Madame, page 1
ANTONI LIBERA is a literary critic, translator and theatre director, noted especially for his collaborative work with Samuel Beckett. Madame is his first novel. He lives in Warsaw, Poland.
AGNIESZKA KOLAKOWSKA was born in Poland in 1960, brought up in England and educated at Yale and Cambridge. She has translated works from Polish and French into English, as well as working as a freelance editor and journalist. Books translated include: Them: Stalin’s Polish Puppets by Teresa Toranska and Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal by Leszek Kolakowski.
Translated from the Polish by
First published in Great Britain in 2001
by Canongate Books Ltd
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE.
This edition published in 2004.
Published in English in the USA by
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
First published in 1998 by Wydawnictwo Znak, Poland.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
This digital edition first published in 2018 by Canongate Books
Copyright © 1998 by Antoni Libera
Translation copyright © 2000 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The moral right of Antoni Libera and Agnieszka Kolakowska to be identified as respectively the author and translator of the work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library
ISBN 1 84195 520 5
eISBN: 978 1 78689 336 9
for Pawel Huelle
Those were the Days!
The Modern Jazz Quartet
All the World’s a Stage
Our Daily Bread
Madame la Directrice
In the Beginning was the Word
Today’s Subject: All Saints’ Day
Material for the Report
Freddy the Professor
The Song of Virgo and Aquarius
Per Aspera ad Astra
What Then? What Then, My Lad?
What is the Meaning of the Word ‘Philology’?
Wer den Dichter will verstehen, / Muss in Dichters Lande gehen (Freddy’s Story)
La belle Victoire
Maximilian and Claire
For Whom the Bell Tolls (Constant’s Story)
The Logos-Cosmos Bookshop
The Knight’s Way, the Courtier’s Way and the Scientific Way
Centre de Civilisation
The Discovery of America
Onward! Westward Ho!
Here is My Space!
The Hand of Hippolytus
A Man and a Woman
The Day After
Those were the Days!
Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
A novelist should aim not to describe great events but to make small ones interesting.
Those were the Days!
For many years I used to think I had been born too late. Fascinating times, extraordinary events, exceptional people – all these, I felt, were things of the past, gone for good.
In my early childhood, in the 1950s, the ‘great epochs’ for me were above all the 1930s and the years of the war. I saw the latter as an age of heroic, almost titanic struggle when the fate of the world hung in the balance, the former as a golden age of carefree oblivion when the world, as if set aglow by the gentle light of a setting sun, gave itself up to pleasure and innocent folly.
Later, some time in the early 1960s, I realised I had come to see the Stalinist period, only just over, as another such ‘great era’. True, I had lived through part of it myself, but as a child too young to appreciate its malevolent power; and although I was well aware that, like the war, it was a nightmarish time, a time of degeneration and crime and collective madness, still it imposed itself on my mind – just because it was so extreme – as something unique, almost out of this world. And I felt a strange regret that I had been denied the chance to experience it in full, had scarcely brushed against it, confined as I was then to a view from the pram, the nursery and the little garden on the edge of town. The wild orgies of slaughter indulged in by the authorities of that time, the demented trances that gripped thousands of people, the tumult and delirious ravings – all this reached me only as a distant echo, faint and quite beyond my comprehension.
My sense of late arrival was not limited to the sphere of history. It had occasion to emerge in a rich variety of contexts, on a smaller, almost miniature scale.
Take, for example, my first piano lessons. My teacher was a dignified elderly lady, her family landed gentry, her own student days spent in Paris, London and Vienna in the 1920s. And here I am, on day one, already listening to reminiscences about the glorious past, the days of great talents and great masters, the speed at which pupils used to learn, the delight taken in music, how splendid it all was then and now how hopeless.
‘Bach, Beethoven, Schubert . . . and above all, above all, that wonder of nature, that example of perfection incarnate, that divinity – Mozart! The day he came into the world should be celebrated like the birth of Christ. The twenty-seventh of January, 1756: remember that date! There are no geniuses like that now. And music nowadays – oh, it’s not even worth discussing. Waste of breath. It’s finished. A barren wasteland, a desert.’
Or take chess. The game caught my interest, and after a few years of solitary practice I joined a club to develop my skills. There were just a few of us – a little group of teenage enthusiasts. Our instructor, a degenerate pre-war intellectual partial to the bottle, had us practise various openings and endgames, and showed us how such-and-such a game should be played. Sometimes, after making a move, he would suddenly interrupt his demonstration and ask, ‘Do you know who thought up this move? Who was the first to play like this?’
Naturally, no one knows. This is just what the instructor has been waiting for, and he launches into a so-called educational digression: ‘Capablanca. In 1925, at a tournament in London. I hope you all know who Capablanca was . . .’
‘Umm . . . he was a Master,’ someone mumbles.
‘A Master!’ He sneers at the hopeless inadequacy of this response. ‘I’m a Master, too. He was the Master, the absolute Master! A genius! One of the greatest chess players the world has ever known. A virtuoso of the positional game! They don’t make them like that anymore. They don’t have tournaments like that anymore. Chess has gone to the dogs.’
‘But what about Botvinnik, Petrosian, Tal?’ someone ventures; these were the stars of Soviet chess at the time.
Our instructor’s face twists into a scowl of unutterable disapproval. Then he lapses into a gloomy reverie. ‘No, no,’ he says finally, with an expression of distaste verging on disgust, ‘that’s not the same thing at all. Not compared to the way chess used to be played, to what chess players used to be. Lasker, Alekhine, Reti – now they were true giants. They had the divine spark. Capricious, spontaneous, full of wit and flair and élan: true Renaissance types. In their day chess was still the game of kings! But now . . . it
Or take another example: mountain climbing. I must have been about thirteen when a friend of my parents’, a seasoned mountaineer, took me up into the Tatras for what was to be my first real climb. I’d been to Zakopane before, but my experience there as a tourist had been confined to stays in comfortable pensions and lowland walks in the valleys and pastures. This time I was to stay in a real mountain shelter and climb real mountains.
And here I was at last, with my experienced guide, in the very heart of the Tatras, in a hostel of almost legendary fame. Our lodgings weren’t too bad, as we’d had the foresight to reserve a double well ahead. But the food situation was worse: queues for meals were endless. Trips to the bathroom involved similar difficulties. These obstacles and indignities overcome, we finally set off. There, ahead of us, is the trail, and there, at last, the long-awaited encounter with the majesty of silent peaks and vast empty spaces. But the longed-for peace and emptiness are disturbed at every turn by hordes of screaming schoolchildren, our contemplation of surging peaks and plunging abysses made impossible by the singing and collective clamour of tour groups going down ‘Lenin’s trail’. And my seasoned guide, in his dark-green windcheater, thick brown cords tied at the knees with special bindings, thick woollen checked socks, knee-high and tight, and well-worn, lovingly cared-for French hiking boots, perches himself gracefully on a rock and launches into this bitter lament:
‘So much for the mountains! So much for mountaineering! Even this they’ve managed to wreck. Everywhere you go, you come up against these damn pests. Mass tourism – whoever heard of such a thing? What’s the point of it? It was different before the war. You arrived, and the first thing you did after you got off the train was to stock up: buckwheat, noodles, bacon, tea, sugar, onions – not very refined, perhaps, but cheap and dependable. Then you went on to Roztoka or Morskie Oko, either on foot or in one of those small open-roofed vans that made the trip whenever enough people wanted to go – never by coach! There was a family atmosphere about that shelter at Roztoka, and the best thing was that nobody was there – fifteen people at most. That was the base camp; you’d strike off from there, sometimes for a few days, sleeping rough in shepherds’ huts and, higher up, under the rocks. That’s what it’s about, after all: silence and solitude, being alone with Nature and with your thoughts. You feel as if you were alone in the world, in a place where earth meets sky, touching the heavens, the cosmos . . . floating somewhere above the rest of civilisation. But just try and do that now, with these idiots all over the place. Tours; coach trips; “guides”, they call themselves. Lowlanders! A circus, that’s what it is – a travesty. It’s sickening.’
For years this kind of sneering at the hopelessness of the present and nostalgic sighing for a glorious past rang in my ears as an almost daily refrain. So when I took my place, at the age of fourteen, in the classroom where I was to spend my last four years of school, I was not surprised to hear variations on the same theme. Now they took the form of paeans of praise to former pupils.
During lessons the teachers would sometimes stray from the subject to reminisce about some of these old students and their doings. The personalities were invariably very colourful and their antics quite fantastic. But one would be wrong to suppose that these accounts took the form of edifying parables about exemplary pupils or cautionary tales about rogues miraculously reformed: nothing was further from the truth. The protagonists may have been exceptional, but they could hardly be called sweet or angelic; the features that made them exceptional did not rank high in any catalogue of student virtues. They were intractable, unruly and insubordinate, occasionally insulting and provocative; they had an inflated sense of their own worth; they exuded boldness and independence. They were headstrong, wilful and proud, and they went their own way. But they all dazzled with their talent – a stupendous memory or a beautiful voice, brilliance or wit or a first-class brain – they all had something extraordinary. It was hard to believe, listening to those stories, that the events described had really taken place, especially since the teachers, in recounting their charges’ outrageous antics, not only failed to allow so much as a note of condemnation to creep into their narratives but, indeed, seemed to find in the retelling, and in the whiff of scandal that often tinged it, a kind of nostalgic relish, even a certain pride, as if fortune had singled them out for a special honour in allowing them to witness something so far removed from the ordinary.
But of course there was a moral. In all these piquant, apparently iconoclastic tales of nonchalant bravado lurked a far less pleasant message. It was a warning, and it went more or less like this: ‘The fact that such things once happened does not mean they will continue to happen. In particular, it does not mean that anything of the sort can be allowed to happen in this class. Those years, those people, were exceptional, unique. Now they’re gone, and nothing about them has anything to do with you. Remember that: don’t even think of trying to emulate them. You’d come to a dismal end.’
This attitude was one with which I was all too familiar, but in this case I could not come to terms with it. Yes, the world was once a richer, more interesting, more vivid place – of that I had no doubt. I was also prepared to believe that musicians, and artists in general, were greater in the past. I could concede, although less willingly, that mountain climbing was once a nobler activity than it is now and that the royal game of chess had masters more worthy of it. But school? Was I really supposed to believe that even pupils were better in the past? No – this idea I could not accept.
It’s just not possible, I thought, that all this greyness and mediocrity around me is irrevocable; it can’t be entirely beyond redemption. After all, the way things are also depends on me: I can influence reality; I, too, can create it. In which case, it’s time to act. Time to launch myself into something. Let something happen: let something start, once again, to happen! Let the old times return, and with them the great heroes, in new incarnations!
The Modern Jazz Quartet
One legend that inspired me in those days was the legend of jazz, especially Polish jazz. Its heroes were teddy boys, daring challengers of the Stalinist morals of the day; the notorious and fascinating writer ‘Leo’ Tyrmand, ‘renegade’ and libertine, indefatigable promoter of jazz as the music of freedom and independence; and the leaders of the first Polish jazz ensembles, with their rich, colourful lives, their often brilliant careers, their trips to the West, even, sometimes, to the mecca itself – the United States of America. This was the world that made up the legend. My head teemed with images of smoke-filled student clubs and cellars, of heady all-night jam sessions, and beyond them, in a Warsaw still in ruins, still not rebuilt, of deserted streets at dawn, when the jazzmen emerged from their underground lairs as if from bomb shelters, deathly tired and strangely sad. There was a magical quality to these visions, an obscure, haunting charm that made me ache to experience something similar.
I didn’t hesitate long. I rounded up some friends who, like me, took music lessons and were competent on some instrument, and persuaded them to form a jazz band. We put together a quartet – piano, trumpet, percussion and double bass – and began to rehearse. We met after classes, in the school gym. Alas, our rehearsals had very little in common with the stuff of my dreams. Instead of intoxicating clouds of cigarette smoke, alcoholic fumes and French perfume, we were wreathed in a sickly fug of adolescent sweat, lingering from the last PE session; instead of the bohemian atmosphere of half-lit, crowded cellars, redolent of decadence, we had the ambience of a dingy gym in the harsh light of early afternoon or the cadaverous glow of the ceiling lights. Rows of ladders fixed to the wall, barred windows and a bare and endless stretch of floor, wobbling in places underfoot because some of the boards had come loose, and ornamented only by a lone leather vaulting-horse – these were our stage and backdrop. Our playing, too, fell short of the artistry of the famous ensembles: we experienced no legendary trances, no Dionysian fre
I told myself not to worry: it was always like that at the beginning; our time would surely come. And to boost my morale I imagined us dazzling the audience at some future concert or school party, bringing them to their knees in admiration, my own brilliant solo greeted with storms of applause and cries of enthusiasm as I, without taking my hands from the keyboard, turned confidently to the audience to nod a nonchalant thanks and in that brief second saw all the school beauties raptly gazing at me with adoring eyes.
After a few months of rehearsing we had a big enough repertoire to play for well over two hours, and decided the time was ripe for our first performance. But here we encountered an unexpected obstacle. It turned out that the idea of a school jazz club, performing on weekends, say, was one the school authorities would not even consider: to permit such a thing would be tantamount, they were convinced, to colluding in the scandalous transformation of a respectable educational institution into a place of entertainment and from there, inevitably, into a den of iniquity. The students, for their part, refused to consider allowing the Modern Jazz Quartet, as we called ourselves, to play at the three annual school dances: at carnival, or the ball held a hundred days before graduation, or the senior prom. Rock’n’roll was by then a star in the ascendant, The Beatles and similar groups were in the early days of their triumph, and this was the only kind of music teenagers wanted to listen and dance to.
Given this state of affairs, our one chance of performing (and even this the school authorities considered a magnanimous concession) was at school ceremonies – stiff, tedious, soulless affairs full of bombast and pompous rhetoric. To agree to such conditions was to accept a compromise that bordered on a betrayal of all our hopes and ambitions – especially since it was stressed that if we chose to accept the offer, we must play in a ‘quiet and cultured manner’: ‘none of those barbaric rhythms’ and ‘none of that foul caterwauling’. Thus we were reduced to providing ‘musical interludes’ at official school functions – which rejoiced, among all of us, in the most dismal reputation.