A collection of graceful ‘sketches’

Special to The Times

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.

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

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


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