With author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt on the Baltic: “Literature teaches us how elaborate and intricate the human heart is.”

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Sopot on the Baltic. Czesław Miłosz Square at left. (All photos by Zygmunt Malinowski)

Our New York City based reporter/photographer Zygmunt Malinowski reports on literary events from Sopot, a city on the Baltic Coast. (Czesław Miłosz lived there at war’s end – Zygmunt documented that history here.) Our correspondent wrote to us earlier this fall, so we’re late getting this summertime post up. But on the brink of winter now, maybe it’s time to imagine yourself in the warm summer breezes off the sea… listening to a conversation with a writer not much discussed on this side of the Atlantic. (All photographs copyright Zygmunt Malinowski, of course.)

Schmitt with interviewer Katarzyna Janowska and translator

Summer on the Baltic is much cooler than in the States, and it’s very relaxing to spend a couple of hours with feet in the sand, in the shade with a light alcoholic drink, pleasant music, and a view of the beach and the sea in the background.

On the way to an open-air beach café in the Polish city of Sopot, I stopped to take a look at a gazette that I picked up at a kiosk. Literacki Sopot (Literary Sopot) featured a cover story about Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, a very popular European writer who lives in Belgium. Schmitt has written over fifty novels, short stories, and plays in French that have been translated into forty-six languages. He has been awarded the prestigious Prix Goncord.

He was scheduled for an onstage conversation that very day, within about half an hour. I immediately changed my plans. When I got to the town square and the National Gallery of Art where the interview was to take place, there was already a line of people waiting to get in. By the time I walked up the stairs, the spacious hall was filled.

His most famous book, Oscar and the Lady in Pink,  is part of his Cycle de l’invisble series, about a terminally ill boy who is encouraged by a hospital volunteer to live out his last twelve days as if each day were ten years long, is part of school curricula and has been adapted into a film. Among French readers, some place Oscar and the Pink Lady among the influential works, along with the Bible, Three Musketeers, and The Little Prince.

The line for the book signing at the National Gallery of Art

His latest book, Madame Pylinska and the Secret of Chopin is partly autobiographical. When Schmitt was nine years old, he discovered Chopin, fell in love with his music, and took piano lessons.

In later years,  an eccentric Madame Pylinska (a fictitious name based on a real person) tried to enlighten him about the mystery of Chopin. In one of the lessons, she instructed Schmitt to go to Luxemburg Park in the morning and pick flowers in such a way that the dewdrops would not fall off the petals. Chopin’s “own performances were know for their nuance and sensitivity,” she said. Schmitt’s pursuit and struggle of how to play Chopin did not make him the musician he envisioned but he learned instead how to be a better writer.

After a short introduction at the National Gallery, the interview turned to the obvious question about the author’s new book, although on a broader terms: What is the secret of art and where is its mystery?

Said Schmitt,  who has a PhD in philosophy: “Philosophy tries to explain life, art celebrates life. Paintings teach us how to observe the world; music how to listen to the world. Literature teaches us how elaborate and intricate the human heart is – our soul.

“In general, art does not help us to understand our world because there are matters that do not need to be understood. We need to learn how to interpret this life.”

Then he circled back to his book: “When I ask Madame Pylinska at the end of the book what is the secret of Chopin, she replies that it’s not possible to explain all of the secrets. We need to experience them because they are capable of enriching our lives. A beautiful life is a life where there are mysteries, and we need to live with these mysteries. We cannot resolve them all. It’s a bit dangerous for us, for interpretation of our life. Life is a mystery, every person is a mystery, to love is a mystery. We should live with these mysteries, be with them. Whenever we live in the illusion, the desire that we should understand all, than our life becomes very flat. If we accept its mysteries then life is full, people are full.”

“The beautiful life is not a life where there is no sadness,” he said.

The National Gallery of Art where the onstage interview happened.


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