As ever, the dames jumped at the chance to go and find out about a Polish author little known in this country and her modern successors – not least because one of her successors is poet and translator Maria Jastrzębska, friend of damesnet and subject of our first Wiki entry.
‘Polish Women Writers Past and Present: Enthusiasts of the 1840s and Today’ was organised as part of Lambeth’s LGBT+ History Month to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Narcyza Žmichowska, the first woman in Poland to write about the need for independence and education for women.
Distinguished translator Ursula Phillips introduced her translation of Žmichowska’s 1846 novel The Heathen. A work of startling emotional power, it is a book that repays close reading. Ostensibly the story of an affair between a younger man and an older, sophisticated and aristocratic woman, critics and literary historians are now inclined to believe that it is in fact a disguised account of a same-sex relationship, inspired by Žmichowska’s own intense – but doomed – friendship with Paulina Zbyszewska. This would put it in the tradition of works that conceal a queer relationship in plain sight, such as Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which explores the pain of a forbidden love, and, on a more playful note, The Importance of Being Earnest, in which ‘Bunburying’ (excusing oneself from tiresome social obligations on the pretext of visiting an ailing friend) may actually mean going off to a same-sex tryst. The passage Ursula Phillips quoted from the book, describing the young hero Benjamin, undoubtedly conjures up the image of a young woman instead: ‘… your white neck, lovingly turned on the potter’s wheel, joined in a marvellous sweep your uncovered shoulders; your young breast, the colour of marble yet burning hot, fluttering from your quickening breath…’
In the discussion that followed, it became clear how much Žmichowska is honoured in her own country. In the mid 1840s, she was at the centre of a progressive sisterhood of women known as the Enthusiasts; current Polish feminists regard her as their mother.
Then to a modern novel: Jastrzębska’s newly published The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue. Introducing it, Jastrzębska said she had always found the current novel form not up to the task of encompassing women’s experience. Cowboy Hat is therefore a hybrid form of prose and poetry, a picaresque quest, with a truly filmic quality, through extreme landscapes populated by outcasts and survivors. The fragments of nature observed, of acts variously violent and tender, imprint themselves on the memory.
Finally to poetry, and Anna Blasiak’s forthcoming collection, which is accompanied by photographs by Lisa Kalloo. Jastrzębska has translated Blasiak’s poems, so Blasiak read several poems in Polish, and Jastrzębska read her translations of them. Listening to poetry in a language you don’t understand is a surprisingly pleasurable experience. Freed from any possibility of interpretation, the mind simply focuses on the rhythm, the quality of the sound and the expressiveness of the voice. As poets, Jastrzębska and Blasiak clearly recognise the importance of these non-verbal elements, and just sitting still and listening intently – whether to the Polish or the English – was an enriching experience.
It seemed at times scarcely believable that, in this straitened and suspicious period of our national history, a cash-strapped local authority could still be commemorating and celebrating the creativity of minority voices. A shaft of light in the darkness: thank you, ladies – and Lambeth.