Wojciech Skalmowski on Jerzy Giedroyc, "Kontrapunkt", 28 July 1996.
"Kontrapunkt" Cultural Magazine of "Tygodnik Powszechny", No 7
Krakow, 28 July 1996"DEAR SIR..."
Wojciech Skalmowski on Jerzy Giedroyc
...in any case, no pity. I try to follow Fr. Bochenski's rule; walking around the garden each day, he would repeat to himself: Innocent, be brutal!"
(From a letter by the Editor of "Kultura" to the author, 24.7.95)
When my Brussels neighbor and "Kultura" colleague, Leopold Unger, bought himself a computer, he invited me in for a demonstration at the end of our customary walk around our quartier. He sat down at the keyboard and began typing quickly; the following words appeared on the screen:
"Dear Sir – thank you for your letter and the enclosed text. I must say it has been long since I have read anything as unwise and poorly written as your article. It stands to reason I will not be printing it. I also hope that in the future you will not waste our time with similar nonsense. Kind regards..."
There was no signature, but we both knew the signature that should have appeared: a row of spiked, barely legible letters in which the initiated immediately recognize the name - "J. Giedroyc".
Style makes the man and the above-cited hypothetical letter contains several features highly typical of the Editor's mammoth epistolographic oeuvre - the opening included. I thought about what I might add to this homage celebrating the 90th birthday of the creator of "Kultura" and its dependencies, an homage graced by so many excellent pens. I decided to use my own collection of the celebrated individual's letters (about 300, over a quarter century of correspondence) and to offer a few comments on his style. A full analysis of this fascinating topic would, of course, require a thick volume.
My, How You Destroyed Y!
Conciseness is the basic feature of the Editor's letters, emphasized by that sacramental "Dear Sir" (my collection includes only four specimens - from various years - which for unknown reasons contain a small, non-functional redundancy, namely "Dear Mr. Wojciech"; I store them separately as rarities). The letter's subject is on principle introduced in medias res, for example:
"Thank you for reviewing book A; I count on receiving your reviews of books B and C – no mercy, it stands to reason. I adore critiques of the books I publish." (27.9.77);
"I have sent you the Polish issue of [foreign periodical title], which I finally received. I think it deserves the harshest appraisal. The selection is unintelligent and very biased in favor of [its editors'] preferences." (25.1.80);
"I sent X's manuscript by registered mail and beg you to evaluate it rapidly, or at least not to lose the manuscript, for the author and his friends would kill me. Frankly, I didn't like the manuscript at all." (7.2.83)
The Editor is also concise when confirming receipt of an article, though at times his praise is scant; for example:
"My, how you destroyed Y! I print this with immense pleasure, even though I am very fond of Y" (18.10.76);
"Enclosed is a proof of your vicious article, which I read with great pleasure" (20.4.82);
"It was a great pleasure to read your [unfavorable] comments in the margins of Z's book [...] I dream of meeting another Bronski [my alias in 'Kultura' - W.S.] who would inflict some of the same on, for example, Stalinski [one of Stefan Kisielewski's aliases]. But that's a tall order." (17.6.76)
The last comment derived from his suspicion that I was yielding to a pro-Krakovian bias in my reviews. Compare it to:
"...When can I expect your translation of that Russian piece, and above all your review of Stalinski's book ['Ludzie w akwarium' – 'People in an Aquarium']? I secretly hope that you will resist your bias and find the strength to criticize the book" (29.4.76);
"I eagerly await the materials you promised. I am beginning to suspect that you only react to the nepotistic requests of our friends from 'Popular Weekly'. A propos of the 'Weekly', Kisiel arrived two days ago - to our annoyance." (30.1.78)
The Editor retains his suspicions of favoritism today; compare this excerpt from a letter from a month ago:
"Thank you for the fax and the 'Krakovian' reviews. I will print them [...]. On top of everything, the Krakow mafia is a force." (13.05.96)
The Editor was not happy with my review of Kisielewski-Stalinski's book:
"Thank you for the review [...]. You have treated him kindly, with favoritism, yet so skillfully that I will gladly print it and count on finding, in future, a good writer who will drag him through the mud and expose the entire evasiveness of his work. [Please do not treat this as proof of my poor relations with St. - I say the same to his face and our disputes do not impact our friendship. I even promised him that he would be smeared in the book review] [...]."
The letter's conclusion announced a punishment:
"I am sorry I cannot release your from your reckless promise to translate Heller's article. Please treat it as minor compensation to me for your review!" (1.5.76)
My translations from various languages (once even from Ukrainian!) - often, in fact, slapdash for lack of time - hardly received praise, as shown by this undated note (attached to another text):
"Dear Sir - you've botched the Amalrik [translation] terribly. With a bit of spite I wish to ascertain that 'koshelok' is a money pouch, not a spanking in the behind. [...] A longer letter in a few days – JG."
Please Note: He's a Maniac
The Editor, however, was not easily discouraged, so further requests arrived in a steady stream. A typical example:
"I hope you've returned from your Danish holiday rested and tanned and that you're happily back and busy with construction of the Skalmowski family seat. I, as 'Kultura', would also like to take advantage of this and thus have the following offers: (1) a friendly discussion of issue 12 of 'Kontinent'; [...] (2) an essay on the school of young French philosophers [...] (3) I would like to conduct [a survey] among young émigrés – could you help me draft the questions? [...] finally, (4): issue 3 of 'Zapis' ['Notation'] has appeared [...] Would you be willing to look at and review it? Trusting that my modest and moderate requests have not scared you, I send you my best regards." (15.7.77)
My professional work, house renovation, and my vacation (in another letter the Editor noted sourly: "I have the impression that your vacation is proving exceedingly stretchable..."), meant that I did not pursue all these suggestions. A certain restraint was at times tactically expedient given frequent changes in Giedroyc's "game plan"; compare the following two excerpts:
"Here's another go at you. Would you be willing to translate the enclosed article [from the 'Journal du Dimanche'] by René Berjeval, which I like very much?" (3.10.77)
In the next letter he states:
"The translation of [Berjeval's] piece about the pope is not so urgent: there will always be time to shock the Catholics. [...] I don't know [however] if you know Matzneff? [Of course I did not! - W.S.]. A very irritating but also interesting writer and man. His last book ['Les passions schismatiques'] seems interesting to me. Enclosed is a review, to give you some idea." (21.10.77)
Nothing came of Berjeval, Matzneff and dozens of other projects, but I became increasingly impressed with the incredible erudition of my Venerable Correspondent. (When did he have time to read all this?!) Most of his letters from Maisons-Laffitte testified to very broad readings, like press clippings with a broad linguistic "diapason"; compare, for example:
"I found a very interesting article [a copy in Belarusian was enclosed, of course] about Alexander Chodzko in 'Belarus' monthly [...]. Maybe, given the opportunity, you might write something about him?" (30.8.94);
"The last issue of 'Literaturnaya gazyeta' contains a lengthy short story by Solzhenitsyn titled 'Vsyo ravno'. It is a story from the last war, very critical. It struck me that Konstantin Simonov could have written it. I may be exaggerating, but the similarities are vast, almost plagiaristic. I enclose a copy." (21.8.95)
This same letter testifies to the Editor's steady interest in contemporary Polish literature:
"I am very impressed by Maciej Krasicki's little book 'Mamo, bija' ['Mom, They're Hitting Me']. The writer is young and the book comes from 'Nowe' ['New'] Publishing in Lublin. It is fascinating - a breath of fresh air in the publishing desert that is Poland."
I am not meant to do things with all "attachments", some being accompanied by comments like:
"I don't intend to print X - I send you the text for your information only. He is an obsessed maniac who experiences flashes of genius. In his time, before the war, he was a very interesting art critic and friend of Y.Z. - if that name means anything to you, because prehistory like that is known to only a handful of old men like me'" (6.10.82);
or (regarding an anonymous card from America signed "A Group of Readers"):
"Note: He is a maniac who has been inundating us with denouncements, fabrications, etc. for years. I speak of a certain [name]." (16.5.84)
Some of the Editor's comments on contemporaneous events were similarly gratuitous, for example:
"Do you know NN? I have learned that he has become successor or deputy to X at [institution]. Once or twice he sent me very boring articles that I rejected, and his work in [magazine title] left me entirely unenthused. I fear this is a change for the worse." (5.11.79);
"I look at [periodical title] with greatest skepticism. Pure personal ambition and the Polish mania for publishing periodicals. If only they were to find some young, new talent in the country and here. Instead, they are trying to steal the people who are writing for 'Kultura' ". (22.11.82)
Those who see the last passage as evidence of a desire to "retain a monopoly" I urge to consider the following (highly non-monopolistic) excerpt from another letter:
"I think things are not good with our friends at 'Znak.' [...] We can expect the 'Weekly' to encounter some hard times. Given the occasion, I want to tell them that if the censors smash them completely, I am willing to give them an autonomous section in 'Kultura', where they can publish even anonymously. In any case, if any of the 'Znak' people show up in Brussels, please ask them what the situation is and convey my proposal to them if you see fit." (1.4.76)
The Editor treated serious issues seriously - and concretely.
We are dealing with a small inferno
That also relates to personal issues. For decades Maisons-Laffitte was not only a center of independent Polish culture, but also a kind of unofficial embassy or consulate. Thus, many of the "non-literary" letters I possess are purposefully altruistic, i.e. they consist of the Editor "sounding out" possibilities of finding work, money or generally just a place for many of those who found themselves drifting on the uncertain waters of exile. He spent a lot of time and energy on this correspondence, and was sharply disapproving of indolent respondents:
"I just got a letter from the lazy and unhelpful U., who writes..." (9.10.74);
"I don't know what's going on with W. For a long time now he has given no sign of life and has not answered my letters. Unfortunately, most of our countrymen are unusually sloppy and unhelpful."(29. 3. 73)
The Editor is not enthusiastic about all "Polish initiatives", and group pilgrimages to Laffitte are among those he likes least. A letter from 20 January 1976 ends with a jocular: "What is up in Brussels? I am toiling with Kisiel and the homeland..." but half a year later the tone became serious:
"Too many visitors in general for my liking, especially because they contribute nothing new and their constant, helpless lamentations are tiring." (17.6.76),
and then dramatic:
"It's like 1956 here. Crowds of countrymen, nice, boring, and above all a flood of scribblers. Any more of this and I'll start pining for Stalinist times." (27.9.77)
The unruly Stefan Kisielewski was a frequent hero of these complaints, though the situation improved with the years, or the Editor became accustomed. Compare this:
"Kisiel continues to prowl about, though he has become more civilized, grown older, so he is less 'in the way'. He has a new trick: he has discovered that he's a sleepwalker and wanders about the garden at night until rain or mud beneath his feet wakes him. Luckily, he doesn't use the window and roof to get out, so for now it's enough if he locks himself in." (11.2.78)
In any case, most mentions of the situation at the Duchy of Maisons-Laffitte match the classic convention of telephone conversations with the Editor (which usually began: "What's up, Mr. Editor? – Well, sir, things couldn't be worse...!") and are often spattered with words like "inferno" and "nightmare". A relatively recent sample:
"We've got a small inferno on our hands. I am terribly bothered with my autobiography, which 'Czytelnik' is supposed to publish, and I find myself increasingly regretful that I ever agreed to do it." (11.10.94)
Even comments to "external" events at times convey the Editor's habitual gloom; for example:
"In Poland, grand celebrations of the 50th anniversary of 'Popular Weekly'. [...] This anniversary is a source of great jealousy [of Mr. Turowicz]. He was able to assemble a well-tuned team, to rejuvenate his staff relatively painlessly, not to mention remaining in good physical shape himself." (4.4.95)
Let's not be swayed by these moods! Though the staff of "Kultura" was in essence not similarly "rejuvenated", I am nevertheless confident that it will yet allow me to enlarge my collection of letters beginning with "Dear Sir".
I will conclude with a few lines pro domo sua, for I realize that I may have given the reader the (false) impression that the Editor showed me favor as a collaborator and completely atypically showered me with complements. As proof that things varied, a last quotation:
Dear Sir - my, how long-winded your Mickiewicz essay is. I can't conceal that personally I can no longer stand hearing about 44, etc. But [...] once in a while 'Kultura' should publish such texts on Polish literature. I shall print it [...] but not until the double January-February issue [...], and in the meantime I hope to receive something shorter and more digestible from you." (9.11.89)
When in early January this year I telephoned Maisons and asked shyly if the Editor had indeed decided to print the long-winded Mickiewicz
piece, I heard, "Yes, unfortunately it's going in the next issue". The evaluation was as succinct as usual.
"Longevity is no achievement but a problem. In terms of 'Kultura', I tried as far as possible to clarify both a cultural and political vision of Poland. It is hard to say how successful I have been. Best to leave that to a more distant future. In any case, I am very grateful for your memory and great kindness,"
wrote Jerzy Giedroyc
to Artur Miedzyrzecki, president of the Polish PEN Club, when he was awarded an honorary membership - the first in the organization's history.
On 27 June the PEN Club hosted an evening celebrating half a century of "Kultura" and the Literary Institute and the 90th birthday of its founder. The papers delivered on that occasion by Krystyna Kersten, Jaroslaw Abramow-Newerly, Tadeusz Chrzanowski, Leszek Kolakowski
and Krzysztof Pomian can be found in this issue of "Counterpoint" - and we sincerely thank the PEN Club for helping to assemble it. Jerzy Jedlicki was among the speakers that evening, and Czeslaw Milosz
, a "somewhat unruly supporter of the 'Kultura' political line", addressed the absent jubilarian saying:
"Your ninetieth birthday should be the day of your deserved triumph. Whatever the 21st century brings, in this 20th century you have accomplished as much as was possible to accomplish - and a bit more."
© by"Tygodnik Powszechny"
"Tygodnik Powszechny" (TP) published this text in commemoration of Jerzy Giedroyc's 90th birthday in "Kontrapunkt" [Counterpoint], the TP cultural magazine, on 28 July 1996. It appears on www.culture.pl - courtesy of the editors and publishers of "Tygodnik Powszechny" - in connection with "The Year of Jerzy Giedroyc," celebrated in 2006".