latest book she doesn’t dispute this label, but nor are all thirteen of the heroines of these stories lesbians, or at least their homosexuality is not stated explicitly. Wanda is the widow of a famous male writer, who upon the death of the husband to whom she has dedicated herself entirely, having given up any aspirations of her own, must now learn to love herself, too. Teenaged Emilia is preparing herself for life without her mother, who is terminally ill, while Bożena, who is expecting a child, simply wonders what would have happened if she had chosen a love affair that would have been more difficult but perhaps more in accordance with her nature. Lastly, Małgorzata, abused as a child by her father, only appears in person at the very end of her story, most of which is reconstructed by her daughter. The other women of this book are ending or beginning relationships that often constitute a challenge to an environment that is ill-disposed to them, including their parents.
Although Schilling does not neglect the Polish social context in which gay people live their lives, the stories simply read like love stories rather than an appeal for tolerance. With intriguing, strong characters, so different from one another that it is often hard to believe they can communicate on anything at all and transcend the barriers that separate them. But Schilling is able to offset the atmosphere of wonder that surrounds the meetings of “two halves of a whole” with a terse, reporting style completely devoid of sentimentality (though not of lyricism). She designs her fictional situations so evocatively that they completely absorb the reader. Naturally, the same theme runs throughout the collection, but in each part it is presented in a different way. It is mind-boggling to think how many more curious situations Schilling could invent—and this in itself is proof of the scale of her talent.
- Marta Mizuro
Ewa Schilling (born 1971) made her literary debut with the short story collection Mirror. Since then she has published two novels. With her collection "The Everyday" she returns to writing after a five-year break.
Cautiously she turned on the desk lamp. There was the opened planner and the phone. He preferred to interrupt his work than not pick up the phone; he couldn’t stand for her to do it instead of him—he had to be first, he had to be irreplaceable. He couldn’t stand cell phones because they died, cutting him off from the world. The planner was totally filled up with messy writing—she flipped through pages starting at the beginning. It was a sizeable aspect of his life: in between the meetings he had scheduled and noted down there was stuff on politics and sports, archeological and astronomical discoveries, and short, hateful descriptions of bestsellers. Little comments on the people he knew, like “WŁ has another girlfriend a quarter of a century younger than he is, how does the son of a bitch do it when he’s an idiot, bald, and married?”
She was the only one he hadn’t written anything about, which made sense, she didn’t call, and she didn’t appear in the newspapers, and she was always at arm’s reach. And even if Staszek went off to a literary festival or something, he would call from his hotel room in the evenings—to say that he was bored, that these literary events were so stupid, that he wouldn’t give a shit about them if it weren’t for the fees.
She drew his laptop toward her. She lay her hands on the armrests of the swivel chair, hesitantly, patiently becoming acquainted with its texture, its arches and curves, meeting its chilly surface with the warmth of her body. Staszek loved those kinds of things—the swivel chair, the oak desk, the metal holders for the pens, pencils, and highlighters that he bought by the fistful, hardcover spiral notebooks with color-coded markers on the pages. Before typing up a text on his laptop he would make notes—shorthand, sloppy, indispensible. Usually by the middle of the book he would stop looking at them, but he would always write out the beginning.
A file called “AUTOBIOGRAPHY” came open.
“The dog would lick my face, and I would pet him and pull his tail by turns.” There followed a description of the dog, the room, and his fascination with the prism that stood on a shelf. Parents, friends, school, checking out girls, high school graduation, wife, children. The text broke off with the success of the book The Back of the Eagle, which had been published a few months before their first encounter. She took his newest notebook out of the drawer. It had a cherry red and emerald helix on the cover.
“The journalist couldn’t believe that someone who had written so convincingly about religious experience could be an atheist. Firstly, that’s what writing is. Secondly, I’m really an agnostic, but I don’t like to admit to not being sure about things. Atheism sounds better.” She flipped faster through the pages. “I would like reincarnation to exist, but going backwards—I’d like to participate in the Eleusinian mysteries.” Several pages slipped from her fingers. She went back. “Wanda is like that lilac bush—I have good thoughts looking at her. She doesn’t bother me all the time about getting a divorce, she keeps her word—a real exception among women. Hell, of course I would get a divorce if I thought it would last five minutes without attracting the attention of the hyenas that are the journalists and my friends. When I was twenty-two, nobody knew me, and Janka was a quiet, gentle creature. Lucyna is hard as a rock, she threatens me with the best lawyers, and she has the backing of the family. The arrangement is clear—she gets half the money, they advertise me well and get me contacts abroad. And they don’t put disgusting gossip in the tabloids about my relationship with the secret police or with little girls.”
She had known, really. “Really,” meaning she had been telling herself it wasn’t like that. She would be hurt less by a thoughtless dislike of formality than that respect for the way things were that was expressed here so succinctly and emphatically. She had eyes and ears, she could draw her conclusions, but his silence had allowed her to deceive herself.
She looked through the file on his laptop again, for a long while filled with the agreeable rhythm of her breathing and the rain. She placed her middle finger on the backspace button, pressed it down, hard, and watched how sentences disappeared. She could delete the whole text at once, but she wanted to see the process: like developing photography backwards. As if the hair and mouth were disappearing, the facial features getting paler, until the eyes turned into blank space.
She checked to make sure the door was closed—sometimes it came ajar on its own. Staszek would slam it so hard there would be an echo, but all you had to do was pull the handle firmly, pushing it in a little.
Decisively, deliberately, she typed in the capital letters “ME””
Underneath she wrote:
The neighbor’s dog was chained up—I managed to set him free—he came through a hole in the fence and over to our side. I wanted to play with him—he bit me. The neighbor came over—he beat it so bad he killed it. I never ran away.
She lit a cigarette, waited for a column of ash to appear and then tapped it off on the perfect oak desktop.
My brother climbed trees—my mother grabbed me by the dress. I drank wine—I kissed a boy—my father called me a whore. I worked—proofreading—bookshops. Always books. I met a few writers—they would write down words—those worked like alcohol, sex, or holy mass. They fascinated me—they took something and turned it into a text. They took everything—and turned it into a text. Men. I agreed—to them turning me—into a text too. It did me harm—I didn’t feel it.
She was sweating slightly. She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another.
Most of all—I wanted to be fuel for Staszek. He is—energy and dynamism, I am—sucked into the whirlpool, a part of his magic—the co-creator, an indispensible element. I’ve managed to survive twenty-two years with him.
I love the sea—he knows it—we moved to his beloved mountains. I wanted to work—he begged me to quit—he did a dodgy deal for the lowest allowance. He called me his wife to his friends—I couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to have more children—he was always boasting of the three he had. He was gentle in bed—when he talked about sex—vulgar. If he was ashamed—it was only of that. He repeated incessantly: “I can’t stand women who write, they have the complex of men who write.” He would talk about his old lovers. I wanted to be alone—he got upset—he wanted company. He wanted to be alone—I wanted company—he got upset. He was strong—he carried the shopping bags—he chopped wood—he cheered me up—I always believed him. He knew so many things—about the Incas, the Sami—Siberian shamans. When he got sick—he had to have a shot every day. I would nag him as soon as we got up--“show me your stomach,” then he would howl I was hurting him—he didn’t want anyone else to do it. He was afraid of dying alone—he made me promise—“I won’t die first.”
I admired him—he did the things I wanted to do. He was the perfect choice for me—with him I couldn’t indulge my whims. He protected me perfectly from failure. I never loved him. Or myself.
She leaned back; her neck was hurting. She could write twice as much, but she was tired. She slammed the laptop shut.
Translated by Jennifer Croft