Wisława Szymborska




A collection of graceful 'sketches'

By Merle Rubin
Special to The Times

October 28 2002

For the last 3 1/2 decades, Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, has been writing a newspaper column called "Nonrequired Reading." Occasioned by a motley array of books that have come her way -- everything and anything from an encyclopedia of assassination to a do-it-yourself guide to wallpapering -- these short pieces (around 500 words each) are not book reviews, she declares, but "sketches." Some, as it happens, contain astute criticism of the books in question, but in the main, Szymborska simply uses the books as jumping-off points.

Informal, unpretentious, full of common sense, shrewd insight and wry humor (all ably captured in Clare Cavanagh's fine translation), Szymborska's sketches have a matter-of-fact ease and simplicity that will win the hearts of readers and the envy of other writers who know how hard it can be to achieve such grace.

Wisława Szymborska

Born in 1923 in Krakow, Szymborska lived through the brutal Nazi occupation and the subsequent communist regime to see democracy at last. As one reads this chronologically arranged selection, which begins in 1968, one is struck by the unwavering humanity and compassion of this woman's voice.

Whether she is considering books on birds, Neanderthals, fossils, tyrants or extraterrestrial life, Szymborska's great gift is her ability to see straight through to the essentials. UFOs leave her cold: "The reader may think that I'm a thick-skulled rationalist who can't even entertain the idea that anything strange ... could still happen on our ordinary earth. It's just the opposite -- for me there is no such thing as an 'ordinary' earth. The more we find out about it, the more mysterious it is, and the life it holds is a bizarre cosmic anomaly."

Reading the diary kept by Dostoevsky's wife, she muses: "Objectively, life with her Fedya was a hell of fear, anxiety, and humiliation. Subjectively, though, it made her happy. One smile or kind word was enough to dry her tears, and she'd gladly remove her wedding band, her earrings, and her shawl so that Fedya could pawn them, then use the proceeds to gamble and lose everything once again .... We're dealing here with the phenomenon of great love. Detached observers always ask in such cases: 'So what does she (he) see in him (her)?' Such questions are best left in peace: great love is never justified. It's like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves? But it does exist and it really is green -- clearly, then, it's getting whatever it needs to survive."

The encyclopedia of assassinations sets her thinking of the innocent civilians who have replaced rulers and leaders as the primary targets of today's new breed of political murder, terrorism: "Their misfortune was not that they held some rank, some office, but the apparently meaningless fact that at a given moment they went in somewhere, left somewhere, stopped somewhere, or simply went back to their own home for the night. I think the world stands in urgent need of ... an encyclopedia [of the non-famous victims of terrorism]. Done scrupulously and impartially, it would be a worthy contender for the Nobel Peace Prize."

A French historian's biographical attempt to "scrape the tar off the fiendish Catherine de Medici" impresses her not at all:

"He ascribes virtues to her that somehow never managed to surface even once during the course of her thirty-year reign. He calls her the 'Italian Montaigne' (Lord have mercy) and 'an artist who lent her creative gifts to the realm of politics.' Seven civil wars that she either couldn't or wouldn't avert don't speak well of her artistry .... So I'm not convinced by the superlatives with which the author deluges Mme de Medici...."

Nor is Szymborska beguiled by a German art historian's efforts to present Vermeer as representative of his era:

"According to this critic, the work [one of Vermeer's last paintings] signals both the age's decline and the waning of the artist's inspiration: it is cold, artificial, and calculated. The lady standing by her instrument is, he writes, psychologically 'isolated' in her 'monumentally frozen gesture.' I look and disagree at every turn. I see a miracle of daylight falling on different materials: human skin, the silk gown, the chair's upholstery, the whitewashed wall. Vermeer constantly repeats this miracle, but in fresh variants and dazzling new permutations. What on earth have coldness and isolation got to do with this? The woman puts her hand on the virginal as if she'd like to play us a passage in jest, to remind us of something. She turns her head toward us with a lovely half-smile on her not particularly pretty face. The smile is thoughtful, with a touch of maternal forbearance. And for three hundred years she's been looking this way at all of us, including critics."

Not unlike the thoughtful, forbearing half-smile that lights up Szymborska's writing.


Nonrequired Reading
Prose Pieces
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
Harcourt: 236 pages, $24


Small Wonders
Reviewed by Adam Kirsch

Sunday, October 27, 2002; Page BW15

Pity the author whose book comes up for review in Wislawa Szymborska's column in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Whether prominent or obscure, serious or frivolous, the work is likely to be eclipsed by the reviewer's brief, brilliant response. As the title of the column and the book suggests, Szymborska seldom writes about the serious novels, polemics on current affairs, biographies and classics that dominate book review sections, in Poland as here. Instead, this Nobel Prize-winning poet turns her attention to the ephemeral -- Relaxation: 101 Words of Wisdom -- or the esoteric -- The Daily Life of the Polish Nobility in the Seventeenth Century -- with charming results.

Szymborska's volume avoids the staleness of most book-review collections, precisely because she's not much interested in explaining or evaluating the work under review. Instead, she seizes on one aspect of the book, or the book's subject, or merely something it calls to mind, and lets her precise, fanciful intelligence run free. The memoirs of Napoleon's valet lead to a sympathetic piece on the great man's lack of privacy; a book on home improvement yields a comic look at shortages in communist Poland; an edition of Montaigne's Essays provokes a catalogue of the many accidents that could have killed Montaigne before he got his masterpiece written.

There is a wealth of interesting trivia in these pages. Szymborska tells us about the medieval Oudewater scales, benevolently rigged to acquit accused witches, who were said to be suspiciously weightless; about the first dialysis machine, rigged up by Willem Kolff in Nazi-occupied Holland out of sausage casings and chicken wire; about the scientist Pettenhoffer, who swallowed a beaker of cholera bacteria to disprove Koch's theory of infectious disease, and in fact remained perfectly healthy.

All this makes Nonrequired Reading a delightful book for browsing. But it is also recognizably by the same mind that produced Szymborska's profound and witty poetry. Like her countrymen Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski, Szymborska countered a totalitarian government with poems that praise the specific, singular, odd and free; her poem "Miracle Fair" speaks of "the commonplace miracle:/ that so many common miracles take place." And these prose sketches, minor though they are, gain life and charm from Szymborska's sense for the wonders hidden beneath the ordinary. •

Adam Kirsch's first book of poetry, "The Thousand Wells," was published this month.


Poet's Mind

Issue of 2002-10-28
Posted 2002-10-21

Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, has lived in Kraków since 1931. In the late sixties, she began to write about books that had caught her eye, books like "The Enigmatic Lemming," "Accidents in the Home," and "The Historical Development of Clothing." These short pieces, collected in NONREQUIRED READING (Harcourt), translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, skitter over Szymborskan topics like bodybuilding, archeology, and the lottery of existence while referring, usually obliquely, to oppression and deprivation. Writing about a book called "Wallpapering Your Home," she observes, "Hobbies in their Polish variant are pastimes taken up not voluntarily, but by necessity," and then chronicles the setbacks and delays that thwart do-it-yourself projects under totalitarian regimes. Szymborska's deadpan sketches are whimsical and menacing; like her poems, they remind us that we spend our lives "a hairsbreadth from / an unfortunate coincidence."

If political conditions in Eastern Europe during the late sixties were bad for home improvement, they were good for literature. A scholarly study by Bozena Shallcross, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Chicago, examines the effect of Communist restrictions on travel on three other poets: Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, and Joseph Brodsky. THROUGH THE POET'S EYE (Northwestern) looks at the prose produced by the poets' epiphanic encounters with Western art. In front of Vermeer's "Girl Interrupted at Her Music," which hangs at the Frick, Zagajewski pulls up short. "All of a sudden," he writes, "I felt how reality stopped for an instant and froze in harmonious motionlessness."

— Dana Goodyear






Nonrequired Reading
Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by
Clare Cavanagh
256 pages

from the September/October 2002 issue
Short Digressions
by Terry Teachout


Time for a pop quiz. what do these people have in common: Ivo Andric, Ivan Bunin, Grazia Deledda, Halldór Laxness and Harry Martinson? Yes, they're writers—this is, after all, a—but what else? If you're a veteran test-taker, you may have guessed that they all won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an award whose recipients, while not always unknown outside their native countries (Rudyard Kipling got one), are usually famous only for being utterly obscure. So don't be ashamed to admit that you've never read a line of the poetry of 1996's Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska—neither have I—and don't hold it against her that she won all that tax-free cash without your noticing. Her latest book, Nonrequired Reading, is the most engaging collection of literary essays to be published in a deep blue moon.

Szymborska writes a weekly column for
Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest daily newspaper, in which she "reviews" books that are too offbeat for full-length treatment. The pieces are quite short, generally just under two pages in this volume, and as often as not they make only glancing mention of the books that are their ostensible subjects. Can you imagine opening up your Sunday paper and finding a column like that? Much less one written by a poet? (Ozzy Osbourne, maybe.)

At the outset, Szymborska expected her book column to be more or less conventional in style and approach. "I thought I'd be writing real reviews," she says, "that is, in each case I'd describe the nature of the book at hand, place it in some larger context, then give the reader to understand that it was better than some and worse than others."

Before long, though, she realized that she wasn't born to be a book reviewer, but something different—and, quite possibly, better: "I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it's just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations. Anyone who calls these pieces sketches will be correct. Anyone insisting on 'reviews' will incur my displeasure."

That's about the size of it, except to say that her choice of books is winsomely eccentric. You won't recognize many of them, either, though half a dozen or so passably familiar titles make the cut: Louis Armstrong's Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Richard Klein's Cigarettes Are Sublime, even a Polish translation of the diary of Samuel Pepys. For the most part, Szymborska stays well off the beaten path, instead allowing such books as The Encyclopedia of Assassinations, Vade Mecum of a Tourist on Foot, and The Art of Writing, or You and Your Character to tickle her fancy.

The results are something like a cross between a volume of familiar essays and a found poem, but the best way to suggest the subtle flavor of Nonrequired Reading is to give you a little taste. Here, for instance, is part of what Szymborska has to say about Hanna and Wojciech Mieszkowski's Repairing and Redecorating Your Apartment, a title that isn't likely to pop up in your neighborhood bookstore anytime soon: "You have to be born a handyman; you can't suddenly become one in midlife. As with ballet, you have to start practicing early; otherwise you'll never be a master. The handyman has had a flamboyant boyhood; he has learned how to balance on death's edge amid corrosive liquids, broken glass, short circuits, and experimental detonations. His parents are summoned to his school with above-normal frequency, where they discover that their son has rigged beneath the teacher's chair a device producing knocking from below." And do the Mieszkowskis have any useful hints on the one best way to rewire a light switch? Beats me—but who cares?

Or take this out-of-left-field meditation, inspired by a book with the unlikely title of The Enigmatic Lemming: "Birds are lunatics with no clue to their own lunacy. Instinct, which orders them to fly off every fall and resettle somewhere else that may be tens of thousands of miles away, only appears to be kindly and concerned with their well-being. If all that mattered were better food supplies in a more temperate climate, more than one species would end its protracted flight far sooner. But these demented creatures fly on, over mountains, where unexpected storms may smash them into cliffs, over seas, in which they may drown."

One of the rare classics to which Szymborska turns her attention in Nonrequired Reading is Michel de Montaigne's Essays. That gives the game away, for Szymborska, like Montaigne, writes about life by writing about herself, though she does it once removed, using books as the nominal occasions for her personal reflections: "I don't remember all the impressions prompted by my first reading of Montaigne. In any case, surprise wasn't among them. The existence of this work, the living voice with which it continues to speak—I took these for granted. What foolishness. Now the existence of anything good fills me with astonishment. And since the Essays are a good thing (even one of the very best that the human spirit has achieved), everything in them amazes me."

Having just made the belated acquaintance of Wislawa Szymborska, I'd say she partakes of more than a few of Montaigne's most attractive traits. Skeptical yet hopeful, intensely interested in the deceptively ordinary, she writes in the living voice of a person whose quirks and passions I feel I know as well as my own. I sincerely hope that her publisher quarries the back pages of Gazeta Wyborcza for at least another volume's worth of these lovely nonreviews. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go read some Nobel Prize–winning poetry right away.




For poet and critic, small books are fodder for big thoughts
Reviewed by Cynthia Haven
Sunday, December 22, 2002

Nonrequired Reading

Prose Pieces

By Wislawa Szymborska; translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh


Every author hates it. Every reviewer is warned against it. The oldest stricture in the book is against critics' using the author's work as a springboard to discuss their own passions, pet peeves, quirks.

Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska seems never to have heard of that gripe. In the Polish poet's "Nonrequired Reading," a collection of reviews written from 1968 to 2001, reviews go way around the block discussing philosophy, contemporary manners, archaeology, geology, whatever -- and sometimes almost parenthetically discuss the book to be critiqued. It's significant that Harcourt inserts the book title, author and publisher in small type, at the end of the review. For in the end, we get very little of the book but a great deal of Szymborska.

We are lucky this is so. Most of her reviews in her long-standing column, also called "Nonrequired Reading," trumpet ultimately forgettable books. The thinking behind her column is simple: Literary and nonfiction heavy-hitters get reviewed copiously. "But things look different in the bookstore," where popular science and how-to books sell like hotcakes, she notes in her introduction. "Most (if not all) of the rapturously reviewed books lay gathering dust on the shelves for months before being sent off to be pulped, whereas all the many others, unappreciated, undiscussed, unrecommended, were selling out on the spot."

Szymborska decided to review the latter. "Even the worst book can give us something to think about," she has written elsewhere, and she proceeds to prove that this is true. Her selections -- books on continental drift, the genealogy of the Cleopatras, Chinese languages and dialects ("To live in this world and know nothing about the Chinese alphabet makes no sense") or "nightlife" (no, not what you think, but rather about the nearly 3,000 mammals who do their hunting at night, along with nocturnal reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds) -- are characteristically idiosyncratic.

For example, "Nonrequired Reading" includes one of the few reviews of Marcia Lewis' "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors." The author, you may recall, is Monica Lewinsky's mom, and, yes, incredible as it may seem, this book was translated into Polish. Szymborska pooh-poohs the lubricious rumors Lewis repeats: "The handsome young Domingo spent nearly twelve months in Tel Aviv, during which he made more than two hundred appearances and learned more than fifty roles by heart. If this grind ever permitted the occasional chink of free time, I doubt that busty supermodels bursting with silicone could slither into it."

In a chapter titled "Page-Turners," Szymborska even reviews a wall calendar.

Take this very typical passage on its humble fate: "The calendar is doomed to gradual liquidation as its pages are torn off. Millions of books will outlive us, and a considerable number will be ridiculous, dated, and badly written. The calendar is the only book that has no intention of outlasting us, that does not lay claim to a sinecure on the library shelves; it is programmatically short-lived. In its humility it does not even dream of being pored over page by page."

More memorable than the critiqued books is the sly, witty, engaging voice that emerges from behind these backhanded reviews from perhaps history's most reclusive Nobel literary superstar. Szymborska makes her humane, commonsensical points but always comes at them slantwise. The observations on creatures that prowl and whir and twitter through the night quickly turn into observations of "nighttime as a wholesale slaughterhouse": "investigating the nature of Nature generally leads to unpalatable conclusions. . . . We humans also take our nourishment at the cost of others' lives: I consider this a scandal. The scandal is the greater since we must, willy-nilly, participate, which we often do with great relish."

Not surprisingly, these whimsical prose pieces are all of a piece with her poems. What a short leap from these reviews to these lines in "Torture," written in 1986:

Nothing has changed,

Except maybe manners,

ceremonies, dances.

Yet the gesture of arms

shielding the head

Has remained the same.

The body writhes, struggles,

and tries to break free . . .

When this same, fey outlook combines with urgent, historical circumstance, her lines ignite. "The Turn of the Century," the first poem she published two years after the declaration of martial law in December 1981, is a retrospective ode to the new century (both poems are from "Miracle Fair," published in paperback in November):

God was at last to believe in


good and strong.

But good and strong

Are still two different


How to live, someone asked

me in a letter,

Someone I had wanted

to ask the same thing.

Again and as always

And as seen above

There are no questions

more urgent

Than the naive ones.

The sobering dates on the "Nonrequired Reading" reviews are a reminder that this is one way Szymborska made her living after she left the Communist Party in 1967. Given the poets who languished and starved and died under similar regimes . . . well, she's to be congratulated for quiet wisdom.

Most of these reviews are less than two pages. Dreadful to say this -- but somehow one suspects Szymborska would approve -- but it's the ideal length for the bathroom, for waiting "on hold" or for the long, long lines at the DMV.

Cynthia Haven has written for San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Magazine and the Times Literary Supplement.