In Polish literature Andrzej Bobkowski is a unique student of Joseph Conrad. This fact can be seen in many of the stories from the volume Coco de Oro, but it manifests itself most convincingly in Alma, a story now included in the collection entitled Twilight, and originally written for an anthology called The Living Conrad. Alma also proves that Józef Czapski was right when, after Bobkowski’s premature death, he wrote in Kultura that this very “son of Conrad could prove an indispensable companion for many a young Pole dreaming of adventure, of a life without surveillance, without forms of art ruined by the dictates of a decaying ideology, of a life by one’s own choice, responsible and full.”
And that is indeed what happened. One can only regret that the discovery of Andrzej Bobkowski by young Poles took place so late (at the end of the 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s) and that it happened only for a single generation. The newly published collection of prose pieces Twilight serves as a fine introduction to Bobkowski’s work, whose highest point, of course, is and will remain his Sketches in Ink. But in Twilight we find stories that correspond directly to the Sketches: a group portrait of the inhabitants of a Parisian apartment building against the backdrop of the French experience of the war; or an excursion, by bicycle naturally, around the south of France immediately after the war.
Another tasty morsel for lovers of literature will be the conversation between Boris Pasternak and the KGB officer coercing him to decline the Nobel Prize. Such a pact with the devil is also described elsewhere by Bobkowski, when he directly addresses writers living behind the iron curtain: “You lived quietly, you had a house, a well-stocked refrigerator, a yard; you had your own climate and landscape, your own countryside, trees, and sky, and at the same time your own continent within you, to which you emigrated when you felt the urge.” In this volume there is also a fragment of a novel entitled Twilight, begun six months before the author’s death, in which more than anywhere else he conveyed the entire essence of his individualism, his creative separateness and his uniqueness.
- Krzysztof Masłoń
Andrzej Bobkowski (1917-1961): author of Sketches in Ink (1957), regarded as a “hymn of praise to the freedom of the individual.” Bobkowski emigrated from Poland in 1939. He spent the occupation in Paris, and in 1948 left Europe, he and his wife settling in Guatemala. Author amongst other things of the play Black Sand (1951), sketches and stories collected in Coco de Oro, and the travel writings From a Traveler’s Diary (2006). Also of note are volumes of his correspondence with Jerzy Giedroyć, Letters 1946-1961 (1997), and with Tymon Terlecki, Letters to Tymon Terlecki (2006).
A Smile from Upstairs
From the large courtyard you enter up the side stairs. Straight ahead is the broad stone staircase with its blue carpet cascading down from the sixth floor. Ours is a seven-storey wooden corkscrew. The other staircase leads to the big respectable apartments of the real tenants. Ours twists all the way into the attic, rising steeply to the labyrinth of hallways and tiny rooms of us “upstairs folk,” as the concierge calls us in her disdainful way. To her we are not tenants. While we, as free people of the Parisian rooftops, do not recognise the tyranny of a cave-dweller from the “loge” on the ground floor.
Jacques, a lively Métro worker, once told her that when he spits from above, her apartment floods. She won’t forgive him that. And when she is rinsing down the tiled courtyard in the morning M. de Saint-Esprit, a civil servant, always asks her with a friendly smile: “Ça pousse bien?” The Comte de Farges’ Polish maid is too proud to converse with the “caretaker,” as befits a Magda who goes by the name of Mademoiselle Madeleine. Not to mention the fact that when the comtesse de Farges is away, Magda takes her place in every respect, apparently not merely eating at the same table as M. le Comte. . . M. Guillou is a dyer who colours heather, immortelles and other everlasting flowers for wreaths and mantelpiece displays. His little dog, white with coloured patches, always does in the entranceway what he ought to do in the street. The concierge suspects them of being in cahoots, but M. Guillou smiles and murmurs beneath his thick Breton mustache, “Quelle méchante bête.” As he says it, he is most certainly not thinking of his Friquet. With Eliane, a model in the Ardanse fashion house, relations have been severed for years. Eliane organised a coup d’état: she does not receive any correspondence here. Seeking to avoid inspections of her mail, from which it might emerge that wearing gowns at Ardanse’s fashion shows is not her only source of income, she has her letters sent poste restante. And so one can often hear Madame la concierge quacking in her inquisitive way at the corner bistro: “She came back this afternoon without having left in the morning,” or: “That kind, they get up when they want to take a break.” Here war is permanent. But attacks are greeted by Eliane’s smile, by that smile of ours from upstairs.
Upstairs there is no gas and no electricity. There is wind, sun, moon, and stars. The eyes encounter a boundless sea of rooftops. When the weather is good they are calm and blue; when clouds blow in and the wind starts to hammer in violent gusts, they become cold and gray. The rain ruffles their smooth surface and from their crests, like the crests of waves, the gale skims off clouds of spray and hurls it with a crash at the glass-covered skylights above us. The spider’s web of the Eiffel Tower is torn to shreds, while Sacré-Cœur, white as a sugarloaf, disappears in the mist. The wind rattles the doors and stalks the hallways; the black metal plates of the chimney covers open their iron breasts and spin impetuously. Then, when the sun comes out once again and dark blue stretches of sky are reflected in the glistening surfaces, there comes a profound and good stillness.
Spring comes sooner here too. Before the displays at Vilmorin’s blossom with colourful bags of seeds and La Samaritaine turns into a grand collection of watering cans, rakes, and chicken coops—before schools of saplings begin to sprout twice a week on the Pont au Change, and the sidewalk bristles with a green brush of vegetable and flower seedlings—we can already sense its approach. Each day the bow of the sun bends further, and a soporific fly leaves the window pane on its first wanderings. The twittering of sparrows is different as they bathe in the guttering in water from thawed frost.
Bright days passed here, and calm nights; winters passed and brief springs. The summer sun milled the tin rooftops with its heat, while the autumn cooled them down. For a long time they were pink from the neon lights of Montmartre, the boulevards and Montparnasse. Twenty one salvoes of fireworks burst over them every year in fourteenth of July bouquets after the first war. Then once again there came darkness illuminated by the glow of conflagrations, distant explosions and the stars of flares. The former good-natured smile from upstairs became malicious and subterranean.
On those long evenings M. Guillou would read the New Testament aloud in Latin, mispronouncing words he did not understand. In the processions of his congregation his comrades would admire that Latin of his even more than the beautiful banner of which he had always been so proud. Now he was running around to some kind of secret meetings and having long consultations with Jacques. M. de Saint-Esprit had become untalkative and often set off for work with a briefcase stuffed with papers. Jacques was visited by groups of young people in windcheaters who clattered on the stairs in their heavy boots. Eliane read the endless Gone with the Wind and Muson, running downstairs with Magda when the sirens began to wail.
In the depths of the Pigalle metro station fun was had. At times, in the late evening the slender figure of a tall young fellow in very new and ill-fitting clothing could be seen slipping down the long staircase. Magda said she once heard someone speaking with one of them in English. They smiled and Jacques said: “Down there, there are decent people too.” There was one language, one meaning of forbidden words.
And then the smile once again became well-meaning when, after a few days of shooting, one August evening GM engines roared on all the streets. M. de Saint-Esprit looked with contempt at his tobacco plantation in packets on the balcony and, stooping over the tricolor, smoked a Lucky. Eliane and Magda chewed gum like hundreds of thousands of the boys in green in their heavy helmets, and used the phrase “O.K.” With the pathos of Cyrano de Bergerac, Jacques recounted the story of his battles in the Batignolle neighbourhood and M. Guillou spent his time intently dyeing many flowers for many wreaths. Everyone, even the concierge, wore a friendly smile.
Translated by Bill Johnston