When Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel prize for literature, I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The announcement of the prize always falls like clockwork in the middle of the fair, each October. I’d not heard of her. A better-informed Dutch journalist, the late Michael Zeeman, wrote out her name for me.
Just over two years later I interviewed her in Krakow, a visit I recalled vividly when I heard the news of her death last Wednesday. Szymborska rarely gave interviews. I’m certain she eventually agreed to meet to me only because it was for The Times—surely, for an idiosyncratic east European poet who spoke no English, the most famous newspaper in the Anglophone world.
I also believe The Times features section had no idea what it had commissioned. The piece printed, respectable enough, told barely a third of the story. And it nearly didn’t happen.
A Polish writer friend of mine had good contacts in Krakow. One of them was Szymborska’s young assistant, Michal Rusinek. I met him during my first visit to Krakow, from Berlin by train, in early 1999. He turned out to be punctilious, scholarly and fluent in English. He reminded me of a monk.