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Brief Accomplishments

Magdalena Grzebałkowska talks with Agata Tuszyńska

I read that you dress up for writing. I am jealous, as I write in my sweats.

You didn’t finish reading. In one of the interviews I said that as a little girl I used to visit the Kazimierzówka in Kazimierz Dolny and I saw Maria Kuncewiczowa as she would sit down to write. Refined, in a dress suit, with painted nails and a string of ambers or pearls around her neck. I envied her a lot and I imagined this was how a woman writer should look like. As if writing did not require any effort. A neat job. Whereas writing is torture, extracting from oneself throbbing sentences. Work clothes are needed for that and not some fashionable, ball attire. Also a dachshund is of use.

Do you agree with Leopold Tyrmand who thought that a true writer hates writing?

People who brag about the ability of putting words on paper are highly dubious to me. I think that only wannabe writers like to write. In any case, for me it is difficult, more and more difficult over the years.

But why?

It’s a very solitary job, requiring extraordinary discipline. Without any instant gratification. Sometimes, the book takes years, before I decide to show it to others, and that means months of hesitation, internal struggle and uncertainty. First, there is a labor of conversation, meetings with a character or witnesses of his life lasting for hours. In case of Vera Gran it was extremely exhausting. I dreamt her stories, her harm and pain. I listened to it. Then again and again in order to mold her monologues. Putting words on paper is a donkey work but important, since then a character’s language and personality are being constructed. Finally, an attempt at a structure and joining the pieces together take place. Hours of sitting in a chair, matching pictures and sentences. One’s back starts to hurt, a break is not advised, but one has to walk oneself out (help of a dachshund is not to be undermined). Nothing is as important as to make it to the end of a story line, a chapter.

Do you wait for a first sentence to begin a book?

Never. I don’t begin with a first sentence. I always write scenes that are shaped to the greatest extend. Where they will appear in a book is decided later. A while ago, I was in the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, in a writer’s house, where I met a Brazilian writer, working on a crime fiction. We would meet at dinner every night – visiting during a day is forbidden because of work hygiene – and he would inform me on regular bases, “I finished the first chapter, I killed one person”, “I finished the second chapter, second corpse, third one…” and so on. I wish I could do the same. I was jealous of him, for I can’t write in a linear way. I can’t find a rhythm of a text in its chronology. Monologues were created first in Vera Gran, but where were they to be placed was not clear. In A Family History of Fear (Rodzinna historia lęku) I described each person individually and not necessary beginning with a first sentence. And when the material is somewhat ready I watch what takes place in between images, text any my thoughts. There has to be a surprise, some electric spark. I re-write the entire text continually, mixing and matching it differently.

Can you disappear from the world for long when the data is collected and you have to write?

I wish I could do it for longer than it’s possible. Usually six months of extensive writing is enough, but it is extremely difficult in Warsaw where something is happening at all times: invitations to venues, book signings, interviews, trips. I admire people who can write on a spur-of-the-moment bases. They have three spare hours, they sit and work. Regrettably, I can’t, I have to seclude myself and write from dawn to dusk. An ideal situation is to enter the space of the book and not resurface. That is why, when I only can, I retreat. I like American writer’s houses where inspiration floats in the air. It’s encouraging. I wrote a number of books in such places.

Which particular moment in creating a book do you like the most?

Everything before writing. An idea, grasping a trace of a character, a journey in his paths, talks with people who knew him well. Documentation. This takes a year, two years. Assembling a book is also interesting – putting the pieces apart, wondering how will they be combined. Modeling a portrait out of different, often contradictory, elements. I braided a narrative of Isaac Bashevis Singer of some stories about him, stories of people who knew him, and my own search reports. A moment when a book is already written is magnificent. A brief accomplishment. It lasts a moment, then reality and an internal need for continuous work hit back. Subsequent characters are waiting to be written about.

The people that you write about are not accidental.

Singer used to say that a chance is merely a mask on the face of destiny. Protagonists of my books cross my paths at a certain point to answer the most important questions that I ask myself.

How do you know they will have something to say and are worthy of a book?

Maybe it’s pride but I know that characters that I am fascinated by will also be interesting to my readers. Mostly because their stories relate to more than simply an individual life. They are like a mirror in which many worlds, a whole epoch, an important problem reflect. Apparently, I chose such type of characters instinctively.

First it was Maria Wisnowska that stood in your way, the popular fin de siècle Warsaw actress, shot by her lover, a tsar officer Aleksander Barteniew. What could you learn from her?

That one can’t play with love. That it’s not easy to be an icon of Polishness in a garrison city under the Russian rule that Warsaw – the capitol city of Priwislinsky Kraj – was then. At that time the Polish language was accepted only in theaters and churches. Admired by hundreds of spectators, an applauded and glorified flame went to bed with the Muscovite, the occupier. Thus letting herself be killed. Dealing with it was impossible. A legend had to alleviate the guilt, presenting Wisnowska as a patriot sacrificing her life in defense of honor.

When did you find this character?

While working on my Ph.D. dissertation on the history of theatre at the Institute of Arts at the Polish Academy of Sciences, prof. Zbigniew Raszewski was my supervisor. We looked for a leading actress of the biggest social-political-criminal scandal in the history of the Polish stage. Both of us, more or less in secret, would passionately read crime fiction. I owe him a lot. He taught me that a detail as a key to reality we want to explore. He assigned tasks that at first seemed confusing but with time I understood their value for a text: how buttons of a ceremonial uniform of a hussar Bartniew’s looked like, what gifts the stars of Warsaw theatres were given by their admirers, what seats in the audience were occupied by spies and clappers, where was an army’s brothel and how expensive were the services there, what route to a theater did Ofelia take. I kept checking, reading, exploring. I spent three months in the archives, at the professor’s request, looking for Wisnowska’s birth certificate. It was not immediately that I saw any logic in what I was doing. I resisted, I wanted to quit a number of times, but he fueled my ambition. Several possible dates were to be verified, as she would make herself younger. I strenuously cranked a film reader, when dozens of Cyrillic documents passed before my eyes. I cried and kept looking. Until I found it. My professor was right, this one document opened up the past of my character, allowed me to construct her psychological background. The fact that she entered a big world directly from the realm of a butcher’s store was of a great significance to her. I understood that a thorough search is my responsibility and I never allowed myself to skip it.

The book on Wisnowska was published in 1990. Did you at that moment think of yourself: I am a biography writer?

It is other people who are to label us. I don’t think of myself in these terms. I write books. May be a writer is a better definition?

How about a reporter?

And also a detective, archeologist, traveler. Writing such books requires the most archetypal characteristics according to Ryszard Kapuściński: patience, humility, perseverance, a bit of luck and madness. One has to be capable of entering every hole, getting in touch with everybody, knowing how to talk to a person if he’s alive or to witnesses of his life, knowing how to find unusual bystanders and ask questions. One has to show some wit, combine clues and evidence, sources and stories in such a way that my hero turns out on stage in the limelight. My professor would remind me that one also has to know how a limelight works! Key in my work is a word “to understand”. But biography writing is also a detective’s work. An attempt of discovering a character’s secret, reaching his soul. And inviting a reader so he can see, feel and verify it on his own.

Isaac Singer did emerge after Wisnowska.

Professor Raszewski was of the opinion that following my doctorate I will engage in the history of theater. But martial law was introduced. Monologues of Prince of Denmark and longings of three sisters seemed to me to be far away from what matter the most. But later Singer appeared as a guide to the past. I wandered alongside him all over the world, of which I knew it was mine but publically did not discuss it. I visited his places and places dear to the characters of his books; I looked for any signs that they in the first place were alive. I asked about accounts pertaining to their presence. I started to write to him about all that. I did not mail a letter, I was under the impression it was too drastic. I decided to see him in person. I had a ticket to New York for September 1991.

You did not make it, Isaac Singer died two months earlier.

“I was late for his death…”, that’s how I had to begin my book, different than the one I planned. I was afraid for a while that I won’t be able to write it, but I am not a quitter. I changed an idea, I decided to find his loved ones, people who knew him throughout his entire life. I placed an ad in The New York Times. I kept asking and travelling. These were some startling talks and meetings. He was not liked by his own folks.

And Irena Krzywicka – how did you find her?

By accident. I used to often visit Paris at that time and someone told me that a pre-war scandalist Irena Krzywicka has problems putting together her diary. Her vision deteriorated badly, she needed someone to listen to her reminiscences. I tried. A wonderful experience, although time consuming, primarily because part of the text was already written, other parts I recorded myself. It was necessary to standardize a structure and keep a magnificent, juicy language of Krzywicka. It is an important principle not to standardize personal statements, but differentiate them depending on a personality so that every one of the people called upon speaks his own voice. Confessions of a Scandalous Woman (Wyznania gorszycielki. Pamiętniki Ireny Krzywickiej) published in 1992 turned out to be a great literary success.

Then, in Paris, Vera Gran appeared?

I remember that I heard about her at one of the Polish literary salons, maybe at Krzywicka’s or Ola Watowa’s herself. I was told a singer from the Warsaw ghetto, a collaborator lives in Paris. I thought this might be a topic, but then I was in a process of writing A Family History of Fear and I did not want to work on anything else.

I knew no other way of coping with the secret. And I did not want to hide any longer. Over the years I have lived in a schizophrenic-like split, between Warsaw, New York and Toronto; I was afraid here, there I was afraid a little less. Everybody knew a different version of my story. A knot too painful. It had to be cut. I could only do it in writing. At least that is what I thought. I thought it might be important, such a confession of a Polish-Jewish child who was deprived of part of her identity, hidden for her own good and who struggled to put the puzzles together. I tried to reclaim what was kept silent, to restore the memory of my Jewish genealogy. Through an everyday life of one family in a post-war Poland, to recount the inherited fear of war, camouflage and the need for security in their own home.

Why did you hide your Jewishness for so long?

Because my mother did it for years. I thought she had to have a compelling reason. Almost unconsciously I took over her Aryan papers. I also felt, although never aggressively, albeit painfully, that it is not really good to be a Jew in Poland.

And you did not suspect anything for the first 19 years?

No. No doubts, no signs. No whispers, no startled silence when I walked into the room. There was a Christmas tree in my house, bought by my grandfather, my mother’s father, a surviving prisoner of Woldenberg. We celebrated Christmas Eve, there was a wafer too. I remember the smell of garlic in the kitchen of my mom’s beloved aunt, sweet carp and chopped liver. But I had no idea that it all was „Jewish”. What was that even supposed to mean? One has to know who a Jew is to identify with him. Today, when I look at my mom, I have no doubts she is Jewish, but when I was a child I just thought she was a pretty brunette. I asked few questions, feeling questioning wasn’t the right thing. My grandfather and his sisters kept silent. My beloved grandmother from Łódź spoke a little about my father and his family, but she did not live long enough to even see my high school graduation.

Did your parents know you were writing this book?

Yes, they were given it prior to publishing.


What do you think? Confrontation with someone’s memory and interpretation of the common past usually is quite turbulent. Besides, the book is a sort of betrayal – of family secrets, what was to be hidden and struggled to be preserved. Uncle Oleś, a Pole, our family hero who married one of the sisters of my Jewish grandfather and saved everyone who let himself be saved, used to say, “Think about what you are doing! It is not safe. If you have a two-color child, white on the one side and black on the other, and you live in a country when blacks are hated, you have to show its white side to the world.” He lived to be almost a hundred years old, maybe he knew what he was doing. I know that this book was difficult for my loved ones but for me it was a matter of the inner need. I was of the opinion I had to write it, otherwise I wouldn’t move on with my live and work. It brought relief and freed me from fear.

And what kind of fear was it? That someone in the street will call you a Jew?

Yes, I have the impression that it was just such fear subconsciously inherited from my mother. Except that she survived the ghetto, hiding in laundry baskets and basements, survived the death of her mother and family, she knew what she feared. I was scared with her unspeakable anxiety. It had to be stuck somewhere, in the air, in the walls, under the skin. I was not afraid that someone would hit me, but I felt a stigma of being worse, a shame. These days, I try to re-define it once again, since it’s in the past. I remember my first trip to Israel, in the spring of 1991. I knew already who I was, I knew the history of my mother’s family, the Goldsteins and the Przedborskis, but when asked where I was from I responded that I was a Pole. I was unable to utter that a Jew. Even though it would make many things easier, contacts, networking. Many doors closed for me because of this statement. I was told at lot of bad things about Poles during the war. And it would have been enough to just say: “I know, my mother was taken by szmalcowniks from the ghetto’s gate to the Gestapo”. But I couldn’t then. Now I can. And I take a side of those who are being attacked. A side of less fortunate ones.

Was there a great response to the book?

Humongous. Hundreds of letters. I was entrusted painful secrets, not only Polish-Jewish but covering a whole spectrum of otherness. My mother is Gyspy, mine was raped by a German soldier. I am lesbian. My father killed Jews.

Did anyone support you in your work on A Family History of Fear?

My husband Henryk Dasko. He was like a sheet anchor. He did not allow any doubt. He would help and calm me down. He was a first reader. He believed in the book and its importance for me and others.

A year after his death, in 2007, you published Exercises in Loss (Ćwiczenia z utraty), a book about your husband’s passing away and dying. You got a beating for that. There were objections that it was too soon, that it was preying on.

I would do the same today. And I know he wanted this. He asked me to write. “This will set us free” – he used to say. I asked my opponents if composing a requiem for a loved one after his death would also be such a crime. And if I created a painting or made a sculpture, would that also be too soon? Who is to judge? I wrote it when I thought I should have and I am not going to explain myself. These moralists are afraid as much as to touch their sick and dying ones. They are frightened by their own mortality. They run away from what might stand for weakness, a need of finding support in another person. This is a book about a fight against a verdict of fate and medicine, about bravery and love. One mustn’t be scared. I think it helped many people. I know, because they tell me so.

It is difficult for me to imagine you in a dirty staircase, sitting by an apartment of Vera Gran who was a heroine of your next book.

Why? Vera did not want to leave her house, she was frightened of stealing and did not want to let me in. What was I to do? A doormat was just fine. This belongs to a quest that my work is.

Do you like risk? Have you bungee-jumped already?

No, but it is only because I am afraid of my back. But I do glacier skiing, I flew a sky glider, and once in a plane’s cockpit from Paris to Warsaw. I dream of parachuting and climbing Kilimanjaro. I like overcoming obstacles, opening closed doors and people. The more difficult the more interesting. Simple tasks do not satisfy me. With Vera it was just like that. Incredibly from the first encounter. I remember, there was an intercom downstairs, she let me in, I walked to the first floor where at the door there already was one stool. She peaked out of the door, grey hair, in a pink robe, she put another stool out and gave me a tape recorder, old, for big tapes. She told me to record. We sat down. The light went out regularly. If nobody entered we kept in the darkness. This helps confessions. Every intervention of the light ruined our intimacy, and reminded her that I for sure was sent by someone and she didn’t want to have anything to do with me. There were several doormat meetings.

Did you have goose-bumps at the door? For a reporter it’s great luck to sit with a character on a stool in a staircase instead of at a banal tea table.

That’s true, although I constantly was afraid something will get on her nerves, scare her, discourage, that she would get up, shoot the door and this will be the end. But actually, I started to be really afraid when she let me inside. Her house was like a bunker, dark hiding place from the Warsaw ghetto. First, a narrow corridor full of suitcases and boxes, piles of newspapers, papers and books. And a large cluttered room with a table in the middle strewn with everything. Curtained windows, no lights, and one little dim light. Foul smell. The scenery a far cry from a star’s boudoir! She constantly warned that we were listened to and recorded. Lowering her voice, crying and giggling once in a while, she talked about the mass of oblivion, as she called her performances in the ghetto and about her enemies, who couldn’t forget her for what she knew. About men as bad as possible, about her and mother with the greatest sensitivity. Aggressive and full of grief, fragile and brave. It was an explosive tangle of emotions, which I often succumbed to. I had the impression I was sitting with her in the basement at Leszno, not in an elegant Paris district. I was afraid with her and I wondered what was it that she must have done to end her life in this way. What was her fault?

Does a character of a book possess you?

Unfortunately yes. Sometimes it is like a dybbuk.

Why unfortunately?

If a hero has a tragic fate, it hurts. While working on A Family History of Fear I tried to imagine myself in the ghetto with my grandmother – a teacher, and her daughter, my then 10-year old mother. And it was difficult. The shadow of war very clearly sets my points of reference. I spent with Vera more time in the Warsaw closed district. I was not hungry, like my family. I walked into her black shoes and a dress to sing ... I saw satisfied guests in a Leszno cafe, cakes and caviar, champagnes and cognacs, but on the way to the Sztuka cafe I passed corpses on the street, covered with newspapers, and I felt an overwhelming horizon of death. Crossing the road once again was a hard experience. Significant one, because I think that I touched upon important issues – the price of survival, the boundaries of compromise, the need for tragic choices. The book reception in Poland uncomfortably surprised me. The media selected just one topic and threw itself on Vera’s sensational statement about Władysław Szpilman’s alleged collaboration with the Jewish police, reducing the 350 pages of text to several paragraphs. This is absurd.

Every character takes with him part of your soul?

Yes, but these are not equal parts. Vera was the most sensitive case. I felt sorry for her and with her. Krzywicka is also in me, although her rebellion and strength against hardships more arm than disarm her. She wondered to what extend she would be put to a test. And she coped with ensuing challenges. I wish I could fight like that.

Do you dream of people from your books, do they visit you?

They weave into strange couples in my dreams, I wouldn’t dare analyzing it. They come when I recall them, when I talk about them to others, at book signings for instance. While working on Wisnowska I placed an ad in a paper that I was looking for memorabilia and devotees of her legend. An older actress showed who gave me a large, oval portrait of her favorite artist and the ideal of a woman patriot. The painting hung over my desk when I wrote the book. Each time I would describe sexual conquests of Maria W. or men she used to have affairs with, the portrait would fall down. In my public stories about Singer goblins and devils mingle, maliciously fizzing or wheezing in mics, making noise in the walls, trying to draw attention to them. Vera in a bright robe giggles all the time like a small girl, right next to me. I have the impression she’s satisfied with the interest she gets, not only in Poland but also in France, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy and Israel.

You always are present in your books. But in the newest one: The Tyrmands: American Love Story (Tyrmandowie: Romans amerykański) there is no Agata Tuszyńska.

I am, invisible though. It is nobody else but me who invented and put this book together. I sentenced myself to role of a silent midwife. I knew Mary Ellen Tyrmand for years, from when my husband took care of the legacy of the author of Zły. But we became friends only as two widows, telling each other about our exceptional men. I knew from the beginning that Mary Ellen’s memories will interest the Polish readers, the American Tyrmand is not known over the Vistula river, but I had a feeling the book needed something else. By chance, Mary Ellen found in her Japanese chest of drawers a pile of their correspondence from the beginning of their relation. Putting these two sources against one another– letters and personal accounts after years – seemed to me an interesting mixture. A story of happy love of two completely different people, a young 23-year old woman from Brooklyn and 50-year old rebellious ex-playboy from Warsaw. I let them speak for themselves, believing they can tell their own tale the best. This book is about them. I did not want to interfere with their viewpoints and attitudes. It wouldn’t do any good. I am far from conservative opinions of Tyrmand’s, far from his moralizing aspirations with respect to American freedom by which in a certain way he undoes his youth.

Do you hide from your readers things that could be uncomfortable for a character of your book?

I try to be guided by my own gut feeling of what can or cannot be written. There are borders I would not dare crossing. Different for everyone. If I find something unflattering for my character, which however is an important component of a portrait, I try to include it. I think a lot depends on a form. But if my character is sharp without that sensational and nasty feature, I save him, especially when his family is still alive. There are scraps of unused material from every book, I hope to write a guide for biography writers based on them.

Besides, I believe Kazimierz Brandys who used to repeat after Oscar Wilde, that biography is always written by Judas. On the other hand, Boy confirmed my belief that an author in a bath robe is truer than the same on a pedestal. I don’t erect pedestals. No one wants to identify with them.

How do you clean after a book is written?

With joy. I like cleaning. Wiping, placing things, segregating. Tidying up the space around. This sets me free. I have a false impression that I clean up an area which would make ideas and words float easier. “After-book” stuff is like left over carnival cloths, the premiere of which already took place but they don’t deserve annihilation yet. I put them in cardboard boxes, gently fold manuscripts, notes, calendars, photographs, tapes, plans, topography of texts ect. It is not a joke, I send to the past a great chunk of life. This is a moment of a particular fulfillment. The book begins a life on its own. My help is not needed. I watch it from afar with more or less joy. And in the meantime another one is waiting its turn to spread around, it occupies my study room, my bed, every corner.

Sometimes, rarely, I have to open boxes with written books. Lately I was made to undertake a strenuous reconstruction of my adventure with Vera Gran. As accused of infringement of Szpilman’s moral rights I was forced to document my own author and documentary honesty in telling the story of her life. I defend the freedom of speech, the freedom to make words of my heroine heard, who her “revelations” on Szpilman revealed in my presence not for the first time.

You now work on a book of Józefina Szelińska, Bruno Schulz’s fiancée. A Jewish theme once again.

Unfortunately. After the latest book on Vera and its highly controversial reception in Poland (in France and where else it was completely different), I decided that I never want to have anything to do with the Polish-Jewish themes. I still remember kind words of Jerzy Giedroyc, who warned me not to embark on the Gran’s case.  “Poles and Jews would hate you”, he said. I did not understand why. I still do not understand. The truth about the Jewish police, the Gestapo agents, collaboration is not my discovery. It is not me who first gave such testimony. Why am I being refused the right to write about it? I was rightly served from my Jewish compatriots. Although I do not feel guilty. I asked the most important questions about the limits of sacrifice, the choices, and my own entanglement in place of those who were there. I constantly repeat that it could be – but fate had it otherwise – my place.

I felt it the first time when Elżbieta Ficowska showed me the letters of Józefina Szelińska, Schulz’s fiancée, to his biographer Jerzy Ficowski. Schulz and Szelińska were to get married in the 1930s. Their mutual longing and desire did not match. She tried, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide. I read her after war confessions, letters of a woman who entrusted her fate to the author of The Cinnamon Shops. Their relationship failed before the war, but she survived. And for the rest of her life she lived in the shadow of her man. How is it – to live with the deplorable past, hidden identity and fear. The very same that I already had gotten rid of. I could not talk to Juna (as Schulz called her). I listened to her imaginary voice.

Do you know what’s going to come up from this book for you?

I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I hate writing with a predetermined thesis. I feel that this will be an important route into the lost Drohobycz world. Jewish fate, sensual memory, chance, the absurdity of death and its meaning. In Drohobycz fun was made of a middle school teacher and his masochistic drawings. He turned out to be one of the greatest Polish writers. The characters of my narrative will be: Juna and Bruno. And the memory.