Marian Pankowski's later prose makes a show of being the work of old age, is patently autobiographical and, strange as it may sound, in its own way joyful. The author constantly refers to a particular, though rarely exploited privilege of old age, which could perhaps be expressed as follows: "I no longer have to pretend or indeed, to prove anything." By this token, the old age he describes also has a liberating quality, which is what makes it joyful. The old writer, suggests Pankowski, is someone who has seen through the bogusness of literature, and if he does ever surrender to fiction, he is always fully aware of the humbug. In the story that opens Pankowski's latest book there is a good deal of coquetry. A retired professor of literature, with - what a surprise! - the same name as the author, spends the winter holidays in Ostend. He is tracked down there by Henrieta, a Polish journalist. They converse with each other in an odd, extremely literary way, a style both mannered and eccentric; in addition, Henrieta is a suspiciously shrewd individual. In the end, it turns out that this consummate expert on Pankowski's works is also the daughter of a woman who was once the hero's great love. The sorrows of young Werther? Of course, especially as the same story is interlaced with an amusing apocryphal text - fictional notes from Goethe's actual journey of autumn 1790 from Silesia to Cracow and Wieliczka. Marian Pankowski's prose has always been provocative and spectacularly lacking in humility, but the work of his latter years takes this to its limits. I am thinking chiefly of his merciless, extremely ironical attitude to himself and his own work. There are no qualifiers here, no makeover, nothing that could be classed as a writer's concern for his own literary reputation or for the future success of his work. Quite the reverse - it is as if Pankowski wanted to convince us that he doesn't take himself or his art seriously, or in any case not to excess.
- Dariusz Nowacki
"Travel" is the first word to occur to me as I sit over my typewriter, and immediately thereafter comes "journey", accompanied by a whole host of qualifiers all jostling for space - long, tiring, arduous... (...) Finally, right at the front of my brain I can hear the word "voyage". Ah, at last, something that fits the bill. Voyage. The great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe voyaged, of course he did, naturally... He voyaged in order to tour foreign countries... He was a traveller. And hence his Wanderslied, his fraternal und bald ruhest Du auch... Time to extricate myself from philology and get on with the journal.
Goethe's unsuccessful journey
Oppeln, den 3 August 1790
We left Oppeln just before dawn by post diligence to avoid the heat of the day. I note here the quality of our equipage - nowhere on earth would you find horses so fleet of foot, even by leaving not only no stone but not a single rock unturned! Their muscles simply shone. Nothing but bays, perhaps not as elegant as the fine steeds at the Archducal Stud, but their alacrity places them a cut above the rest. This I learned from the Silesian coachman, who is a connoisseur of horses, as much of an expert as our Heidelberg botanist Heinz Unkrauter is on herbs. I was hoping to describe the sunrise, with Aurora leading the way... but the sight I saw afforded nothing but relief that after the darkness in which the world had been plunged, the daylight finally ensued. Unfortunately I did not succeed in summoning the inspiration, perhaps because I was reminded of Tuscany, of those hillsides clad in vineyards and olive groves... the sort of land wo die Zitronen blühen... Another reason perhaps was the recent harvest season, hence a landscape divested of sundry crops, so that the only Landschaft on show is ein Stoppelfeld. The local word is just as coarse and rugged as the item it describes. (...) We passed an alder wood, then came more stubble fields on either side of the road, here no longer pitted, but sandy and so friable in the hot season that our stargazers, who measure the relentless passage of time with a sand clock, could copiously fill their hourglasses here! Another hill, and beyond it a village. The cottages are so close that I could almost lean out of the diligence and knock at the door, to be greeted by the local Philemon and Baucis... And then future generations of artists will come here in remembrance of my encounter with them, and how I toasted the sun with the metaphor that it has turned the world beneath it to pure gold. We drove on into the village, but there we found a wasteland. Only the creaking and groaning of our diligence could be heard, and the snorting of our horses as the coachman reined them in. The Hasidic merchants alighted at the inn, to wait for us there until later. Just then we heard singing, and from no great distance. We drove closer, then continued on foot. And what did we find? The villagers, that is the reapers, were bearing a harvest garland to the lord of the manor and were singing gaily. The garland was magnificent: following the fashion of ancient crowns, it was woven into cones from ears of wheat, emblazoned with poppies, cornflowers and corn cockles. Red apples and sprigs of walnut were plaited into it too, to illustrate all the abundance of Pomona's bounty. Die Herrschaft were waiting on the porch of a modest manor house. They received the garland, then the oldest man present made a speech, and again the choir began to sing. Then, at a sign from the lord of the manor, everything fell silent, both the hubbub and the singing. He thanked his vassals for their loyal service and invited the whole assembly to the dance. First to leap up were the young! The squire himself sat down to table with the farmers, while the lady of the manor sat among the womenfolk. I asked the Polish nobleman to present me to the owners of the estate. How heartily we laughed when we found they were... our own colonists! There we had a stand-up drink. The horses were now watered and rested, and the merchants were waiting before the inn in the shade of a lime tree. Off we set, carrying away in our memory snatches of Slavonic song and the wild gaze of the dancing rustics as the sparks flew from their hobnailed boots. The buttermilk was excellent. And there was a surprise: von Trembecki, the Polish nobleman, confessed to being a poet... as well as Chamberlain to His Royal Majesty King Stanisław August! When I mentioned that I was going to Cracow, he nodded; when I added that I would also go to Wieliczka he warmly approved and added, "C'est fabuleux!" Then we had a monotonous drive along the very banks of the Oder. There was some couleur locale at the watering hole, where I saw fishermen who had just come to shore. They offered us some resilient pike, still kicking and bucking. I was most regretful that we were so far from town, for I would have had a fish preserved, so that it might hold its course thereafter in a glass-case in my Lesezimmer and remind me of the element of living waters.
The pedantic editor
My dear Professor, I am replying by fax to your fax, first and foremost to thank you warmly for such a swift and estimable response. Our in-house translator at once produced an "off the cuff" translation, and we had the pleasure of listening to this fine prose... Then came a shower of comments, mostly from the lips of our younger employees. Goethe's fastidious view of the post-harvest landscape earned great praise, as did his narcissistic regrets that it was not his beloved Italia. The image of the fisherman with the huge, thrashing pike was also very much to our taste... Regrettably, this quality is not shared by the description of the harvest festival and the manor house. One of our editorial staff referred to the description of the crown woven from the fruits of the earth as a "still life". We feel that this scene lacks dynamism. We were also surprised that the manor house reception was held standing up, and that they drank buttermilk. Where does our famous Polish vodka come in? Also somewhat surprising is the scene of the reapers' greeting and their Polish songs, for which the colonists thanked them, are we to presume...in German? In short, to our minds the coachman should rather have chosen a traditional inn as a stopping place. And if he had continued to insist on the manor house, they'd have had to change coachman... I'm joking, of course - I do beg your pardon. May I also make so bold as to ask for yet another page from the journal of the author of Faust on his journey across Silesia to Cracow... so that our readers may embrace the scenes and incidents you saw and overheard with all their senses? Please do not hurry - after all, we are travelling by diligence, n'est-ce pas?
With the deepest respect and admiration, von Krapfen
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones