Archive for November, 2011

Rare punctuation marks. Use with discretion.

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Buzzfeed is providing a useful service:  Reviving little known punctuation marks, although I’m pretty sure the folks at Buzzfeed made some of them up out of their heads.

Here are a few:

The exclamation comma.  As the site explains: “Just because you’re excited about something doesn’t mean you have to end the sentence.”  I think I’m going to use that one a lot.

The “interrobang” – “It’s a combo-Exclamation/Question mark, and it’s awesome. It is the glorious punctuational equivalent of saying OMGWTF?!”  Well, yes … I think they made that one up.

The third is very useful, and much more evocative than a parenthetical “snark” or the annoyingly ubiquitous  “lol.”  According to Buzzfeed: “Also called the Percontation Point and the Irony Mark, this one’s used to indicate that there’s another layer of meaning in a sentence. Usually a sarcastic or ironic one. So it is essentially a tool for smart people to use to make stupid people feel even stupider. Which makes it the best punctuation mark of all.”

Read ten more here.  (Comments are kind of fun, too.)

Bodleian’s treasures on display: paradise as a library

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

"Marco Polo's Travels," 14th century. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

As you enter the darkened room,  a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio is to your right.  Enigmatic scraps of a poem by Sappho, circa 2nd century A.D., are to your left.  And all around you the wonders of the world: weighted with heavy seals, a 1217 “engrossment” of the Magna Carta is nearby (it was reissued under Henry III); so is a 1455 Gutenberg Bible.  In the corner of one glass case –  an exquisite 18th-century miniature scroll of the Bhagavad Gita, which shines like a cache of jewels, somehow pressed and rolled into paper.

William Shakespeare, First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” Jorge Luis Borges famously said. And here, in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, “Treasures of the Bodleian,” 30 Sept. – 23 Dec. 2011, everyone could see that, well, he had a point.  The exhibition anticipates a permanent gallery in the Weston Library in 2015.  The exhibition shows some of the Bodleian’s rarest, most important, and most evocative rarities.

To wit:  In a corner, a single page of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s Frankenstein describes the ominous night of the creature’s creation. Her scrawled text is corrected and amended by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Other handwritten manuscripts are the work of Jane Austen, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Others are the work of a brush rather than a nib: an exquisite 17th-century picture scroll of the sad Tale of Urashima, a classic Japanese fairy tale which I had read as a child.

For Sir Thomas Bodley, who basically created the museum that opened its doors in 1602, the Shakespeare first folio did not seem like the greatest find. According to the exhibition guide, he “would likely have dismissed this as one of the ‘idle books, and rife raffes’ that had not place among the Library’s predominantly theological collections.”

The volume left the library under mysterious conditions in 1674, and resurfaced only in 1905.  By that time, “the Bodleian was prepared to pay the unheard-of sum of £3,000 to buy back ‘its original long-lost copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare.'”

William Shakespeare,First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

I visited the exhibition in the company of my friend, Oxford’s Eliza Tudor, and we gravitated towards our favorites.  Hers seemed to be J.R.R. Tolkien‘s brilliant golden watercolor of Bilbo Baggins, rendered invisible by a magic ring, as he converses with a dragon.  She also took a liking to the Selden map of China, from the Ming era – the earliest Chinese map to show not only shipping routes, but also to depict China as part of a greater East and Southeast Asia. And for me … well, what a choice!  Perhaps I’ll plump for one of the earliest editions of Dante‘s Divine Comedy, fully illustrated, made within decades of his death (see video below).

But there are littler treasures, too – Mohandas Gandhi wrote to his friend, the Anglican missionary Charles Andrews, in a 1932 prison letter exhibited in the collection: “I can therefore never say beforehand what will occupy my attention exclusively or for the most part at a given moment and since a civil resister bargains for the punishment he receives for his resistance, he must not fret over it. Therefore and to that extent I am content with my lot.”

Letter from an Egyptian boy to his father, 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Eliza arrived with her young son Fabian, who was mildly ill and did not attend school that day. His own choice was no surprise.  The exhibit that intrigued him the most was one of the earliest – about the same era, perhaps a little later, as the Sappho fragments: on a sheet of papyrus, an Egyptian schoolboy Theon complains to his father:

Theon to his father Theon, greetings. A nice thing to do, not taking me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So: if you go to Alexandria I shall not take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what happens. And my mother said to Archelaos, “He’s upsetting me, take him away!” A nice thing to do, sending me these grand presents, a hill of beans. They put us off the track that day, the 12th, when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t send for me, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink. There! I pray for your health.

Blenheim at dusk: the most beautiful spot in the world?

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Winston Churchill said it was the best view in England … or perhaps the world. For him, it very likely amounted to the same thing.

Tussling at dusk: Georgina, Fabian, and Milo Tudor Caruncho

At Blenheim Palace at dusk, or dawn, or any other time of day, it’s hard to argue the point. You walk in through the gate that leads from the town of Woodstock (not the grander entrance on the main road), look to your right, and you see this delicious scene.

Churchill’s views on his birthplace (he described the estate’s origins in his massive work,  Marlborough: His Life and Times) were related to me by my friend Eliza Tudor, who lives in nearby Wootton, next to Woodstock, the ancient burg where her ancestor Edward the Black Prince was born.


Blenheim is, of course, the 18th-century palace where the Nobel writer Churchill was born, where he proposed to his future wife Clementine, and where all the Dukes of Marlborough lived (Sir Winston was, alas, was the son of a younger son).  It also represents the labor of England’s legendary landscape architect Capability Brown (marvelous name, that), who created two thousand acres of verdant slopes, leading to this lake, with architect Sir John  Vanbrugh‘s Grand Bridge.

Anyway, these pictures (except for Capability’s) are taken from Eliza’s iphone.  Not bad.  With only a little imagination, they take me away from a messy house, a score of emails and letters to write, and the dishes in the sink on a long holiday weekend.

Hope they do the same for you.  At least a little.

TLS: Czeslaw Milosz around the world

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

Rock star treatment

What a nice way to celebrate Thanksgiving!  My article in the Times Literary Supplement is online today, and not behind a paywall.  It begins:

In May this year, the streets of old Cracow were dominated by two names, two events. Czeslaw Milosz’s centenary jostled with Pope John Paul II’s beatification in windows, on banners and billboards, on bookstore shelves, in fliers and leaflets – the pope, perhaps, having the edge over the Nobel laureate, except on the kiosks where Milosz Festival posters prevailed. “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a Purgatory”, Milosz told me over a decade ago. “So he must go through that moment of revision after death.” The “revision”, at this point, is a triumph of twenty-first-century branding and marketing, featuring commemorative books, pens, postcards, blank books, and T-shirts; Milosz’s scrawled signature appears on napkins and even on the wrappers of tiny biscotti.

The Works

Few poets have been feted with such rock star exuberance. The “Milosz Pavilion” on Szczepanski Square hosted literary luminaries such as Adam Zagajewski, Bei Dao, Tomas Venclova, Adonis, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya. (Even the reclusive Wislawa Szymborska made a rare public appearance with her colleague Julia Hartwig at the medieval St Catherine’s Church.) Meanwhile, the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum sponsored a week-long scholarly conference with seventy participants from around the world, including the eminent critics Helen Vendler and Clare Cavanagh, and some leading Polish scholars. The Jagiellonian Library, farther from the centre of town, exhibited manuscripts, photographs and first editions. The events were attended by thousands. All this year, books have poured from Polish publishers. Most notably, Milosz’s own publisher, Znak, issued two hefty volumes: Andrzej Franaszek’s 1,000-page biography – a bestseller – and a new 1,500-page Collected Poems. A few of the literati complained to me that Milosz was not receiving his due among the younger generation – an honoured marble bust to be dusted off seasonally, but not read or remembered – but I saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The rest is here.

Robert Hass: A new meaning for “beat poets”

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011


“None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning.”

When former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer prizewinning poet Robert Hass went to visit Berkeley’s Occupy movement, it was mostly from curiosity. He had heard that thousands of UC-Berkeley students, staff, and faculty protesting a proposed 81 percent tuition hike were “beaten viciously” earlier in the day.  “I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation?” He went to see for himself. And you can see him at about 1:13 in the KTVU video here.

I don’t know much about the Occupy movement; I’m mistrustful of large crowds of any kind.  But I do know Bob Hass, a gentle presence who has been personally kind and generous to me.

So when the Berkeley professor, who turned 70 last March, gets beaten by police with billy clubs, it’s hard to be of two minds about it. Ditto if they push and knock down his slender wife, the poet Brenda Hillman.  Here’s the way the Bob explained the episode in a New York Times oped:


“I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. … If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines. …


“We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. … I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, ‘You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!’ A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging.”

This passage is vintage Bob:


“My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.”

In Berkeley, of all places.  A place where the police should have known better. This month’s events looked more like Tiananmen Square than the home of the Free Speech Movement.

To paraphrase George Orwell, or rather to quote Jesse Kornbluth at the Huffington Post paraphrasing George Orwell: When I see a policeman with a club beating a man on the ground, I don’t have to ask whose side I’m on.

Here’s Celeste Langan being dragged by the hair:

The trail of “an Arab and his horse”: Poet Boris Pasternak, artist Leonid Pasternak, and Oxford

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

The poet as a boy, 1898 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The poet Marina Tsvetaeva said that fellow poet Boris Pasternak looked like “an Arab and his horse.”

He does, really.  It’s an amazing, slightly Asiatic face.

I had ample opportunity to gaze at the visage of the Nobel laureate at the Ashmolean Museum, in the inconspicuous Print Room in a secluded corner on the second floor.

Not enough people know the author of Dr. Zhivago – for example, that he was primarily a poet, not novelist – but even fewer know the prominent members of his family.  His father, Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945), was a brilliant painter and friend of the Tolstoys.

In the Print Room, the helpful librarians brought out a large portfolio of the artist’s chalk and watercolor sketches and paintings of his family, of the leading figures of his times, of still lifes and landscapes.  With the white cotton gloves the museum provided, I lifted and examined each in turn, including portraits of Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others.

I met the Pasternak family during the Pasternak celebration at Stanford last year (I wrote about it here). I was delighted to renew the acquaintance with two of them in Oxford – Ann Pasternak Slater and Catherine Oppenheimer, both nieces of the poet and granddaughters of the artist.  Catherine is an eminent psychiatrist; Ann is professor emeritus of English literature at Oxford (she is currently writing about Evelyn Waugh).

Ann is also a formidable critic, and a matchless champion for Pasternak’s work.  She wrote last year in The Guardian:

As a public speaker he was incomprehensible. His work is notoriously hard to translate. …

Pasternak’s work is also difficult because his mind-set is unpredictably complex, evocatively associative, synaesthetic and polysemous. His vocabulary is exceptionally wide, and his intellect has a pronounced metaphysical cast. In an uncollected letter to TS Eliot, Pasternak explores their shared aesthetic in ambitiously faulty English. Eliot’s art, he writes, like his own, is “a casually broken off fragment of the density of being itself; of the hylomorphic matter of existence . . .” Pasternak became much more accessible in his later work. Doctor Zhivago was suicidally vivid and forthright. The poems that accompany it are translucent.

"The Yellow Tree: Autumn Landscape," 1918 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

From his schooldays, Pasternak tells us, Yury Zhivago had dreamed of writing “a book of impressions of life in which he would conceal, like sticks of dynamite, the most striking things he had so far seen”. Doctor Zhivago was that book. It was packed with dynamite and, as Pasternak expected, it blew up in his face.

I talk a little about that explosion here.

I had lunch with Ann and Catherine in the former’s Oxford home, which is almost a museum of their grandfather’s artwork.  (A link for the Pasternak trust is here.) Of course we talked about the translations of the poet (Ann dissed the newest Pevear-Volokhonsky translation in the article I’ve quoted).

Ann describes her uncle’s poetry this way: “Boris’s poetry is formally rich, regularly rhymed, and metrically precise. It is full of delectable assonances, at once musical and wholly natural. My mother’s first priority was to reproduce his aural effects. She did. This difficult demand inevitably exacted its own price. Her English is flawed – it sounds Russian. But it sings, as Pasternak’s poetry does.”

My inevitable question:  Which of the Pasternak translations does she favor?  Her answer: Mother knows best.  (The link, here, also has rare recordings of Pasternak reading his poems in Russian.)

Ann kindly gave me an out-of-print volume of her mother’s translations.  Here’s an example of Lydia Pasternak Slater‘s translation:

Sultry Night

It drizzled, but not even grasses
Would bend within the bag of storm;
Dust only gulped its rain in pellets,
The iron roof – in powder form.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1921-24 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The village did not hope for healing.
Deep as a swoon the poppies yearned
Among the rye in inflammation,
And God in fever tossed and turned.

In all the sleepless, universal,
The damp and orphaned latitude,
The signs and moans, their posts deserting,
Fled with the whirlwind in pursuit.

Behind them ran blind slanting raindrops
Hard on their heels, and by the fence
The wind and dripping branches argued –
My heart stood still – at my expense.

I felt this dreadful garden chatter
Would last forever, since the street
Would also notice me, and mutter
With bushes, rain and window shutter.

No way to challenge my defeat –
They’d argue, talk me off my feet.

Book qua book

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

E-books, graphic novels, even Facebook … we may know when it ended, but when, actually, did the object we call a “book” actually begin?  Not scrolls, not papyrus, but actual, bound reading material that are recognizably books?

A few days ago, I wrote about the information revolution brought about by Gutenberg’s press (and I was pleased that the New Yorker linked to my post here).  But the acclaimed exhibition currently at the British Library tackles the question from a different angle.  (The Queen launched the exhibition on Monday – read and see more here and here).

What struck me as remarkable is how stable “the book” was in the centuries prior to Gutenberg.  Beginning with a 500 A.D. fragment of Genesis from the Eastern Mediterranean, the exhibition suggests a very early date.  Alas, the whole of this early work (“probably never before or since was the book of Genesis so profusely illustrated”)  was mostly destroyed in a 1731 fire.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 A.D. may have transformed the preexisting culture in many ways – but clearly not the book. It’s pretty much the same glorious product you see after the Conquest. In the exhibition, the psalters and prayerbooks go back to the early 9th century.

The signature piece for the exhibition, the early 15th century “God the Creator” featured on the catalog cover above (I couldn’t resist shelling out the £25 for the hefty tome – I have no idea how I’ll lug it home…) was perhaps my favorite.  A practical God measures separates the earth and the waters with calipers, against a crowd of nearly invisible blue angels. He is surrounded by a mandorla of red seraphim.

All of this is far, far from the Penguin paperback I stuffed into my handbag for train reading. Gutenberg has a lot to answer for.


Waiting for The Last Lion at Churchill’s Chartwell

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Good try, but no photo can catch the perfection (Photo: Baryonic Being)

When, oh when, will the third volume of William Manchester‘s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm come out?

I know, I know.  It’s going to be written not by Manchester, who died in 2004, but by Paul Reid, and everyone is wondering if it will be up to snuff.  So much so it’s a wonder that Reid doesn’t just hide under his bed and refuse to write anything at all.

Such a course of action would not, of course, be in the spirit of Churchill, who was an indefatigable writer.  I wrote about that here.  As Manchester wrote in volume 2: “Only after entering his employ will [his assistant] Bill Deakin discover, to his astonishment, that Churchill lacks a large private income, that he lives like a pasha yet must support his extravagant life with his pen. The Churchill children are also unaware that, as [his daughter] Mary will later put it, the family ‘literally lived from book to book, and from one article to the next.’ Her mother, who knows, prays that each manuscript will sell.”

His daughter had a lot more to say when I visited his home for 40 years, Chartwell, in Kent, over the weekend.  Mary Soames wrote in her introduction to Chartwell’s guidebook:

“While Winston and his children – Diana, Randolph and Sarah (and later myself) loved Chartwell unconditionally, Clementine (his wife) from the first had serious practical reservations about the whole project. Her prudent Scottish side judged the renovations (involving largely rebuilding the house), and the subsequent cost of running the whole property would place a near intolerable strain on the Churchill’s somewhat fragile financial raft.  She was to be proved right, and over the years her pleasure in the place was seldom unalloyed by anxiety.”

She worried.

No photo can quite do justice to the exquisite ponds and gardens – not much to see in wintertime, except Clementine’s pruned rosebushes, the signs where Sweet William and herbs like chervil grew.  Oh yes, and giant rhubarb, “Gunnera manicata.”  But the green expanses flecked with autumn trees on a crisp and flawless November day must be what heaven is like.  I even saw one of the black swans he painted, spreading its wings in the shrubbery.

I am still munching on the apples from the property, sold for donations – a cooking apple called “Bramley,” and a dessert apple.

Other signs of his labor:  His large painting studio on the property, filled with his canvases.  The small hut for butterfly breeding.  The walls he created as a bricklayer.  Even space for a small pet graveyard, walled off from visitors, but which contained a few white benches for solemn meditation.  Alas, however the house is closed to visitors over the winter – I never saw the heavy-beamed studio I described in the earlier post, where he wrote.

And the books did pretty well, apparently.  When I visited Cambridge, I was told that the Churchill family had endowed Cambridge’s Churchill College.  More than 20 of its members have won Nobel prizes – in keeping with its founder, who was awarded the Nobel literature prize in 1953.




My single night as a Girtonian

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Bastion of sanity in late-Victorian Grim

“I give lessons to Amalie, chiefly in history; she reads a lot and we talk. History is my thing. My Cambridge degree is in history. I’m a Girton girl. If I have any spare time I work on my own notes, which might be a book some day.”

So says the governess Ruth Nibsmith about her young charge, as she conspires with art apprentice Francis Cornish, her partner in intelligence work for the British  in the years leading up to World War II.

Ever since reading those lines in Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone, Girton College has retained an certain cachet for me.  So naturally I jumped at poet Gwyneth Lewis’s invitation to attend the Girton’s annual guest night.

They aren’t “Girton girls,” however, the Welsh poet explained.  The phrase she used often in my brief tour was “Girtonian.”  She herself is a Girtonian, and now the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow Commoner at her alma mater.  She’s currently working on a fascinating verse play about the “lost years” of Clytemnestra, and just published a new collection, Sparrow Tree, this year.

Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Girton College is way out on the outskirts of Cambridge and is decidedly not one of the architectural wonders of the city.  It was built in the 1870s in the grim, late Victorian style – rumor has it that the backup arrangement was for the building to house an insane asylum, if the college plans fell through.  This was England’s first residential college for women – but you never know what high-powered edjucation might do to the wimmen.

To that end, of course, it brings up the theme of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, which tackles the prejudices these early women scholars encountered – that novel, however, was based on Somerville College at Oxford.

Gwyneth took me past the Girton room where Virginia Woolf delivered her landmark talk, later published as A Room of One’s Own in October 1928.

We also visited Hermione, a very early woman scholar, in the Lawrence Room – the Roman-period Egyptian mummy (circa 20-40 A.D.) was found in Hawara, in the Fayum, in 1911.  We don’t know much about her.  She apparently died when she was younger than 25, and she’s identified only as Hermionê Grammatikê,  or “Hermione the literary lady” or “Hermione the language teacher.”

Most reminiscent of Gaudy Night was the formal dinner in the grand, high-ceilinged dining room, presided over by Girton’s glamorous Mistress, the geographer Susan Smith.  (I sat next to her husband at the candle-lit table; he’s early-music cornettist Jeremy West, who will be performing in Berkeley next February.)  Sherry to begin, white wine and red wine courses, a cheese course, a chocolate-and-coffee course, and postprandials by the fire.


I have to take that last bit on faith.  Gwyneth whisked me to the station just as everyone was moving to the fire for more conversation – last train at 11.15 p.m.

Too quickly, alas, to meet the most endearing character of Girton:  Buster.  The once-feral tomcat has been not only adopted by the college, but given some sort of endowment guaranteeing lifetime food and medical care.  Gwyneth says he’s still not above swiping those who become overly familiar.

I’ll have to take that on faith, too.  All I saw was a food dish and his comfortable haunts. Bursar Deborah Lowther kindly provided a photo from her iphone.

Postscript on Nov. 13: Gwyneth kindly sent me the words from the note I saw posted in a hallway, from George Eliot to Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College. The letter, supporting women’s education in the proposed college, is dated 20 November, 1867:

My Dear Miss Davies,

We strongly object to the proposal that there should be a beginning made ‘on a small scale’. To spend forces and funds in this way would be a hindrance rather than a furtherance of the great scheme which is pre-eminently worth trying for. Every one concerned should be roused to understand that a great campaign has to be victualled for.

M.E. Lewes (pen name: George Eliot)

(Gwyneth on camera below)

SiCa Presents: Gwyneth Lewis from SiCa on Vimeo.

Conscience or complacency? Izabela Filipiak on Słobodzianek’s Our Class

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

No exoneration: Polish production of “Nasza Klasa”

On July 10, 1941 in the Polish village of Jedwabne,  hundreds of Jews were herded into a barn, which a Polish mob then burned to the ground. The perpetrators of the massacre were not, as originally thought, the Nazis, but overwhelmingly neighbors.  This atrocity, largely uncovered by Jan Gross’s 2001 book Neighbors, is the subject of a controversial play by Tadeusz Słobodzianek‘s Nasza Klasa (Our Class).

I had not heard of the play, which was performed by the National Theatre in 2009 (you can read about it here and here and here) – not until the presentation by Paul Vickers of the University of Glasgow today at the University College of London’s conference on Polish Literature Since 1989.

I hadn’t heard of novelist Izabela Filipiak, either – though she was educated at Mills College, she is unpublished in English.  The Gdańsk professor’s works were much discussed at the conference, and she was introduced as a prominent public intellectual as well as notable author.  Her remarks on the play brought to light some ambiguous issues about the portrayal of atrocities onstage or in films, especially as time passes and a new generation has lost the connective tissue that attaches them to recent history:

“Paul Vickers argues that Our Class contributes to ‘ongoing Polish efforts to confront the memory of ethnic Poles’ crimes against the Polish Jewish neighbors and classmates during World War II.’ … However, I also agree with a critic from Krytyka Polityczna, Witold Mrożek, who argues that since the contemporary Polish audience cannot identify with Polish characters from Our Class, the play does not facilitate such in-depth efforts.  Our Class is not their class, Mrożek says.  Polish theatergoers are more likely to identify with the children of Jewish merchants who dream about becoming teachers and movie stars, rather than with children of peasants who have no professional ambitions.  To Warsaw theatergoers these Polish characters are as alien as contemporary inhabitants of the so-called “Poland C.”  Anti-semitism thus becomes a peasant issue.  Evidently, it would suffice to educate our peasants, together with our clergy, in order to wipe out the anti-Semitism which sprouts from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other publications rooted in pseudo-scientific research … Wider European audiences are similarly put at ease; since Polish intellectual anti-Semitism was part of European intellectual anti-Semitism, we all become exonerated.  We have nothing in common with Polish peasants.”

Polish author with a California degree

I, too, am nervous about atrocities presented as the act of the other, who is not like us at all, rather than uncovering the roots of our individual, as well as collective, violence and cowardice and complicity.

Vickers responded,  “That’s not a problem with the text, it’s a problem with the kind of people who go to the theater.”  Which is also true.

These remarks of Filipiak’s also interested me, given my recent interest in the degree of allowable fabrication in creating drama from real-life people, in this case I was discussing the movie Anonymous):

“I am also wary about the way Słobodzianek presents the Polish-Jewish couple, the woman having converted to Christianity.  The couple’s history, which includes infanticide and infertility, exemplifies the old prejudice against intermarriage.  Transgressing one taboo starts them on a slipper slope and renders them infertile. I also wonder how the actual Polish-Jewish couple from Jebwabne felt about his rendition of their marriage.”

Said critic Charles Spencer: “It’s a remarkable and powerful play – but not one I would willingly sit through again.”


Postscript:  Uilleam Blacker of Cambridge offered this quotation today, from Przemysław Czapliński :  “…to be an inhabitant of any space today is to be aware that we exist on the pages of a palimpsest, that we walk in the footsteps of those who lived here before us, we write down our narrative in their narratives, we erase the signs of their existence, we add our own motifs to their motifs.”