For the past twenty years, since the publication of her first novel “The Journey of the Book-People”, Olga Tokarczuk has been considered the most prominent female voice in contemporary Polish literature and an admired author amongst readers and critics. Tokarczuk is a Jungian psychologist, And it reflects in many of her works that seek to penetrate the depths of human psyche through dealing with Mysticism or rather with carnality and physical body as a gateway to one’s inner world (as can be seen in this story, when the heroine imagines a spiritual and physical reunion with the object of her affection, Author Thomas Mann, through his toiletries). Unlike other Polish authors from her generation, Tokarczuk doesn’t tend to deal with her country’s history or the reality that came after communism, and prefers a “nomadic” work that moves quickly and freely between places and time and challenges national identities, religiousness and gender. This is how one should relate to the story “An Evening with the Author”, that consists of two kinds of dialogue – the first, based on gender, provides a female point of view on the character of the author Thomas Mann, through a correspondence with the patriarchal world of his works. The second dialogue, local this time, involve the German past of cities such as Gdańsk (Danzig), Wrocław (Breslau, whose German past was actualized by Tokarczuk in her second novel) and Olsztyn Allenstein- that were annexed to Poland after the Second World War. This phenomenon is fascinating not only because of the Polish authors’ curiosity to discover the history of the places they grew up in after the war, but mainly because of their ability to reinvent their past by the power of their imagination and integrate it with contemporary Polish works. In the same way, Paweł Huelle from Gdansk added his own Danzig chapter to Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” in his book “ Castorp”, or Marek Krajewski
from Wroclaw, that in his detective series portrays the 20’s German city as a dark and decadent place as it has surly never been.
It is important to mention, for those who are wondering, that Thomas Mann has never laid foot in Allenstein… The story I chose to translate is taken from the quite eclectic short story collection called “Playing on Many Drums”. It seems this is a title that loyally represents Tokarczuk’s range of work, while just recently her new novel that revolves around the Jewish false prophet Jacob Frank was published. My hope is that the translation of this story will bring forward additional translations from this fine author.
Translated by: Jennifer Croft
The best ideas always came to her at night, as if she were a completely different person at night than in the day. That’s trite, he would have said. He would have changed the subject, begun a new sentence with I. I, he would have said, I think clearest in the day, in the morning, right after my first coffee, in the first half of the day.
When by accident (my God, what an accident!) she read in the newspaper that he would be traveling to Prussia, to Allenstein, that he would be so nearby, she couldn’t sleep. Everything came back to her. Or rather did not come back, because it had always been there, had never gone. She lay on her back and pored over all the possibilities that could bring her aim to fruition. She is at the train station, on the platform in an unknown city, and he walks across the opposite side, notices her, an expression of surprise on his face, of shock; he stops, his gaze, the raised veil of her hat, the clarity and brilliance of that gaze which once made her shiver with excitement, not his body, just that look. Or otherwise entirely: she walks along the sunlit street of some market (how could the market in Allenstein look?) and he (again from the opposite side) follows a man and a woman. And she sees that he recognizes her, because he becomes pale, because he’s disconcerted when he says “Excuse me…” to the others. With a trembling hand he removes his bright hat (had his hair thinned, was it already time for that?). She gives him her hand, she is self-possessed, after all she has circled around the market for hours in order to meet him. Would Allenstein be a large city? Perhaps too large, perhaps they pass each other in the May crowd, perhaps they take him straight to the hotel from the train station in a carriage, perhaps they don’t have a market at all there, perhaps it will be raining, perhaps he won’t come, will call off his trip at the last minute because his wife is ill. Perhaps he will be held up in Germany by matters of publication, after all he’s such a great writer that probably all educated people know him, or perhaps not, perhaps it is only she who follows every mention of him, even the slightest, in the press, perhaps it is only she who makes certain that his two-volume novel is lying there, in the bookstore, only she who imperceptibly brushes the cover with her hand, inside her glove, as she passes by, as she asks the bookseller for something else entirely.
In the morning the idea seemed to her completely absurd. Johann embraced her waist and kissed her mouth as she went in for breakfast. In an hour the music teacher would come to the children. When she cut off the tip of her soft-boiled egg, the sight of her own fingers, sort of thin and dry, as if they’d never belonged to her at all, awoke in her for a moment a piercing sense of regret. Then she said, without expecting it herself, that she wanted to go for a few days to her father, to Danzig. Her husband dabbed at his lips with his napkin, didn’t look like he was surprised. He reclined easily from the table and lit a cigar. He told the servant to open the window. The clatter of carriages and horse-drawn trams tumbled into the dining room from the street. Immediately thereafter in poured the soft, velvet scent of the lilac in bloom in front of the house.
A wide-brimmed straw hat in a hat box, a dark georgette skirt, a white blouse with frills across the breast, a lace parasol. A carrying case and a large leather traveling bag. Boots fastened by buttons. A perfume phial submerged in velvet lingerie. Several pairs of gloves. Baggage. At the station in Danzig she bought a ticket to Allenstein and waited for three hours in the café. In the restrooms she met her reflection in the mirror in shock—for she had thought she was younger. In her compartment she endeavored to read an old edition of the Neue Deutsche Rundschau which contained one of his stories and which she had taken from her carrying case. At one time she had known nearly all of it by heart; she now found she had forgotten whole fragments.
A small miracle occurs: Allenstein and Venice complement one another. After ten years they have suddenly become ends of the same continuum, the spine of some volume of her life. North and south. Noon and midnight. Parched and drenched. The past and the absence of time. Looking back and looking ahead. A meeting of discrepancies.
She sees him for the first time on the beach. He is wearing bright clothing and a bright hat. She remembers him, although she almost always remembered people she has only seen once. There on the beach he is careless, youthful. Then, when they are introduced, he seems to her like a man in a mask. He says, “I am a writer,” but this wasn’t important to her in the least. He is flustered. He couldn’t look her in the eye. One of their mutual acquaintances, rising nimbly from his chair, says he is an ass. When for the first time she sees his bathroom in the hotel, after everything, she has the impression that only now does she know him. Not even the intimate evening, not the perfunctory, though more passionate, knowledge of his body allowed her to get inside this man, but rather the hotel bathroom. His towel thrown over the bath, his shaving instruments, his brush, his brush with the water-damaged handle, the wooden soapbox. Immobile creatures, witnesses to the existence of the human body. Touching these objects while he is still sleeping, or perhaps he has already awakened and is waiting for her (the morning silence, a bit embarrassed, after an evening of love), she suddenly feels moved. She feels she could lean her head against the cool mirror and cry.
She always recollected this moment—it was probably the beginning of her love. Isn’t loving really getting to know someone? Isn’t it for this reason that people desire each other’s bodies, not for pleasure, but in order to come closer to the closest possible distance? This entrance into the nooks of the body, this forcing one’s way past every border, the pursuit of the inside, the search for what lies within.
The station in Allenstein turned out to be smaller than she had thought it would be. For a brief moment she was swept up in a panic—her hands clasped instinctively the cool handrail of the stairs from the train. But when the cab took her to the best hotel in the city, she suddenly felt as though she held absolute power over the world. People, somehow diminished, two-dimensional, who knew nothing, sensed nothing, soft machinery incarnate. Their pitiful little shops, their mouths aware of nothing, the mouth that was at that very moment impinging upon the smooth surface of a filled coffee cup, their self-centered bodies, their funny rituals, like wandering to their hat and back, holding on to their canes and parasols as tightly as they could, their unimportant, boring evenings in homes furnished with worn-out divans, their limited reason, unsuited to extension past the next sentence spoken. Minute, puppet-like. Riding along in this cab, though, sprawled out in her seat like a man, she had the feeling that she loved them. She sympathized with them, but it was not pity. It was actually love, as for children who comply with a parent’s lesson plans without knowing their aims. And she, in this cab, sat higher, saw more. She established the rules. She created, minute by minute, gesture by gesture, event by event.
In the hotel, signing a name she’d made up in the guest register, she inadvertently asked the receptionist, “Is it true that that famous writer, T., is staying at this hotel tonight?”
The receptionist looked up at her, his eyes distorted by the dirty lenses of his eyeglasses. It was clear that only with great difficulty was he able to contain his excitement and pride.
“It is true. He’s supposed to give a reading tomorrow, about music and literature. Tomorrow afternoon,” he said, and then, suddenly grave, he continued, “I would implore you not to speak of this to anyone, of his staying in our hotel, though of course there really is no other place, this is the best hotel. And we have a suite for him. It has been ready and waiting for several days now.”
He indicated a key hanging aside under the Roman numeral I. “We fear his readers won’t give him any peace.”
“Is he really that popular?” she asked.
“My wife has read all of his works,” he replied, as if this explained everything.
“When is the train arriving from Berlin?” she asked. “I’m waiting for someone.”
The receptionist looked at her suspiciously but gave her the time.
The room was poor. Two tall glass doors opened onto the main street. There were pigeons on the sills.
She washed her face and dried it then with a rough towel. She changed her blouse. She combed out her hair and then began to pin it up carefully before the mirror, which hung a bit too high: she saw only her eyes and forehead. She rubbed some perfume into her skin with her finger. She thought that she still had quite a lot of time, that she could go and take a turn outside. Do some shopping. Leave her reflection in the panes of the shop windows, behold the precarious vastness of the market. Drink lemonade under some umbrella. She put on her hat, but she swiftly quit the doorway and lay down, in everything, the parasol in her hand, on the made bed, on her back. The delicate cracks in the ceiling gave her signs in some mysterious alphabet.
They walk whole days around the city. Venice is sweltering, drenched. The canals are fetid. They catch themselves always quickening their pace—they have to look as though they’re going somewhere. “Oh, why are we always in such a rush,” they sigh. They laugh. The real point, during their walks, is for their hands to brush together, for their shoulders to touch, for the wind to suddenly convey their own scents to each other. Not looking at each other, walking shoulder to shoulder, they are under each other’s observation. How is this possible? He is continually telling her about his family. This surprises her, because she would have nothing to say on this subject. But he talks and talks, as if he has to assure her that he exists, that he carries in his genes the Hanseatic merchants and their exhausted-from-childbirth wives, their children, and those sinister, mustached burghers. He calls time people. Perhaps it is because of this that one becomes a writer. He remembers their names and amusing sayings, remembers their gaffes and strange habits. Generously assigns everyone a characteristic. She does not believe him—it’s impossible that everyone could be interesting. It’s illogical. The world is composed of one crowd and a small number of singular individuals, a small number, so she thinks. For her, people are like a wave, undifferentiated, with the exception of those she loves. It is impossible to love everyone.
Only when they sit somewhere for a while, in a café, in chairs on an empty beach, on the boards of the quay, only then do their gazes finally meet. It is difficult to say anything at all. She wants to lean into him. She can feel it on her skin every time he looks at her. That clear, bright blue gaze is shameless.
In the evenings they sit with other people on the terrace that leads out to the lagoon. The leaves of the trees lit yellow by lamps give the illusion of an unanticipated local wilderness. These friends, mutual acquaintances, a small, merry, gossiping crowd, these friends are an island where we can moor for a moment, feel land under our feet, although of course it is only the sailing itself that interests us.
The house hidden in burdock. Surrounded by a tall fence. She steals up to it, knows he’s there. Just to see him. Suddenly she realizes she is naked and jumps out of the road into the burdock. She wades through the burdock toward the garden, from the back. Now she can see the lit windows of the salon. There is some kind of reception. People circulating behind the panes with wine in their hands. Their lips move in silence behind the glass. This woman, this pretty woman in blue, this is his wife. She distributes smiles. How well she manages everything! The burdock grows sharp, pricks her skin. He isn’t there, in that salon aquarium. He isn’t there.
She woke up suddenly. Her hat was pinching at her neck. She rose and looked at the mirror—her eyes lightly swollen, teary. It was time.
Allenstein was two streets in the shape of a cross, and on the streets a castle, a town hall, and the fashions of yesteryear. It wouldn’t be possible to live here, only to arrive. Prussian order and Asiatic melancholy. The faint scent of water. She ordered coffee as the clock struck three. The children would be sleeping now. Suddenly she longed for their smell—why is it that children’s hair always smells of wind? The waiter took her money, regarding her curiously, almost flirtatiously. She approached the station slowly. Suddenly her calm evaporated. Her heart began to beat faster. She felt two-dimensional somehow, as if she did not exist beyond that moment, as if she possessed neither future nor past. A woman walking toward the station, nothing more.
The platform was nearly empty—a young man with a bouquet of flowers, a woman with two children, and, sitting on the bench, the kind of traveler who is always running late, whom trains always pass by at a distance. A group of people came in after her. Men, important, a little plump, one in wire-rimmed eyeglasses, another in an elegantly cut black suit with a monocle in his eye (sort of as if he were from a funeral home, she thought, looking at him). The third and fourth had no personality. This must be them. The representatives of all Allenstein’s high culture, awaiting the arrival of the writer. Then a fairly large group of students came in. The place suddenly changed character, set itself in motion, got loud. Was this a fieldtrip, a picnic, had the Prussian schools called this day off? The older teacher made futile attempts at restoring order.
How strange—he cries when they part in Venice. He grasps her hand, and tears glaze his cool, blue eyes. He says, “How stupid, crying, we will be seeing each other again.” She thinks he should propose to her; he is traditional that way. “How stupid, proposing, we’ll be together anyway,” she thought, the sentence rattling around in her head. Any other possibility is completely unimaginable now.
Then she understands that he was crying for himself. “I have written you four letters,” he recollects in the fifth, “but I didn’t send them. They irritated a wound that should have begun to heal by now. You are so pretty, so fresh, as if the world didn’t touch you at all. You’re from somewhere else, like an angel. The more I don’t have you, the more I desire you.” She found this letter disconcerting, although she didn’t even know why. As if it were to someone else.
The preoccupied little crowd rustled a bit. The young man with the bouquet of flowers tore himself from his bench. The gentleman in black restlessly polished his monocle with his handkerchief. The old teacher makes futile attempts at organizing the students into two rows. Then she understood that all these people were waiting for him. That T. had ceased to be hers, that he also belonged to others. These children, and the gentlemen in suits, and the man with the flowers, and the receptionists and their book-reading wives, all these people possessed him too.
But what could they really know about him? Did they know him from his most famous novel, from the short stories he published in magazines? So who did they know? In everything he wrote he left barely scraps of himself, barely breadcrumbs. Did he live in his perfect, clear, convincing sentences? Then, in Venice, during the endless walks, he was always talking in short, nervous bursts, and she was always trying to figure out whether there had been a period yet or just a hint of a comma. Did he exist in written narration, in anecdotes? He couldn’t even tell jokes. How did he manage to fool people into mistaking the characters he created for himself? It was so easy for him. Or perhaps not, perhaps it was she who had been fooled, and senseless with love and desire she saw someone else altogether. No, she could not recognize him in any sentence of what he wrote. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t there in the neutral narrator of the saga. It wasn’t him speaking. It was really this that was so fascinating, searching out in a living being someone who creates worlds. Rulers of Words. Searching for this in his breath while he slept, aware of nothing, leaning into her back, searching for what’s beyond the distance of his glance, hidden behind the gates of the eyes; watching him eat ice cream—did he like it like other people liked it, did his nerves carry signals to his brain like other people’s nerves? There must be some difference. Suddenly she recalled that he had been growing a mustache then, in Venice. His hand would roam mechanically to his upper lip, where his fingertips would delight in the rough touch of that dark stubble.
The train was coming. Smoke from the locomotive formed an almost tangible shape over their heads. Her heart thudded and her lips felt dry. She retreated behind the sign for the station restaurant, lowered her veil. For a brief moment, the train stopped there, and absolutely nothing happened. For a brief time the station stood stock still. The gaze of the four disoriented men moved from car to car. Then she noticed that the group moved suddenly to the right, toward the beginning of the train. The inconspicuous woman with the two children also moved in that direction. The man with the flowers was first, almost running.
She saw him only when he went through the station doors, surrounded by that little crowd. She saw with surprise that he was now more heavyset, more literal, awkward. That same face, which she knew so well, but now different, as if more firmly rooted in reality. Then he was obscured. The young man gave him an autograph album to sign, the man in the monocle shrouded him with his own body. And he was the eye of this storm—gray, calm, as if nothing could surprise him anymore.
So not now. Later. Her heart subsided. She followed them at a safe distance. She watched them get into a cab.
The evening with the author was to take place in the town theater. Notices advertising this fact had been posted in several places. “The famed writer T. will give a reading…” She was one of the first people who came. People filed into the auditorium slowly. Women in their best dresses and smelling like city folk. Their pot-bellied husbands with watch chains in their waistcoats, fidgeting with the time. The bourgeois of Allenstein. And the more modestly attired—perhaps teachers, the local self-conscious intelligentsia. The young man from the station was also there, this time without the bouquet. Three women laughing and batting their eyelashes. Actresses? A group of students. So these are the readers of the great and famous T., his admirers from East Prussia.
“Nothing else in life matters to me, only writing. I know you will understand me.” So ended the last letter she received from him. She did not understand. There was a discrepancy here, according to him, but she couldn’t find it. She had money; he could live with her in Venice or anywhere else and write. Perhaps this was the problem. Perhaps she wasn’t educated enough, perhaps her family wasn’t good enough. She recalled that when he heard the word “professor,” he pricked up his ears, stood at attention. This was strange, that someone like him could be so fond of glamour. In the end he actually married a professor’s daughter. Was it possible that not even an entire year after their Venice he could propose to someone else, that he could fall in love with someone else? Oh, she didn’t believe he loved that other one; there must be ulterior motives, this must be the beginning of some stupid short story. After all, one cannot write only about good things; there are also lapses. Back then her specialty was finding excuses. Each of them was just as unlikely as the next.
She wrote him a long letter. She never received a response. He must have crumpled up the paper in the course of reading it and thrown it into the basket. Perhaps he had burned it, he had to think of his biography, he had to point it in a suitable direction. It simply wasn’t the case that one does what one wants in one’s life. Life leads us, realizes goals which are difficult for us to see, drags us along behind it. This thought suddenly terrified her so much that she was seized by the desire to go out into the sunlit streets of the town.
He never wrote another word to her, then. She found out that he had been married, that there had been children. Two? Three? Any time she came across his name in the press, she would try to decipher some kind of sign intended for her. She read what he wrote exactly the same way. With the obsessive thought that there were hidden signs for her in everything he wrote, that he wrote for her, that this was how he would explain that terrible sentence: “Nothing else in life matters to me, only writing.”
People slowly took their seats in the hall where the reading was to take place. She went in with the others and sat just as far away as she could from the table covered in crimson velvet. There was almost no natural light in the room, so the table was lit a little from above. This was good. He wouldn’t see her from there. He would allow himself to be blinded by the spotlight.
It was the atmosphere of a theater. The audience conversed in whispers, looked around the hall. A local photographer set up a tripod in silence. Finally from the doors came a murmur. T. appeared there, in the flesh. He looked flawless. He was flawless. He was different from everyone else, she didn’t know exactly how. He exuded a kind of purity—his softly shaven pale face, his white shirt, the sharp line of his stiff collar, his silver eyeglasses. The steel-gray suit. She couldn’t see his shoes from there, but she was suddenly reminded of how they had looked ten years ago—brown, with narrow tips, leaning in slightly. And she was reminded of the nakedness of his feet, more revealing than any confession. She pictured him walking across the auditorium barefoot.
He had gotten older. He had changed. He didn’t look at his public. He got comfortable in his armchair. He was given a carafe of water and a glass. He pushed it aside. He took some papers from the inside pocket of his jacket, cleared his throat, and only then did he peer out over the auditorium. He squinted. She trembled, because for a moment she could feel his gaze on her body, its power sapped somewhat by that squinting. But he did not recognize her. He couldn’t have recognized her, she was too far. She would recognize him in any crowd, always. From any distance.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “I have been invited here to discuss my position on…”
He didn’t say anything about the town, didn’t smile to his captivated audience, didn’t look at them again, didn’t thank them for the flowers, for this excitement. Didn’t introduce himself, didn’t say who he was and what brought him here and whether or not he liked it, didn’t say anything about his personal relationship to the May sun, to the ladies’ hats or their husbands’ watch chains. Didn’t falter, didn’t sigh. Had no facial expression. He spoke clearly, although in a monotone; the one gesture he managed was the correction of his bowtie, as if he wanted to make sure it was in place. He must have wanted to strike them as an everyman, a universal European writer, stoically wise, stoically neutral. He must have considered hiding behind indefiniteness a virtue. Aristocratic elegance, nothing more, nothing less. This was familiar to her, so familiar. It was exciting, but only when she was certain that the mask would fall at any moment. The contrast was what was exciting. This was exactly what she loved about him. He had achieved mastery.
He spoke calmly and to the point, with pauses during which he raised that blue gaze to the ceiling. The pauses were commas, spaces, dashes. He really progressed. He spoke about music but not about literature. Some of the audience members might have been disappointed, because wasn’t a writer supposed to talk about literature?
“…and it would seem to be related to the shift of music from monody to polyphony, to harmony, which is generally considered progress, although it is in fact a triumph of the barbarians…” This was as much as she grasped.
His face leaning over her, altered by gravity’s pull. The smile of a boy—half innocent, half cruel. A grimace of suffering, not pleasure. Droplets of sweat. A button torn off.
When he had finished, everyone stood up and clapped as though he were an opera diva. Then several people approached the table. He drew from his pocket a pen that was shining, lit by the spotlight. He leaned over the books.
She went out. She hastened to the hotel. She felt lonely now twice, thrice, many times, on the brink of despair. There was nothing, nothing she could change. Why couldn’t she thank God for what he had given us? Why was it so difficult to appreciate? Why does one always want what one doesn’t have? Where does this flaw in human thinking come from?
There was no one at reception. The hotel smelled of freshly baked cake. She waited for a moment for the receptionist by the counter, but he didn’t come, perhaps he too was at the theater, so she reached for her key, but then, without expecting it herself, she had grasped that other key, hanging from the Roman numeral I. How negligent! How could they leave that key hanging here? She raced to the stairs like a thief.
She carefully opened the doors to the suite. She didn’t turn the light on—the room was flooded with the warm radiance of the setting sun. There was an enormous balcony here, lavishly creased curtains drawn apart, and a king sized bed. He hadn’t even had time to unpack. His suitcase lay open on the bed. Nearby there were three copies of his latest book, brand new, probably uncut. On the armchair a damp, fluffy towel, which must have been purchased by the hotel especially for his arrival. She touched it carefully. Nearby—a bathroom, large, with a commanding bath standing under the window, with an enormity of brass Prussian faucets, with a washstand on a pedestal. On the washstand—the same wooden box for shaving soap. This is impossible, she thought. She took it in her hand and smelled it. A familiar smell, although she had expected it to make a greater impression on her. Oh, she had searched for it repeatedly in various drugstores, despairing more and more of its existence. The damp brush—he must have shaved before he left. A boar-hair toothbrush—dry. On the tiled floor lay dark, discarded socks. She sat down on the edge of the bath and thought a strange thing: in order to love him suitably, she would like to be him. To be in him. To caress his body with his own hands, to care for it much better than he would be able to care for it himself. If only both of us could be there, she thought. He would write, if it’s so important to him, and I would care for him. There would be no sin, no rift, no inevitability. It would just be the innocent love of oneself, tenderness in the chapels of bathrooms. Touching his own skin wasn’t really caressing, after all, it wasn’t even about love, it was about discovering the best soaps for his skin. “I would know every centimeter of his body by heart,” she thought, “I could know the inside of his mouth like his own tongue, the shape of each tooth; his scent would never seem like someone else’s scent to me, for it would be my own. I would cradle him.”
She heard a noise downstairs and ran out of the room and up the stairs to her own floor.
She was paying her bill, standing with her back to the dining hall, when they returned from the reading. She heard his voice when he said something.
“That’s that T.,” whispered the receptionist with pride. “My wife has read all his books.”
She wanted to turn around, but she couldn’t. She stood stock still—only her hand moved, to count out the banknotes.
When got into the cab, she suddenly felt completely drained. She felt she must weight about around a ton, that even the horse must feel this way—he didn’t want to move.
“Where to, Madam?” asked the driver when her silence had lasted too long.
“To the station,” she said.
In towns like Allenstein, everything must begin and end at the station.
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