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.
Fax correspondence followed. I’d return in March and Rusinek thought that’d be fine, but on the 8th he faxed that Szymborska was going away. “I guess you will have to write about her without talking to her.” I groaned but persisted by email (at that time quite new to me).
An opportunity to go back to Krakow arose in April. On 31 March, Rusinek e-mailed: “Good news for ya! WS has agreed.” Five days before the date set for the meeting, he gave me the address: Piastowska Street, a couple of kilometres north-west of historic Krakow.
Rusinek and I took a taxi. The name on Szymborska’s door was someone else’s. An odd addition awaited us: an interpreter, called Magda Heydel. Magda was a student friend of Rusinek’s, who could do with an extra zloty or two. He was doing her a favour. And it was Szymborska who paid her, not The Times.
It was 11 am and Szymborska produced a bottle of brandy—a totally surprising detail which I’d quite forgotten until, last week, I looked again at the article. It explained the bare data of Szymborska’s life: born in 1923, family somehow remaining in tact during the war, communist beliefs solid until the mid-1950s but returning her party card in 1966, her poetry of course; but the thrust of it was about the Nobel’s invasion of her privacy. She loathed being recognised.
She smoked like a chimney, had bright eyes and a full mouth, and rather beautiful hands. She didn’t talk much of literature but did state, in answer to a question I can’t remember, that the world’s greatest plot was that of Sophocles’s Antigone. Her flat was plain and the loo seat raised a smile: it was laced with a pattern of barbed wire.
She was Poland’s fourth winner of the literature Nobel but she could have been my great aunt. You don’t encounter quiet greatness like hers often. She signed my copy of her Poems New and Collected, which, again, I’d forgotten before looking at it, just now, for the first time since 1999. I shall do her the honour of re-reading every single one of its 280 pages, and be reminded of how acerbic and luminous a poet she was.