From Corsets to Communism, the life and times of Zofia Nałkowska, my literary biography of a leading Polish writer

Zofia – an early feminist and active supporter of the marginalised

photograph c 1918

Zofia Nałkowska – a woman, a writer.

Tall and striking, of large proportions, ‘a ship in full sail,’ Zofia was famous for her wit, her charm and her piercingly blue eyes. ‘Forget-me-not blue,’ said her admirers. ‘Rapacious,’ her critics said. Those eyes looked unflinchingly at human nature in all its foibles and turned their gaze on herself too as she confided her inner thoughts to the diaries she kept lifelong.

Zofia presented herself as the grand lady of Polish letters and crafted her outer persona as carefully as her award-winning prose. The only woman in the Polish Academy of Literature, Zofia became an institution in her own right. Young people attending her secret gatherings in Occupied Warsaw during the Second World War referred to her as though she were a university course.

Zofia Nałkowska was a European on a grand scale. She read French, English and Russian in the original language and took part in literary events all over Europe, from Norway to the Balkans, including a visit to London and Edinburgh in 1935.

Intimately involved with the ‘movers and shakers’ of Polish political and literary life, Zofia portrayed people at the top of society as well as bringing to life those at the bottom whose hopes and dreams went unnoticed. The thing that mattered most to her was people. ‘The most interesting thing that a person can get to know is another person,’ she always said and made it her life’s work to understand others. Her appointment to the Committee for the Investigation of Nazi war crimes in Poland in 1945 gave rise to Medallions, short stories, immediately acknowledged as a masterpiece. One colleague concluded, ‘If you wrote in French, English or even Norwegian you would be the most famous writer in the world.’

Travels with a bear

War-Hero-Bear

“You go everywhere with that bear,” a friend said. Yes, last week Inverness where Cradlehall Primary presented a musical performance based on Wojtek, War Hero Bear, from a script by Barbara Henderson, author of Fir for Luck and Punch.  It’s so exciting when words on the page come to life on the stage, especially when the actors are children, so full of enthusiasm and joy.

From Inverness to Edinburgh North. A group of Guides listened to the story, watched the slides and had a great laugh as they acted out the parts of the story.  Once again, a hugely heart-warming experience, so much joy and fun that I’m smiling as I write. Wojtek’s story belongs to everyone.

Book addict in library, not permitted to read

Invigilating today took place in the school library. Can you imagine what it was like for a book addict to be surrounded by books but not permitted to read? The thirst was huge, the cravings so bad that well, I did manage a quick browse – as well as keeping a beady eye on the students bent over their exam papers, of course, and when the exam was over I even managed to borrow a few of those enticing objects that shone like the apple in Paradise that Eve was forbidden to touch. Phew!

books for addicts

Put them in a story… I read this quote the other day: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story, or tell a story about them.” (Isak Dineson). And now I know why I am addicted to words. The quote came from The Examined Life by Stefan Grosz. He commented: if “we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream those stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.” So, tell those stories….

Writing about writing

Words are all I have to take your heart away… but sentences matter too – and characters above all. Yet words and sentences give flesh and emotion to the characters that I’ve just finished reading Faulks on Fiction (Sebastian Faulks BBC Books 2011). In a brilliant essay on Great Expectations, Faulks shows us how Dickens makes things matter. The convict Magwitch has just climbed the stairs to Pip’s room:

I could not recall a single feature, but I knew him! If the wind and the rain had driven away the intervening years, had scattered all the intervening objects, had swept us into the churchyard where we first stood face to face on such different levels, I could not have known my convict more distinctly than I knew him now, as he sat in the chair before the fire.

Faulks, amongst other useful analysis, points out the devastating impact of that little word “my” linked as it is with “convict”, linking both Pip and the reader with that dramatic scene at the beginning of the book where the poor boy Pip, terrified out of his wits, helps a shackled criminal – and then takes the reader – and Pip – back into the cosy, domestic scene, beside the warmth and living flame of the hearth-warming, heart-warming fire.

Just such a connection is made in Wilfrid Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, but that will be made in a future blog.