Julian Wolfreys: One of the things that strikes me about your books is memory, the importance, the use of memory in your books; can you talk about the work of memory in your books?
Paweł Huelle: Yes, of course. The most basic element for the author’s creation is memory. If we look at the construction of a human being, it is not possible to function without memory. There is shallow memory and deep memory. The writer is the one who reaches for the deep memory. It can be his personal memory, the memory of his family, the memory of culture, national and social memory. I am a Polish writer, I was born in Poland, but my memory is of the war; not that I want to write about war, because I don’t deal with this but I will give you a very specific example: we are now in a flat in which German people used to live until until 1945. And in the flat which used to be the home of my Grandfather and Grandmother, now Ukrainian people live there. And this is just the memory of the Mitteleuropa, as it were. It is also the memory of lost cultures, not only the Jewish culture, although this is the main one, but also the culture of the Mennonite people in Pomorania, or the specific memory of Sudet-Deutsch, south-west of Poland. So, these are lost things, but somehow, they are the memory of the writer who finds traces of these. I think the memory of culture is fundamentally important, not as a sort of memoir, but as a memory of culture.
JW: I understand entirely; is then—this is a two-part question—is then memory a form of dwelling, is memory-work a way of making oneself part of a culture, even if that memory is not one’s own? For example, you talk about the apartment and French historians such as Pierre Nora speak of lieux de mémoire, sites or places of memory; the second part of the question: is memory in your work something that is dialectically in tension with history, official history (data, facts, events), or does it complement, supplement, extend, or replace it?
PH: It cannot be put into one definition, because it’s…when I walk along my street here—the name of it is Obrońców Westerplatte (the defenders of Westerplatte)—this was the beginning of the Second World War, Westerplatte, there were, … for seven days, 144 soldiers were defending a small place which was invaded by German troops, so I could think of them, but normally I don’t. But this street before it was Obrońców Westerplatte, before the war, was called Georg Straße; for many years, I wondered who he was and then I checked it, but I can also imagine that Rainer Maria Rilke used to pass along this way in his horse drawn carriage from the railway station to the pension. But when I pass along this way, I also think about the lime trees, which, when they bloom beautifully remind me of the avenue of lime trees that my grandparents used to walk along in Lwów. So, these are layers of memory. And it’s altogether, sometimes, in one second.
JW: Yes, yes. One of, for me, the most touching passages in Castorp (2002) comes toward the end when Castorp hears the music, and—I took it that it’s Schubert, Der Leiermann or Die Nebensonnen, which resonate powerfully for me, in any case—but it struck me that music is an important keystone, something which grounds us, calls us, connects us. Is music something which is important in your work, as a motif?
PH: Absolutely, yes. There are people who claim that the universe as it is has the structure of music; I wouldn’t go that far but I am very sensitive to music myself. Unfortunately, I don’t play any instrument, but from my childhood I’ve always been hypnotised by music. In the key scenes of many of my books, music is the key, for example in Weiser Dawidek (1987) Weiser levitates when Elke plays the pan flute; or, in Castorp, the most important musical moment is Schubert’s song, which is shocking, the poem also, Die Nebensonnen—
Drei Sonnen sah ich am Himmel steh’n,
Hab’ lang und fest sie angeseh’n;
Und sie auch standen da so stier,
Als [könnten] sie nicht weg von mir.
Ach, meine Sonnen seid ihr nicht!
Schaut [Andren] doch ins Angesicht!
Ja, neulich hatt’ ich auch wohl drei;
Nun sind hinab die besten zwei.
Ging nur die dritt’ erst hinterdrein!
Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein.
[I saw three suns in the sky,I stared at them long and hard;And they, too, stood staringAs if unwilling to leave me. Ah, but you are not my suns!Stare at others in the face, then:Until recently I, too, had three;Now the best two are gone. But let the third one go, too!In the darkness, I will fare better.]
…and this is a song about death, and the most important thing is that Castorp, who leaves a crazy party, where there is opium, free sex, a typically modernist party, goes along the frozen river in the port; he lies on the ice, and he can see the three suns; so this is also a very important motif. In my latest novel, Śpiewaj ogrody ([Sing, Gardens] 2014) there are also very important music motifs, the motif of an unknown opera by Wagner, and this is the motif of the tune played on a flute by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the man who plays the tune on the flute and all the rats follow him outside the city, a very old story. This melody is important, and an important character in the novel is a musician who is trying to compose music for one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems.
JW: Is Śpiewaj ogrody going to be translated, do you know?
PH: There is no proposal as yet. But we will see.
JW: Would it be possible to talk about the influence of Günter Grass, if there is one, as another source?
PH: It’s a long story, but I’ll try to put it briefly. I have always preferred to talk to the books. One writer can meet another writer but doesn’t have to, but it is best when one book meets another book, and my obsession is that sometimes by night I can hear the books talking to one another. When I was writing Weiser Dawidek, Who was David Weiser? in English, I consciously started a dialogue with Günter Grass; my book was in dialogue with Cat and Mouse. Some not well-educated critics said that Weiser is similar to Oskar from The Tin Drum. This is complete idiocy. Weiser is connected with Mahlke, the main protagonist of Cat and Mouse; Grass immediately understood that and he was delighted that some young writer from Poland, specifically from Gdańsk, had this dialogue with him, and I got to like him very much. This idea of a dialogue between books is important.
JW: I think such a dialogue between books is very important and the best have this conversation; I also get the sense from your writing that there is a dialogue between cultures and you want to encourage that: Mercedes-Benz before the war, Castorp, obviously, before both wars. Is there—because obviously, Gdansk / Danzig has moved between different cultures at different times, and I wonder if you could talk about the possibility of a dialogue at all.
PH: Gdańsk was a city of the borders for many years, with a prevailing influence of German culture, German music, German language, because even the Polish proletariat when they came from the villages were Germanized, because with the German language they had better chances. But there used to be about 15%-20% Polish speaking people, 3% French people, 2% English people, 3.5% Russians, Scottish people as well, a lot of Dutch people; this was a typical city of the borders. This was over after the Polish partition of 1795. And then Gdańsk, which used to be a rich merchant city, a merchant emporium, became a provincial Prussian city. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these were periods of the great German nationalisms, which end up with the crime of 1939, because most of the Polish people here were murdered at that time. Surprisingly, the Jews could leave. Because this used to be the Free City of Gdańsk, the so-called ‘Free City’, and the authorities of Gdańsk signed an agreement with the Jewish Community in 1939, more or less, perhaps one year earlier, and while the war was still going on, until 1940 the Jewish population was still leaving. So, the multicultural city was over with the Prussian partition. Then, after the war, 99% of the German population left, and Polish people from various parts of former Poland came, from burned-down Warsaw, from Wilno, or from the Eastern borders, from those parts; so, people only came back to the idea of multiculturalism, after 1989, with the end of Communism. But, if ever we speak of multiculturalism in Gdańsk, we speak of the distant past. Of course, it’s a very good example of something to reach for, but it’s a deep past.
JW: Gdańsk is, obviously, a port city; Tri-city—Gdańsk, Sopot, Gdynia—forms, with the Hel Peninsula, a bay on the Baltic; the Baltic itself is obviously of great significance, so I wonder if you would speak about this.
PH: The Baltic community is not anything obvious. Or, in other words, I used to read Andersen as a child, yet it never dawned on me that we were neighbours. The East is important for me, but in the sense in which it is present in the title of my first collection of short stories, Stories for a Time of Relocation. It’s all about the post-Yalta relocations that both removed Germans from here, and led Poles from various regions of the country, including the Eastern Borderlands, to settle or be settled here. The days of my youth took place among a variety of Polish dialects. Today, our language is losing its regionalisms, yet at that time you could easily hear who came from Lviv, and who ‘had arrived from Vilnius,’ the Kashubian accent was discernible, and so was the Gdańsk vernacular: the first language of these people was German. Having learnt Polish, they simply couldn’t speak it without a harsh German accent. You could hear all that on my street in Wrzeszcz.
As a merchants’ emporium, Gdańsk maintained trade connections both with the West and with Russia. The breath of the East can still be sensed here. We are visited by Russians by the thousand, they come from the Kaliningrad Oblast, not only to do their shopping. Also for leisure. Visit Sopot or Jelitkowo for three or four days. You can hear Russian in the streets. They arrive in posh cars, well-dressed, and spend plenty of money, invalidating the stereotypes of the so-called Russki or kacap. After the invasion of Crimea, a Sopot restaurateur put up a note saying that he wouldn’t serve Russians, and this was met with a swathe of criticism. The announcement disappeared quickly, a testimony to the sense and reason of this Pomeranian, Tri-City community of ours.
Referring to the North, looking back at my life after living here for many years, I realised that although I was not brought up in this culture, I have its stigmas, its profound stamps pressed into me, whether consciously or not. Notwithstanding that, l have always lived on the myth of the South, the Mediterranean, where the summer is taken for granted, while there are times here when you cannot walk into the sea even in July, as it is so cold and unpleasant. My joy of the South is connected to family memories. In the two decades between the world wars, my father’s parents moved from Lwów (today’s Lviv) to Moscice near Tarnow. My grandfather Karol was an engineer and built the Fabryka Związków Azotowych—the nitrogen works in Moscice—and was later appointed its deputy director. Moscice is in the south-east of Poland, and in my childhood went there for holidays. This is how my family cherished the memory of Lviv and Galicia.
Cold Sea Stories closes a stage in my life, they summarise my being in the culture of the North. A culture of specific melancholy and a very short summer. (This is so important because it is a short interlude between leaden clouds, winds, rain, and unpleasant dampness. A few months, if all goes well, because the Baltic summer may also be rainy and chilly). Vodka and herring, and not wine, olives and fruit (even though globalisation has made it possible for me to eat in Italian restaurants even here). A culture that, although Protestants are few here, is permeated with the Protestant spirit. Finally, there is also the culture of the sea, only that it is inhospitable and unfriendly. I don’t have any sentiment for it. I wondered at my colleagues from Warsaw and Krakow who walked its shore captivated even when it was pouring. The Baltic is drab-grey, and hardly ever assumes that deep blue colour. I sailed on it a number of times, and yes indeed, it is unfriendly. Moreover, Polish culture has never loved the sea. It had neither a hand nor a knack for it. Just one naval battle won, at Oliwa in 1627, doesn’t make a summer. Nor does the Gdańsk trade, although Poland drew great riches from it. It had its back turned on the sea. I think it is not the same today, as the ports in Gdynia and Gdańsk have an exceptional turnover in mass container trade. In this area, we are well ahead of several other Baltic ports. The construction of Gdynia was something exceedingly attractive and exotic. The imagination roams among the sands of Masovia, the steppes of Ukraine, the beloved Highlander folklore and the Tatras, and lo and behold—we have submarines, transatlantic ships, and dreams of distant lands suddenly emerging. Everything spiced up additionally with film, visuals, and the whole machine of the interwar propaganda. Yet maritime subjects have been absent from the core of Polish literature. I believe that the countries by the Baltic have never been connected as much as those of the Mediterranean. Perhaps because the sailing season is so short here? One didn’t go out much in winter. The tales that you could negotiate the frozen Baltic to reach Sweden on a sleigh are rather legends. Our experience, meanwhile, is communism and the resulting isolation. All in all, the Baltic community is not anything obvious.
JW: This is the north, and Kashubia is a northern region, Grass recounted late in life, a neighbour in Lübeck, who still spoke Kashubian, which is a living language, not merely a dialect, and in your latest novel Śpiewaj ogrody there is Mr Bieszke…
PH: …he is a Kashubian who introduces the main character into a world entirely different from his: that of the Kasbubian inland, the ‘Kashubian sea,’ that is Wdzydze Lake and the Bay of Puck. Once, when their keelboat got stranded in the shallows, he told him his story: that of a Stutthof inmate, later forced to join the Wehrmacht and wounded at Stalingrad, persecuted by the communists after the war, a cart driver who worked hard all his life. I created Mr Bieszke from the handful of authentic Kashubians who I’d known since my childhood. I was brought up listening to Kashubian. We spent at least half of our holidays in central Kashubia by the lake, and there you heard only that language. I must have been five when my parents and I went to Sycowa Huta near Koscierzyna, and lived in the locals’ checza, that is cottage. I ran out to the yard to play with the other children, and they said something to me that I didn’t understand at all. I went back to my mother crying. And the landlady rebuked her children and explained: ‘you’ve got to speak to him in big letters,’ which in the language of their home simply meant ‘speak Polish.’ After a few days, I caught onto that local tongue and could communicate easily. I was fascinated by its otherness. Of course, 1 knew that you can talk differently: people in Moscice expressed themselves quite unlike those in Gdańsk. My brother and I would laugh out loud when the kids in Moscice asked us if we were going out by calling ‘Pójdziemy na pole? “Shall we go out to the field?” What field? You go out to play with a ball, going na dwór–“to the court!”’ Yet compared to this, Kashubian was something extraordinary. A magnificent language. I also had the privilege of getting to know rural Kashubia untouched by contemporary civilisation. I remember inland fishing: plenty of Kashubians lived off it. Drying nets, the smell of fish. And the crayfish that were caught by the basket. My parents let me stand on a bridge and watch them being caught.
JW: You work on plays, novels, short stories; would you mind talking about how you work? Do you move, for instance, from genre to genre, do you work on a novel, say, then a play, then short stories, or do you work on several things at the same time?
PH: Either I write a play, or I write a short story; at the same time, I can start a novel but it has to wait; and I write poetry, while being inspired. Sometimes it’s enough to have five minutes to write a poem; you must know that…
JW: Yes. Absolutely…
JW: … yes, sometimes…. Do you, to go back to questions of culture and place…
PH: … yes…
JW: Do you? — to go back to questions of culture and place, obviously, this is, as you’ve said a place of borders…
PH: … was…
JW: Yes, was, I’m sorry… I think the other thing, and I don’t want to abuse your time with too many questions…
PH: … of course…
JW: I have just one more question…I’m fascinated by your use of technology in your novels: Castorp purchases the ‘Wanderer’ bike—I found this bike, by the way…
PH: …I have checked all the bikes produced in Europe, because when Castorp went to the shop, he got a lot of adverts, so Peugeot, for instance, and other French and German bikes, but the ‘Wanderer’ is one of the best for him; why? Because Castorp has seen this interesting advertisement; one of the first used at the beginning of advertising, a wonderful picture, with a young woman riding the bike; in seeing this, in this moment, he decides ‘this one! This one!’
JW: It’s a wonderful moment; and in Mercedes-Benz, there are the cars, obviously.
PH: My father was a ship’s mechanic, an engineer, and he supervised the building of ship engines, sometimes I visited those ships as a boy. I shall never forget one of those visits, it was like climbing Mount Everest, you know, upwards and downwards on stairs, no lifts, we are down in the ship, father is talking to the bosses, and I ask, ‘father, where is the engine,’ and my father laughs and says, we are in the middle of the engine. Like a four-storey house, it was. Maybe because of this, the masculine lineage—I had four generations of engineers or professors of physics, or mathematics. I am the first one to break the tradition, unfortunately! My grandfather was the Director of the polytechnic in Lwów. He was not a Huelle, he was Fidler, Tadeusz Fidler. … He was a pioneer of foot trips and at every stop—he would always have a copy book—he would draw things. I have a photograph of my grandfather, Karol Huelle, from Mercedes-Benz, with the President of pre-war Poland, Ignacy Mościcki [4-June, 1926-30 September, 1939] In the photograph is Prince Roman Sanguszko, and also the administrator of Mościcki’s property, Yadgarov, a Russian—he was a marshal in the Tsarist army, and he escaped, ran away from the Bolsheviks to Poland. The photograph depicts a hunting exhibition of course, taken in 1935; I don’t like hunting, but photographs are a wonderful resource; for example, there is a short story, ‘Polanki Street’, and this is an authentic story about how, with my first wife, I went to a party at Lech Wałęsa’s house. He was then President, it was his Name’s Day Party. It was very funny, because there was a huge queue for the toilet. The organisers thought of everything, but not the toilet, of which there was only one for 120 people. So, at first, I went to the other end of the garden, but there were security guards there. I couldn’t pee there! They would shoot me! So, I went off the property, across Polanki Street, and up the hill to the forest. I’m going to the forest; I pass Schopenhauer, Schopenhauer family summer house; I’m beginning to remember Schopenhauer’s story. On coming back, much happier, I don’t know why, but I remember my Grandfather’s story, how he went to Vienna, he was to take the title of Secret Advisor—an honorary title—from the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef II; this was a convention that when a professor from a polytechnic or university in the Austrian empire was retiring he was to receive this honorary title. The celebration lasted for one minute. This person being given the award—like my Grandfather was led into a round office, an official cabinet room, in camera, and the Kaiser would come in, hand him the diploma, he would either say something or nothing at all, and that was it.
JW: Thank you so much for your time.
Wędrowiec / The Wanderer
Paweł Huelle, Wędrowiec (Paris: Kolekcja „Regcogito”, 2016). © Paweł Huelle. I would like to thank Paweł Huelle for permission to reproduce the story here in full.
The wanderer moved forward into a country similar to his small homeland. But though it was not his homeland, yet were the rushing hills, the clouds that drifted in the sky, the mirrors of small lakes that lay before him similar. Similar also, was the smell of the earth.
A storm was coming. He remembered so many flashes, hurricanes and downpours from his childhood, in the far north. He stopped on the road, but from a great cloud there fell only a little rain. So, he proceeded, with little further disturbance. Moist grass acted like a drug.
Finally, he came to stand under a sign with the name of the village. It resembled something he remembered, but just from the mirror of sleep, as if he was here and yet not, simultaneously. Perhaps he was actually wandering in a dream? Not his dream however, but someone who would visit these parts, describing this country.
A cart traversed the streets of the village, though not like that which he remembered from childhood: wooden with a rhomboid back. It had been made of steel tubes, machinist squares. But the smell of horses whiffed around him eternal. People on the cart were going to church. They spoke a strange language. The wanderer had never before heard such speech.
So, he went to the other side of the town, toward the White Synagogue. He had heard the old cantor’s chant and the collective prayer, all those voices of the past mingled with modern street noise and the noise of cars, the steps of the locals, the rumble of mechanical music from an open window.
But before that, he walked along a part of the Jewish quarter. Shlomo’s house was the first – it had two storeys. On the ground floor there was a shop, on the top the apartment. Then the tiny house of Chaim’s widow. Next—with the entrance gate for horses – Singer, the merchant’s house. Then the Cheder building, where young boys were studying, under tutelage, the Torah.
The wanderer’s next steps led him to the lake. It was most like the water mirrors of his childhood in which the clouds were reflected. The smell of the water, the reeds, the call of grebes—all these brought back to him the memory of those days when he would set out with his father to go fishing: to catch perch, roach, pike, and eel.
On the jetty, the wanderer saw poles on which the nets were hung. He remembered that, in the land of his childhood, the fishermen did not speak of nets, but netz. They also used other words, pronounced with a hard accent: Bundze, wieszczi, opilec, wanoga, pleszcec, letawka and much more. These were almost like his first primer.
The wanderer finally reached a ruined manor house. It was not like his grandfather’s hometown, but it looked melancholically abandoned. He walked down the alleys of the abandoned park, thinking about the passing and the charm of the old gardens. He disappeared in a thicket like in a labyrinth of time, which turned out to be not linear, but spiral, if not circular. Perhaps—so he thought—this is what Paradise looked like, after Adam and Eve were exiled?
He entered the manor house. The empty rooms were filled with echoes. Two dogs—like ghosts, the origin from where they came was unknown, but probably from the past; they pawed at the door, whimpering pitifully. The wanderer woke up in his home, on the street where the limes were blossoming. He wrote a poem about it.
Julian Wolfreys is author and editor of over forty books of literary criticism, and has also published a novel and two volumes of poetry. Most recently he is author of Haunted Selves, Haunting Landscapes: English Literature 1800-Present, and editor of a scholarly edition of Maxwell Gray’s The Silence of Dean Maitland.
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