First, there was his novel A Minor Apocalypse, which in the 1990s became part of set reading lists in all Polish schools. Having it forced upon us didn’t dissuade us youngsters from further engaging with literature, but neither did it inspire us to profound ruminations. Squeezed somewhere in between Kafka’s The Trial and Camus’ The Plague, it came off rather well in this esteemed company. Still, as teenagers, dreaming with all seriousness our flights of literary fancy, we felt that Konwicki was a little too home-grown, that his metaphysics reeked of Vistulan vapours, and instead of casting an air of titanic struggle was instead “the metaphysics of a countryside whisperer-shaman” (to quote the author’s own self-description). What impressed me most about his work back then was that Communist Poland appeared to be a strange and grotesque landscape, along with his presentation of a spectral Warsaw, haunted by his feverish, unnamed protagonists.
And then we had the real Konwicki himself – of flesh and bone, sneaking along the edge of pavement between Warsaw’s Chmielna St. and New World Avenue. Of flesh and bone, because although at university we dipped into his books here and there, whole and in parts, Konwicki was above all a literary legend, a name to use when wanting to show off one’s erudition and intellect. Thank God, the author of Ascension lived in the very heart of the capital, at the crossroads of several student walking routes, so there wasn’t a single aspiring intellectual among us who didn’t at some point claim to have seen the man himself “with our own eyes”. And yet the phrase “with our own eyes” suggests a meeting, and a meeting suggests a chat, and a chat suggests friendship. The proximity of Konwicki guaranteed we all felt rather good about ourselves, or at least all those who once upon a time, in secret, with the dreamy eyes of juvenile imagination, hoped to one day debate with the Master and other literary luminaries at their famous table in Cafe Czytelnik, or share with said Master thoughts and ideas nobody else had ever heard before.
I also had my very own private Konwicki. Konwicki The Challenge, or rather Konwicki The Homework. A Konwicki who, akin to a guilt trip, kept me company throughout my university years, especially after my father revealed to me a strange fact. What sort of fact? Yes, there was Vilnius, and all those words which end in sounds reminiscent of my family regions, but the winning point was the surname. After all, Konwicki’s mother’s maiden name was Kieżun! You are in Warsaw, you must go to meet him, my family insisted.
Indeed, this became my bottomless well of snobbish pride, a knowledge I relished with patient delight, dropping mention of that maiden name into conversations whenever Konwicki’s name came up, whenever anyone mentioned seeing him with “their own eyes”. But it is one thing to relish and bathe in the glow of someone else’s fame, and another to actually act. Each time I saw Konwicki taking his regular walk around New World Avenue, I would feel a dual sense of panic paralysing me – every time I had the chance to approach, he became living, walking proof of my own chronic deficit of bluster and bravura.
My moment of truth, however, was waiting just around the corner. I was still trying to fend it off, with desperation: I measured the distance from Konwicki’s home town of Nowa Wilejka to Kuciszek, where my grandfather originated from, a mere 100 kilometres. I calculated the numbers of those with the same surname as mine in the Vilnius region, which had to be small, seeing as my grandfather’s sister married someone local called… Kieżun, completely unrelated with my family. Still, in the end, I tried to dismiss the challenge of meeting Konwicki as of no real importance.
Yet, everything came to a head when I moved from my dormitory to a flat shared with friends, on Górski St. From there, I could not be any closer to my writer and supposed clan member. I saw Konwicki on a regular basis, but what pleasure could be extracted from such fleeting glances, if at the same time my family’s insistence I make contact grew and grew.
One sunny morning, I decided to strike while standing by a newsagent, right outside his famously cramped quarters, which I had managed to locate thanks to a careful reading of his The Calendar and the Hourglass. He was first in the queue for the morning press. At the point at which he collected his change and tucked his newspaper under his arm, I cleared my throat and, smiling, recited: “Good day. My name is Piotr Kieżun, which also happens to be you mother’s maiden name”. My voice faltered at this point, pausing at a virtual full stop, yet nothing dramatic happened. The Master did not embrace me, did not invite me for tea, or better yet for vodka, something I could have told my grandkids about. He looked at me with confusion, uttered a polite “Good day”, then something along the lines of “Yes, yes”, and then ducked inside the entrance to his home.
Later, I would relate the tale of my defeat, with sadness, but also with a sense of tangible relief. And then, I took to reading again – seeing as I was not meant to have the chance to meet the Vilno-Warsavian Konwicki in person, I hoped that I would learn more about him through his books.
Who is Konwicki, as seen in the pages of his novels and dis-diaries? Who will he yet be for my generation and those yet to come? The author himself seemed to approach his own legacy with timid optimism. In a conversation with Teadeusz Lubelski, published in 2008, he said: “I will share with you a certain discovery I made. These days, when they die, a writer vanishes. Do you remember how trendy Kuśniewicz used to be? Just over a decade has passed since his death – now, show me anyone who is still reading him. A writer may find that the next generation, or even the one after, will discover and draw from their work, or they won’t and said writer is then relegated to the past.”
In spite of these dark visions, it is unlikely that Konwicki will be swallowed up by the sands of time and forgotten, for it is hard to think of anyone in Central European letters to match his pen. He was just as ironic, though less preachy, than Kundera. Just as insightful, yet less egocentric, than Gombrowicz. Just as steeped in the history of Vilnius, though less pompous than Miłosz. Above all, he was reserved and full of humour, qualities which in this part of Europe have often been in short supply. Qualities which the vitality and the power of this “metaphysical countryside whisperer-shaman” from Nowa Wilejka were founded upon.
Translated by Marek Kazmierski