'Nonrequired Reading' proffers a grand mind, having great fun

On Books

October 06, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

To a wide-ranging reader there come from time to time serendipitous testaments that there can be no grander joy than writing itself. It's never easy, mind you. I've never known anyone who does it really well to claim the process is either pleasant or painless. (One of my earliest, most favorite models instructed me to drop the idea completely: "Writing always ends up feeling like pulling an anchor chain through your umbilical scar," he admonished, "link by link.") But, well, when the stuff is truly fine, the ecstasy sings out clear above the agony.

Try this out:

"Cavemen ... couldn't venture too far into their caves. They had to stick to the edges. It's not that they didn't have the nerve, they just didn't have flashlights."

And:

"Humor is sobriety's younger brother. There's a constant sibling rivalry between them."

And:

"It's a well-known fact: in order to follow doctor's orders, you have to be healthy as a horse."

These bits come from my most recent serendipity: Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, by Wislawa Szymborska (Harcourt, 256 pages, $24). I deeply hope that the delights, deliciousnesses and purposeful peace I found there were the experience of the author as she worked.

The book is a compilation of 92 columns published in Gazeta Wyborcza, the top newspaper in Poland, where Szymborska was born in 1923 and still lives today. The title of the book is the name of her column. They are tiny pieces -- mostly 400 to 600 words (this column is about 1,000). Most of them reflect on books, though they are insistently not reviews, but rather reflections, sketches.

Szymborska is best known internationally as a poet, though she has written lots of essays. She received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996 -- but since that High Honor more often than not goes to writers virtually unknown beyond their own countries, among my friends only a couple of poetry fanatics knew of her. I did not. I will make up for that.

The little sketches are presented in the book in chronological order from 1968 until the summer of last year. But they can be read in any order that strikes your fancy. I read them sequentially, 70 or 80 pages at a time over two days, but you could as well read them -- even in backwards order -- once a week for almost two years and get a different sort of pleasure, but a genuine one.

Most of them bounce off books that would not ordinarily be reviewed -- and she does not review them. Statistical compilations, scientific texts, history books, books on birds, a wallpapering manual, instructions for tending sick dogs, memoirs, language, fashion history, paleontology, William Hogarth.

Out of an astonishing number of the little pieces, come sudden flashes of insight and understanding, flicks of brilliance. Writing about a new opera handbook, she says, "I admire opera, which is not real life, and I admire life, which is at times a true opera."

Reading the pieces linearly, I had a developing sense of closeness to Wislawa Szymborska. But though the articles span over 33 years, to my surprise I did not find the voice or vantage changing a great deal. I had expected to discern some evolution or maturation. Then I reconsidered: When the first piece was written, she was 45 years old and an accomplished recognized poet, an obviously deeply cultured person. When the last piece was published, she was 78 years old and still very much with it.

The pieces are never arch, but rattle with irony -- much of it breathtakingly wise and unexpected. It is all written -- and enchantingly translated by Clare Cavanagh -- in simple but never condescending language.

Typically, the pieces take one point (e.g., she takes off on a book for young readers, which focuses on the many varieties ofbirds and animals that contain "lunatic" self destructive programs). Then Szymborska proceeds with a couple of hundred words of illustration (elaborating on lemmings, of course, migrating geese, and other suicidal wildlife). She then draws a conclusion, which is typically both philosophical and ironic ("With an eye to his young reader, [the author] has fictionalized things slightly, but it is done in moderation and without baby talk. Thus adults may also read this book with profit and horror.")

She brings impressive but almost self-effacingly modest erudition to many of her subjects. Taking on a book on the pariahs of early European history, she writes, "It's not at all certain that the Vandals rank among [vandalism's] leading practitioners. The tragedy here derives from the fact that their chief enemies knew how to write, whereas the Vandals despised the art of arranging letters to the end of their days."

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