Inspirational unlock-your-inner-novelist books, beware! Here’s a Nobelist to tell you like it is.
To be fair to Szymborska, she’s not a grand old man of literature who looks down her nose. And when she was writing the letters published in this book, she did mention the Nobel, but not because she’d won it yet. Because few people win it. And because she’s not a man, she was writing those letters in the plural, as “we, the editors of this literary journal.” If she had written “I” in Polish, readers would have known it was her: the only woman on the editorial board.
She was writing for censored publication. This was before the underground press took off, between the death of Stalin and martial law (1953–1981). As ever, Szymborska used the tiny space available to say a vast amount. Aspiring authors asked Literary Life whether their writing was any good. The answers are in How to Start Writing (and When to Stop), published in 2021 by New Directions.
Szymborska didn’t waste the tiny space available on niceties. While many of her responses made me laugh, she was never cruel: “‘My boyfriend says I am too pretty to be a good poet. What do you think of the poems I sent?’ We think you must be really pretty.”
Yet these letters should not drag you into a Slough of Despond about how dreadful your own writing is. Szymborska asks her readers difficult questions that could help them move up and out. She is honest. Sometimes you should keep writing those poems, but only for your beloved or your desk drawer. Sometimes you should stick to letters and diaries because what you’ve got just is not a Great Novel.
She returns to the basics: Are you reading? Are you revising? (Even Chekov did seven revisions, she writes, and Mann did at least five.) How does it sound out loud? (“No poet since the dawn of time has ever counted syllables on his fingers. A poet is born with an ear. He’s got to start somewhere.”) Is the story even possible? (See her advice to the poet Marcus below.)
Her letters reveal the editor’s weariness with the same old themes and rhymes. Szymborska refuses to read any more poems about springtime. When something fresher comes along, she’s delighted, but stays critical. And she writes by the same rigorous standards. In the introduction, Clare Cavanagh describes translating a volume of Szymborska’s poems. All the translators were told to delete one, without reading it, and translate the new version. Nine-tenths of what Szymborska wrote went in the bin.
In the interview at the end of the book, Szymborska says herself that “the didactic value is minimal. It’s mainly entertainment.” I felt that when I was reading, but afterwards, those witty darts had started working their way into my mind. Not everyone has someone to tell them when to stop writing because it is not working. Even if you have a critical reader, they might not prod you in the right direction. Szymborska could.
Clare Cavanagh’s translation is terrific. This is the first time I’ve read Szymborska in English, because I missed Teresa Walas’ Polish edition (Poczta literacka czyli jak zostać (lub nie zostać) pisarzem). It came out in 2000, four years after Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her voice shines through this English edition of the book. Her letters from the editor are a sharp and surprising as her poems.