The big day: I spoke at the Collegium Novum of Jagiellonian University yesterday at the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival.
If you have to say anything at all, this is about the most intimidating setting that can be imagined to say it in. Queen (and Saint) Jadwiga looked down on me from above, Pope John Paul II (an alum) gazed at me compassionately from a large portrait to my right, and farther down the hall, a young Copernicus (another alum) gazed up in astonishment at the night sky in a huge painting. And then there was Humble Moi, in the prorector’s chair.
Nothing to do except take a deep breath, stand up, and imagine that everyone’s head is a cabbage. Just me and Copernicus.
It’s humbling in other ways. You roll your eyes at how boring some of the talks were – and then you get the opportunity to bore people yourself. At least I kept mine beneath the requested 20 minutes.
Queen Jadwiga...not amused
It was nevertheless an honor to speak here. A picture of the intimidating prorector’s chair I occupied is at right – the very first Book Haven photo from my brand new Droid.
Two years ago I fell in love with the university, one of the oldest in Europe, and Kraków as well, after a moonlight introduction to the city after a glass of wine with Adam Zagajewski. The city is charming at night, alive with lights and people and cafes against the dark backdrop of the trees in the Planty. That impromptu tour, which included the famous, shadowlit arches of the Collegium Maius, helped me persevere in what sometimes seemed like a daunting, Rupelstiltskin-type research task during my Milena Jesenská Fellowship with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.
I told many stories from the podium at Jagiellonian, but one of my favorites is another kind of Rumpelstiltskin-type odyssey explained by Clare Cavanagh, Miłosz’s American biographer, as she describes her relationship with the curmudgeonly Miłosz:
“Sometimes the doubts ran deeper—his life, his poetry, his soul. And sometimes the doubts were about me: ‘You will produce not my life, but only some facsimile,’ he said with a scowl in the summer of 2003. He spent several weeks that summer putting me through the biographer’s equivalent of boot camp. … every day he gave the same response: ‘Takie oszywiste pytania,’ ‘(Such obvious questions).’ Then he’d would invite me for another session the next day, when yet another set of questions would be dismissed and after an excruciating hour or two, I’d would be sent home to think up some ‘questions no one’s asked me yet.’ …
Finally, after a sleepless night spent reading and rereading the then-untranslated Second Space, I went in and asked about the poems, and about religion. Those were the questions he wanted. And that was what I’d wanted to talk about, too, but I’d thought biographers were supposed to do something different. We talked about ‘Father Seweryn’ and ‘The Treatise on Theology’—I said I’d been surprised by the Virgin at the end, and he laughed and said, ‘I was, too.’
Clare, of course, is here in Kraków, too. And still wearing her green jacket, her green glasses, and (I’ve learned in Kraków) she has a green backpack to match. Daughter of Eire.
Today I got more swag. After a seminar on translation with Agnieszka Kosińska, another of my contributors (the session was in Polish, but I went just for Agnieszka), we made a trek to the Book Institute off Kraków’s main square. The Book Institute is a wonderful organization in Kraków – funded by the Ministry of Culture, I think – that promotes Polish literature.
The books they gave me will tip the scales at the next airport. Andrzej Franaszek‘s new 1,000-page biography of Miłosz, and a 1,400-page collected poems – both published by Znak. Clare told me that about a third of Miłosz’s poems have not been translated yet, to my best recollection of the size of the English-language Collected, that sounds about right.
During a visit with octogenarian poet and author Marek Skwarnicki (another contributor) way on the outskirts of Kraków this afternoon, he said the biography is a bit of a wonder in Kraków. Andrew has spent 10 years working on the book, and is now only about 40. Such a thick book from such a young man is not commonplace in Poland, Marek said.
Now. All I have to be able to do is get on the airplane with all this.
Oh, oh, oh … I haven’t told you about the Miłosz pavilion yet. And the reading with Adonis and Ryszard Krynicki and Ed Hirsch and Jane Hirshfield tonight. There’s more to come.