'The Dialectic': Zadie Smith's Take on Sopot
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Zadie Smith's Take on Sopot, Cover of 'Grand Union' by Zadie Smith, photo: promotional materials; Zadie Smith, photo: Dominique Nabokov, center, zadie_smith_.jpg
Zadie Smith’s short story 'The Dialectic' from her 'Grand Union' collection is set in Sopot, a city that has long been an inspiration to the Polish arts. How have authors used the city’s seaside atmosphere and tempestuous history to literary ends?
‘Today, that pretty village is laid out in the shape of a cross, with its arms supported by a hill, and its head towards the sea. In all, it consists of three streets or, rather, avenues lined with little houses,’ noted Jadwiga Łuszczewska, a writer and improviser(known as Deotyma) from the Romantic era, in 1858. Although Sopot has changed throughout the years, its magical atmosphere still fires the imagination and attracts artists today.
In 2018, Zadie Smith was invited to the seaside resort as a guest of the Sopot By The Book festival. Before an evening meeting with readers, hosted by Michał Nogaś at the State Art Gallery, the editor suggested that the British author set a short story in the city. A year later, the writer released The Dialectic, which opens her new book, Grand Union.
To see it
In The Dialectic, the daughter character ‘had decided to be disgusted with everything in Sopot and her mother and the world’, saying, ‘It makes no sense (…) to build a resort town around such a filthy and unwelcoming sea’. In fact, it was unthinkable until the 19th century, not due to the Polish water quality but to the sheer act of bathing in public, which was even regarded as an offence to morality. In health terms, it was considered comparable to drinking vodka or eating unripe fruit, but the French, especially Jean Georg Haffner, a doctor of Napoleon’s army, felt differently.
Known as the ‘Father of Sopot’, Haffner founded the first public bathing beach there in 1823, and a spa resort a year later. Zadie Smith remarks that, for ‘two hundred years people had come here to escape the cities and let their children run wild in the public squares’, despite the initial reluctance of the Sopot authorities. One of Sopot’s streets is now named after the resort’s founder, and Jerzy Limon fictionalised its history in Koncert Wielkiej Niedźwiedzicy (‘The Ursa Major Concert’).
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How should we interpret that street? Limon gives us a few hints at the start: ‘The history of mankind is largely a struggle for remembrance; a history of monuments erected and toppled. The chronicling and obliteration of history’.
In the novel, the difference between the enshrined and the effaced is crucial. This is evident from descriptions of the street’s changing name (today Haffner, formerly Wilhelmstrasse, and Bierut). The dialectical method of reasoning relies on exposing contradictions. Zadie Smith also draws on this, balancing on the one side her sugar-coated memories of ‘shiny, battery-operated imitation Ferraris’ and ‘candyfloss’, and on the other the ‘silt which fringed the beach, like a great smudge God had drawn round the place with a dirty thumb’. The story hinges on the conflict between mother and daughter, and contrasts the seaside resort crowd with the individual.
Readers also feel the dissonance between wishing ‘to be on good terms with all animals’ and gnawing a chicken wing on the beach. Zadie Smith concentrates on humanity’s relationship with nature and analyses its social roles.
To dream it
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With Limon, this dichotomy first arises in the form of the narrator: ‘In other words, we (my author and I) will engage in spatial archaeology’. From that space one can read the past, and Sopot and its street turn into text. The promised dialogue recurs ironically several times. This ‘Cantata for One Street, Seven Stars, and Two Voices’ (as it is subtitled) is literature tinged with history, legends, mythology, and science. Each chapter describing life in Limon’s city is titled after a star in the Ursa Major constellation. Fairytale poetry about the formation of the rocks on which Sopot grew, interwoven with a story posing as a historical document on the founding of its mediaeval hill-fort. The illusion of eyewitness reports from the street’s residents dissolves into veritable Gombrowiczian grotesque, the convoluted genres and constant tension between history and literature making it impossible to differentiate fact from fiction.
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Limon was not alone in imbuing Sopot with a fairytale atmosphere. The seaside city, or an imaginary version of it, was sketched by the Swedish graphic artist Per Oscar Gustav Dahlberg. He studied at Cambridge, obtained his PhD in London, and was then drawn to Sopot and the music of Chopin, stayed there for love, and was fascinated by the architecture.
It is futile to seek straight lines in his artistic visions combining fantasy, mystery, playfulness, details (as in the paintings of Dwurnik), surrealism (everything melts like Dalí), and precision (similar to Szancer). If you rent a room in the city centre, you might end up dreaming of Dahlberg’s Sopot drawings, as they hang on the walls of every room at the Hotel Molo. More disturbingly, you might daydream them, like the designers of the Crooked House on the famous Heroes of Monte Cassino Street, who must have been inspired by Dahlberg’s sketches.
To hear it
That street (minus the Crooked House in the background) makes a brief appearance in Paweł Huelle’s novel Śpiewaj Ogrody (‘Sing Gardens’). A father and son walk back to Sopot along the beach, and in the art gallery pavilions the man buys Giusti ice cream – the first Italian ice cream in Poland. The boy remarks that the once-normal street has now been ‘pedestrianised, that odd notion contrived for tourists and holidaymakers’. While those words betray a hint of bitterness, Zadie Smith sees the city’s purely recreational function as an asset.
In her story, the mother feels that the crowds advancing ‘without thinking, moving like a pack’ serve as camouflage to escape the problems of their ‘fatherless family’. There, she can blend into the anonymous throng of beachgoers, as if the father of her four children were ‘around the next corner, buying more refreshments for his family’, although he ‘had in reality emigrated to America’. What the British writer sees as mass appeal, the Polish author perceives as something far superior and endows it with a symbolic dimension.
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Like Koncert Wielkiej Niedźwiedzicy, Śpiewaj Ogrody is a novel about remembrance rooted deeply in history. Here, Haffner Street is replaced by Polanka Street in Oliwa. Huelle shows the reader around his native Gdańsk, harking back to when Sopot was still part of the Free City of Danzig. Taken from a sonnet by Rilke, its title introduces the mood of the book perfectly. Huelle has created a literature of sound: melodic stories, the clamour of war, the Kashubian language, and murmurings of the past. He intertwines several plot lines, the main one involving a frustrated composer’s obsession with some found fragments of a Richard Wagner score.
It is a smooth transition from the novel’s pages to the map of history, which Huelle pulls off with erudite flair. For his readers, he evokes the atmosphere of the annual Wagner festivals held since 1924, for which Sopot Forest Opera grew famous all across Europe. The war cut short a wonderful run of musical performances, and politics took over the stage, with German soldiers occupying the seats. Brimming with menace and hope, Śpiewaj Ogrody is a story about music in the shadow of Hitler.
To feel it
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After Gdańsk lay in ruins after the war, Sopot took on the role of the coastal cultural centre. In 1950s’ Poland, the wind of liberty blew in from the sea. The first Polish jazz festival, held in Sopot in 1956, was a defining moment. With six Polish groups and two from abroad playing music the authorities could not abide, it was a manifesto of independence that gathered a crowd of several thousand fans from all over the country. Its unbridled enthusiasm brought success that was more ideological than artistic.
Magdalena Grzebałkowska captured the torrid atmosphere of those seven cold August days in her reporter’s biography Komeda: Osobiste Życie Jazzu (‘Komeda: The Private Life of Jazz’). It was the festival that turned the doctor Krzysztof Komeda-Trzciński into a celebrated musician. Comments from participants and excerpts from newspaper reports, coupled with previously unpublished extracts of documents from the Central Archives of Modern Records and the author’s exuberant style, take readers behind the scenes of the event and convey the spirit of freedom that was circling over Poland under communism.
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However, Limon’s Koncert Wielkiej Niedźwiedzicy also depicts a tragicomic vision of the jazz festival in the chapter Molo (‘The Pier’). A report in the style of a novel extract describes a pier full of people breaking away symbolically from the mainland, ripping off the masks of socialist ideology. It also mentions ‘portraits and statues of leaders, heroes, and exemplary workers torn down unceremoniously and smashed to smithereens, their pathetic remains then consigned to the sea’. But the freedom is short-lived: the pier returns to the shore and the ‘sneering grin of Gomułka’ peeps out from beneath the face of a fallen statue of Bierut. Only the jazzmen play on, as unfazed as the band on the Titanic.
Limon also constructed Koncert Wielkiej Niedźwiedzicy to reflect the realities of the time. It contains a non-existent novel (allegedly written in 1978, then censored and published two years later) with the censored sections restored. This was the author’s expression of protest against restrictions on the freedom of speech and thought in Poland under communism.
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The mother in Zadie Smith’s story also reminisces about Sopot pier. Faced with teenage rebellion, she looks back on the carefree days when her daughter ‘enjoyed counting her steps as she walked out over the ocean, along the famous wooden boardwalk’. She would have had to cover more than half a kilometre to reach the end of it.
Describing her impressions after a stay at a 19th-century spa resort, Deotyma also confessed that, ‘the most enticing is a stroll along what is known as the steck behind the coastal gardens, a jetty on stilts that extends into the sea and is furnished with benches. Crowds of travellers flock there. At some hours, one cannot even squeeze onto that passage over the water. It is odd how such a simple structure exudes such charm’. As you can see, it has always been a kind of ritual to wander down the pier formerly known as the steg or steck.
To live there
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Deotyma uncovered the world of Kashubia recorded a century later by Jan Piepka, a Kashubian born and bred. One of his novels, Wieża z Domem (‘The House with the Tower’), tells of children living in the popular Sopot mansion at 3 Goyki Street. The girl Litta didn’t believe in ‘grownups’ truth’ and would have corrected you, saying ‘It’s the Tower with the House’. Piepka sensitively crafted a world of imagination and adventure for children, with reference to actual events.
The novel was written in 1974, but its ending was penned by life itself. The residence was commissioned in the 19th century by a wine merchant called Friedrich Wilhelm Jüncke. In between the wars, singers appearing at the Forest Opera would stay there, but the villa was later turned into communal apartments, becoming dilapidated and in need of renovation. It has recently been modified into a municipal cultural institution that the city authorities inaugurated the Art Inkubator there in March 2019.
The villa at 3 Goyki Street is not the only Sopot building to have inspired writers. Miron Białoszewski’s imagination was stirred by the house at 23 Wybicki Street. His Poniemiecka Ballada Sopocka (‘Post-German Ballad of Sopot’) included the urban legend that the villa was haunted:
Pans in the chilly kitchen
Jumping around on the sly.
Doors opening by themselves.
Ghostly footsteps passing by.
It began right after the war, so they say. Fear of the Red Army advancing into the city drove a German family to suicide, and they were reputed to have been buried in the garden by the house. Various objects moving around and inexplicable noises succeeded in scaring off any potential new owners. Finally, some Lithuanians who were no strangers to supernatural goings-on moved into the haunted upstairs apartment. Moreover, they were the father, brother, and distant relatives of Czesław Miłosz. Białoszewski wrote his grim ballad after hearing the tale from friends who lived in the ground-floor flat.
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The events of The Dialectic are drawn from seven days spent in the seaside resort. However, we are told that this family holiday has been repeated annually for several generations, providing a relative sense of equilibrium and relaxation. The novels of Stanisława Fleszarowa-Muskat, who was popular in Poland under communism, make for an equally relaxing read. In Lato Nagich Dziewcząt (‘Summer of Naked Girls’), the author encapsulated the 1959 summer season with its ‘multi-coloured crowd flowing down the street’ and conversations ‘about the weather, the concert at the Forest Opera, and dinners in Sopot restaurants’. This is typical light beach reading (so as not to echo critics who dubbed it ‘second-rate’). Putting the rather dubious storyline to one side, you can drink in the Sopot scenery, which is described in spectacular detail.
Fleszarowa offers a broad panorama of the city around one main theme, whereas Janusz Leon Wiśniewski’s novel Grand focuses on the history and secrets of a luxury Sopot hotel, splitting the story into several episodes. It has a wide spectrum of characters based on famous figures who actually stayed at the Grand, though its emotions are sometimes closer to the temperature of the Baltic than the summer air. The novel seems engrossing but non-essential.
Despite the educational value of these two works, I had a distinct impression that they were a one-off read.
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The potential of Sopot’s backstreets, eclectic tenement buildings, clubs, and choppy sea has also been exploited in detective stories. A few somewhat darker views of the Baltic resort are Pochłaniacz (‘The Absorber’) by Katarzyna Bonda (a profiler versus the Tri-City mafia), Martwy Błękit (‘Dead Blue’) by Krzysztof Bochus (a retro 1930s’ thriller), and Kolory Zła: Czerwień (‘Colours of Evil: Red’) by Małgorzata Oliwia Sobczak (a body on the beach). As you can see, Sopot has something from every genre and certainly still has a lot more to say.
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Originally written in Polish, Oct 2019, translated by Mark Bence, Jul 2020