Maria Kuncewicz, Polish writer and novelist, discusses her book, "Don Quixote and the Nannies"
BROADCAST: May. 25, 1965 | DURATION: 00:55:42
An interview with Maria Kuncewicz about her book of fiction, "Don Quixote and the Nannies" and how this book reflects her travels to Spain and her personal observations, memories, and experiences. The story reflects the freedom and beauty that people want today post WWII. Kuncewicz tells her experience as a child with nannies and a particular event that helped inspire her writing. She speaks about authority and author, Miquel de Cervantes. Kuncewicz also talks about the people of Spain and how they reflect different Don Quixote characters.
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Studs Terkel Maria Kuncewicz, distinguished Polish literary critic, novelist too, essayist. Some time ago Madame Kuncewicz was a guest on this program talking about a book she wrote while in southern France some years ago called "The Olive Grove", dealing with an incident she saw in the papers, and yet this book told us so much about man himself. Man and the sudden violence within an olive grove will remember Madame Kuncewicz dealt with this particular event of a farmer for seemingly no reason, killing this British couple and their child.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, exactly. Yes well that, that was a terrific shock because I knew the country, I knew the people and it was sort of a luxury and relaxation spot for me and for all the people I knew there. But at the same time I was watching the misery of those farmers whose fields and vineyards were not, not irrigated. There was always such dearth of water. And then all those lovely parks in their neighborhood that were all the time sprinkled with water and watered and watered 'til they became as beautiful as some of the lawns at St. John's College in Oxford. And of course it created a terrific contrast. And that's what led that all the wretch to the, the peasant of the south. Very envious and of course trained through generations in his hatred towards the neighbors across the channel for all kinds of, sometimes illusory notions, historical notions, to kill that absolutely innocent and well-meaning family.
Studs Terkel And yet you understood this murderer. You understood what made him do it, the hidden antagonisms there. I just, I remember you said, it was a moment ago we were talking you said, this came to you, "The Olive Grove", the idea of the book and, and the last outburst of the setting sun, of a southern France sun.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, this is correct. You see a writer's life is really sort of walking backwards and trying to catch the last glimpse of some kind of reality which he had seen emerging on the horizon. And then there must be a lapse of time between the impression received and its record. At least that's how it works with me. I can never catch up with my experience, and that leads me to such seemingly paradoxical situations as writing about the south of France on Long Island and New York, all over and now quite recently writing on Spain in Poland, of all places.
Studs Terkel When you speak of writing in Spain in Poland, of all places, which leads to your most recent book that is being translated into English, we hope will soon be published here and seen, "Don Quixote and Nannies", the very title itself.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, it sounds absurd, the title, and yet I tried to explain why this kind of, of link was created between that strange creature and the nannies. Well it goes back, again it goes back to my very early childhood when-
Studs Terkel Nannie's being the nurses of your family.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes, yes. Not only my family, but it so happened that I was spending a whole summer once without my parents in some country place where there were lots of other children about my age, and I was about say six or five then, and
Maria Kuncewicz In Poland, yes. And there was a whole battalion of nannies looking after us. And it so happened that at the neighboring little town there, there was a regiment stationed. I don't know whether they were cavalry and, or artillery or whatever they were. Anyway, the nannies were extremely anxious for us to go early to sleep so that they could keep their dates with the soldiers. And well I happened to be the obstreperous child who insisted on looking at the pictures in a book which I couldn't read. I was still illiterate at that time. But
Studs Terkel Five or six you were at the time.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes. And the pictures represented a queer, lean figure on a queer, lean horse, spear in hand, charging sheep, windmills, quite as if they were wicked people. And I was sort of fascinated. I couldn't understand. But somehow I liked that lean man clad in steel with a spear in his hand and the mustache and doing all these extraordinary things. I somehow felt that there was more in this story than met the eye. And then one evening a terrible scene developed. I was there in my bed. I lit a candle and I was looking at that character there in the book. And then a whole bevy of those nannies descended on me and they were very angry and they tore away that book out of my hands. They switched off the light and off they went, locking the door. So as I howled and, and banged on that door I could hear them laugh and the soldiers somewhere in the background, in the darkness, guffawing. And that was the, the, the turning point, point. That's where my obsession with Don Quixote began.
Studs Terkel But this memory before, this memory is very vivid one. You were five or six, you recall this most-
Maria Kuncewicz Very much so. And it created this kind of, of irrational pattern. On one side there was Don Quixote. On the other side there was arbitrary authority. And of course as time went, that pattern acquired more and more historical, geographical connotations and that angry nanny developed, for me, into the image of any arbitrary authority, a hypocritical politician, a, a brutal leader, a dull teacher, a preposterous grandad perhaps who doesn't let you do things-
Studs Terkel Authoritative.
Maria Kuncewicz as you think they, they are best, the police force. And then somewhere in the background those young awkward soldiers that are being seduced by the nannies, by that authority.
Studs Terkel Of course this is an overwhelming theme. I think as applicable today, perhaps more so, than when you were this little girl of five or six. It's interesting. So it was Don Quixote, this, this eccentric who attracted you.
Maria Kuncewicz This eccentric, yes, who was following his dream, who was liberating prisoners. Although those prisoners, whom he had met on a dusty road somewhere in Castile, well they were criminals. And yet what he had to say about, about their being in fetters and in irons and being led to the, to prison, what he had to say about it, well let's leave justice to God. And anyway, these people are led to where they don't want to go. So let's liberate them. Well this, of course, is the notion of liberty brought to its extreme. It's not const-a constructive notion. But this is very Spanish.
Studs Terkel Very Spanish you say. When did the idea, now you said something earlier too, before we went on, about the writer walks backwards in time. You walk back then to that period when you were the little girl in this room locked in
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes and now the point of departure for me to go backward was the time when, at last, I achieved my dream and I saw Spain. I saw for myself those dusty roads in Castile and also Sevilla where Don Quixote had been serving a term because, I don't know if you realize that he had been poor wretch, a tax collector for quite some time. Oh, pardon me. I'm now talking about Cervantes, not Don Quixote. [laughing]
Studs Terkel Cervantes. It's interesting how you confuse the two.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, I, I am very, very given to, the, to that kind of identification because, although Don Quixote was written by Cervantes sort of in derision of the chivalry romances and he, he thought that he would ridicule Don Quixote and put a stop to these absurd notions of chivalry in an age which was no longer conducive to these kind of excursions into utopia and magic. And yet when you come to, to discover about the life of Cervantes, you see how much of a Don Quixote he had been himself. After all he had been a sailor and he took part in the great battle at Lepanto, and he was fighting on when wounded, and the captain of the ship already told him to, to withdraw from the scene of battle and he would carry on and carry on because of that chivalric instinct of his. And that's how he lost his right arm. And then, when he was a prisoner in, in the Arab country of Moroc-, of Algiers, well there again, he behaved absolutely like Don Quixote. He was trying to, to escape, I don't know how many times, against overwhelming odds. He was writing poetry for his fellow prisoners to cheer them up. He was living in his imagination and drawing other people into that enchanted land of his. He was writing memoirs and, and, and letters to the King, Philip II, teaching him how to, to behave in the political field. All these were extreme in Don Quixotesque gestures, weren't they?
Studs Terkel I'm thinking as you're talking about Cervantes and his, himself being the Don Quixote, and you looking back to your five, six-year-old child, how many years after the time the nannies grabbed this book from you did you visit Spain?
Maria Kuncewicz Ah this is a very indiscreet question Studs.
Studs Terkel I'm not asking about your age, Madame Kuncewicz.
Maria Kuncewicz Well it's about half a century after, more than that I can say in whispers. But anyway almost the, the whole of my life elapsed between the motivating moment and the moment of fulfilment of them, the moment of fulfillment of my craze, which I developed at such an early age for that queer figure of Don Quixote.
Studs Terkel A whole life passed then, a half a century, Maria Kuncewicz, between this particular, this vivid moment, that moment that meantime many things happened to you. You went to school, you married, you taught. But way back somewhere in Spain, then you were in Spain. You were a mature woman and you were in Spain.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes. And somehow-
Studs Terkel The
Maria Kuncewicz Somehow I felt that it still was the home of Don Quixote, although he, by this time, had become a mythological person. And the amusing contrast, well not so very amusing, rather tragic contrast, is that there are so many monuments of the, of the men who conceived Don Quixote who, after all is the personification of idealism, and of individualism, almost of anarchism, so
Studs Terkel Rather ironic then, all these statues of Cervantes in the land of Franco.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes. And now they stand there and they mean something absolutely different from what they are supposed to tell people. To tell people what they are supposed to is just that there had been once a man by the name of Cervantes and he had written something that bewildered and astonished the world and enchanted the world. And this is something that flatters the ego of that Spanish nation. But I think that Don Quixote is still very much in accord with Spanish nature as it is. It is a rebellious nature and-
Studs Terkel A romantic nature.
Maria Kuncewicz An extremely romantic nature. And probably, and the time is not far off when-
Studs Terkel As opposed to a humane and generous nature too.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes and they will claim their Don Quixote, their foolish rider who, after all, was, what he was pursuing was the idea of individual freedom and that's what they are still bent on, very much so.
Studs Terkel The obvious question Maria Kuncewicz is, while you were in Spain as this woman and the thought later on, as you say, you walk backwards as a writer, did you meet any Don Quixotes while you were in Spain?
Maria Kuncewicz Well so far as I can remember, well, and what I put on record, it was a very strange kind of Don Quixote. I imagined him to be Don Quixote and that's what I, what I formulated in writing. That was my only encounter of, with Don Quixote as a human being, no, not, not a symbol. And he was a carpenter. He was a carpenter in Seville. Huge man, lean, mustachioed, sad, very sad. And he sat in his little workshop very pensive, working at a huge piece of wood which looked like a cross to me. And well I thought what, what kind of a man. He looks absolutely like those pictures of Don Quixote I had in my book when I was a child. And then I suddenly realized that Don Quixotes in the flesh still are walking Spain. And they probably are anarchists. They probably are those who believe in Kropotkin, in those anarchist people who valued individual freedom above everything. And that's how I met my Don Quixote. Although I spoke to him very little, we exchanged rather looks. He looked at me from over his workshop and I stood and looked at him because it suddenly dawned on me that Don Quixote is an eternal wanderer, that his horse Rocinante still is probably hidden somewhere in the backyard and waiting for that mustachioed and poor Don Quixote to mount him and perhaps ride again for to see his ideal somewhere in the clouds.
Studs Terkel You saw this in the carpenter, in this man, this quest. You saw the quest in him.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes I, I, I definitely saw it and I thought of him as somebody who would never fulfill his dream but that dream would be contagious and very significant for people in Spain. Those whom I had met there, they were mostly, well unfulfilled people and pursuing some kind of a dream.
Studs Terkel Who were the people you met in Spain, the nature? How would you describe them in your terms, Maria Kuncewicz?
Maria Kuncewicz Well, I was once asked in Madrid to come to what they call a tertulia, and that was a bookshop in a back yard right in the center of Madrid. And I met there are all kinds of intellectuals, nonconformists who welcomed me as a guest from the United States. And there was a kind of double thing in their approach to me. They didn't know, was I already converted to the ideas of the strong man in the States, or was I still under the spell, my being at the heart an European, of those, of those people who were building the United States with their idea of freedom always present in their minds. And so there was a sort of double thing in them when they were inviting me to that tertulia. And they knew I was a writer and they knew I was Polish, and so all this was creating interest. And then I could see that they were still anarchists at heart. They were Don Quixotes, very much so. But there is also a streak of fatality in the Spanish mentality. They, they burst out, they, with passion from time to time. And then comes like a winter sleep over them, and they, they rebel in their minds. And somehow they, they bear with it. It's perhaps the, the climate, it's the past of Spain that speaks through them, teaches them patience. But they never give you the impression of being people resigned to the status quo. No, there is that flame in them waiting for a moment to burst out.
Studs Terkel Poetically, before we went on, you described the people of Spain in painterly terms. You spoke of them as modeled as Goyesque figures rather than figures out of books.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, well of course this aspect was much more understandable to me because I don't speak Spanish so I had to rely on people who could talk either English or French to me. And that of course was limiting me to a rather narrow circle. And then of course I didn't spend many, many months there, just three months, that's not enough to become knowledgeable about the people. But still, what did you say?
Studs Terkel About thinking of the people in painters terms.
Maria Kuncewicz Oh yes, yes well that is very striking, that you can still see Murillo's little angels running in the streets and all those amoretti, and then the rather dramatic set faces of women whom you know from the big canvases of Goya. And they remain Goyesque and they are very much aware of what they can't see. You know there is that mystical streak in them, you know how Don Quixote was charging the windmills because he imagined that they were giants, wicked giants and so on and so on. And this streak of Don Quixotism is still remarkable in the, in the, in the Spanish people. When you watch them dance for instance, you can see that they really live through a whole life in ten minutes. And it's a dramatic, pathetic life as they, as they tremble in that great excitement. And it's so dead serious their, their dances. They don't dance for relaxation, oh no. It is a, a sort of, they achieve the peak of their human potentialities, a sort of insight into, into fate, into history in that brief moment when they are touched by those old melodies, when they dance the Sevillana or, or any other dance.
Studs Terkel That's with a tension, that is a tension, a heightened, a heightened tension that is beyond
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes. And, and this is something which strikes you all the time when you watch. Passers by and people enjoying their food in restaurants. There is that pathos in them. They are people, half mythological. They are not all here when they talk and then they discuss things. There, there is always part of them transcending reality, so to say.
Studs Terkel As you say this of course, I can't help but think the pictures you evoke so poetically. Dulcinea the heroine, the paragon. You talk about a paragon of feminine virtue, did you find Dulcineas there?
Maria Kuncewicz Yes definitely. Well after all,
Maria Kuncewicz It all boils down to this, that Dulcinea was just a vision. Poor Don Quixote never saw her in flesh. And yet, it was enough for him to form that image of womanhood, oppressed hum, womanhood and inspiring womanhood and lovely womanhood, for him to pursue her image and her imaginary enemies all through his life. And there is that streak of surrealism in the Spanish people.
Studs Terkel So you think Rocinante, the horse, is there waiting, saddled or unsaddled to ride?
Maria Kuncewicz Do you know that when I was leaving the Escorial, and we were one of the last visitors, my husband and I, and that big gate was closing behind us and I almost could see that Rocinante and, and Don Quixote mounting him and sort of I could hear the, the sound of the hoofs on that, on that bridge there. And that vision, that spectre of things unfulfilled, of something people are longing for and never achieving and yet sticking to it. This is, I think, something that holds you in Spain all the time.
Studs Terkel We haven't talked about the friend of Don Quixote, the realist, not quite as romantic or imaginative, Sancho Panza. Did you find him?
Maria Kuncewicz Well Sancho Panza, yes. I have seen many Sancho Panzas in the streets and they are mostly peasants. They come mounting their little donkeys, even into the large cities. And they trot along those, those streets there, and they look as patient and as impervious to disaster as the real Don Quixote, and the real Sancho Panza was. Well, of course the lot of the peasants is not brilliant as we all know. But there is that streak of grandeur and patience of this metaphysical sort of background to life which you perceive when you talk to Sancho Panzas in Spain. They are sort of disdainful of realities of the day until they get very angry. And then of course it's murder.
Studs Terkel As you say, then of course it's murder, somehow I can't help but think of your peasant killer in "The Olive Grove
Studs Terkel He too, under the hot southern French sun, here the Spanish sun.
Maria Kuncewicz That is true. That is very true. I have seen it in Toledo and in Madrid. These places where the civil war was fought and they are still very evocative of that terrible feud. That hatred which inflamed people then. And you can feel it when you talk to the very sort of calm looking Spanish people sipping their drinks in their little restaurants and then nursing their children as they are great for having children and nursing them. Well you can feel that there is a flame hidden somewhere and it wouldn't really be worth the man who provokes the final anger of those people to do so.
Studs Terkel I suppose you met, perhaps they could not speak of it, probably a great number of them were loyalists, fought on the loyalist side, who were quiet and waiting perhaps.
Maria Kuncewicz Well I wouldn't call them loyalists. Of course given my inefficiency in in, in Spanish.
Studs Terkel I mean the republic in Spain as we knew it the time.
Maria Kuncewicz Well, those whom I was meeting, because one does meet friends through friends, so I was recommended to some people by my French friends and American friends, and they all happened to be Republicans. So maybe I'm not so well aware of the faith of the, of the believers in Franco. I have, I, I was just watching the, the ruins of that fratricidal war that had been fought there in many places. And then I had mostly to do with people who object to Franco, who don't like his regime at all. And they seem-
Studs Terkel And they do not like the Nannie's, doesn't it come back to the nannies again, authoritarianism?
Maria Kuncewicz No, no no no. They are all very much on the Don Quixote side. Very much so.
Studs Terkel That's why I say they object to the nannies.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes they do object to the nannies, and how. But for the time being there seems to be a lull because economically, Franco managed to help people to a certain extent. I don't know how deep that improvement goes because I was too much of a foreigner and I stayed there for-
Studs Terkel Because we do know of Mussolini making the trains run on
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes that's right. But still this is significant, that I met so many people who were not politicians at all and whose life was not made a misery by Franco, who yet at heart were deeply offended with the
Studs Terkel Guess the question that arises Maria Kuncewicz is, your own thoughts, the threads of your life. When did the idea of Don Quixote and the Nannies come to you? You were in Spain. I know it's hard for any writer to determine when a certain moment of revelation occurs, connecting the two threads.
Maria Kuncewicz Well I suppose you are right in saying that the moment of illumination, so to say, came to me when I already touched the Spanish ground. Suddenly I felt that Don Quixote was there. And all these memories became so vivid. And I could compare my childish vision of Don Quixote with all the meanings it acquired through the years when I lived and accumulated experience, to that moment when I could visualize Don Quixote in authentic Spain. And I must tell you there wasn't a very big difference-
Studs Terkel No.
Maria Kuncewicz between that childish imag, imagining and, and the impressions I got in actual Spain.
Studs Terkel In your room in Poland, by candlelight, you had the picture book before it was grabbed away from you by the nannies who had the dates with the soldiers.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes.
Studs Terkel This Don Quixote, that moment, you say when you touched, you think, you think, when you touched Spanish soil, that, that is, there was a-
Maria Kuncewicz Yes it all revived, it all revived. And of course I was greatly helped by the material circumstances. The, well Spain is the country where you still see masses of nannies. In the parks there is a whole humanity of those small people climbing monuments and some of them are likenesses of Cervantes and the nannies pulling them down so as not to let them bruise their knees. And then some young soldiers waiting for them in the parks and then they would embrace in the, in the twilight and the children would watch very intently. And somehow you, you felt that complex, that sort of, of antinomy, of antithesis. On one side, young life that wants experience, that wants to follow Don Quixote in his quest of, of, of things unseen and unheard. And on the other hand, these, that police, those nannies of individuals and societies who want them to follow the beaten track, not to experiment on their own. Always to come down to earth and to conform, and to conform.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this illuminating, partic- illuminating poetic thought of yours, the connecting link. The nannies, the authority, who grabbed your book and closed it, the censors if you will. For reasons of their own, seducing the young soldiers, interesting. Authority then, the nannies who were authority and the young soldiers who wooed them or they wooed, you see. And somewhere we can think of the young man in uniform and authority. This this, this, the imagery of yours.
Maria Kuncewicz Well Studs, don't you think that it is something which we can observe in life so very often. And those young boys, well, who come from their families very young somewhere in, in a village, well that's more an idea, a European idea, but here coming. Yes, well, there are after all small places in that huge America and those youngsters who come to the army with all kinds of, of libertarian ideas and then they learn that strict discipline. Well maybe it's good for the character if it does not affect their intelligence. And this is a sort of, of metaphor.
Studs Terkel The phrase we use here is the army builds men, a phrase.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, well his muscles, perhaps his character. But then he must, I think, resist and try to keep his own individual standards of morals and, and aesthetics.
Studs Terkel I suppose the question is, what is a man? You see error in both men, the boy who follows, his not to reason why, who does it at the behest of the nanny, that is authority. Or the man who is Don Quxiote, the quester or the
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, there is that clash.
Studs Terkel What
Maria Kuncewicz There is definitely that, that conflict. And they have to choose. They are seduced by nannies because, after all, nannies represent authority which can give candy and it can give good testimony to the child or to disorder, that he behaved himself. So of course that goes on like that all the time.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking now about impressions, the writer. You, you say sometimes, we know this is so, as one grows older or learn, shall we say more mature, the early impression, way back, seems more vivid than the one of six months ago doesn't it?
Maria Kuncewicz Definitely. Oh yes. I can still sort of see the sunsets in that village where I first perceived Don Quixote and it was right in the middle of Poland and so far away-
Studs Terkel Oh you were in Poland when you, when
Maria Kuncewicz from Spain and the states. And yet, you see there is that, that crazy rider that visits all possible countries, human and inhuman. It is a symbol after all.
Studs Terkel You know as you say this, I can't help but think of something. You were in Poland. You were back in your native land when you wrote of Spain and this memory. You say it's the writer, the crazy writer, who visits all lands in his imagination and through his art. I once knew a, a columnist in Chicago named K.M. Landis II who died a few years [unintelligible] wrote for a Chicago newspaper. He was a friend of mine, a remarkable man. And he had never left his back porch at Logansport, Indiana. And yet to me had a greater knowledge of other countries than some of our foreign correspondents who see and yet see nothing, you know.
Maria Kuncewicz I think it's a matter of intelligence and of heart. Very much so. If you are a compassionate nature and if you are not selfish, you live how, however deep you are rooted in backwater, you still live in the world. You feel for the world for, for the other countries. And probably your friend was also a kind of Don Quixote who liked
Maria Kuncewicz Well you see there is something in the physical appearance too, [laughing] which marks the mentality of people.
Studs Terkel This comes back to Maria Kuncewicz and this particular work, "Don Quixote and the Nannies. It has been published in European countries
Maria Kuncewicz Well it has been published in many excerpts. Almost the whole of it was published by now in Polish periodicals. But this is, again, a sort of hurdle in my life, that I decided although I am writing in English now and my last novel was first written in English, I stick to the idea of remaining bilingual in my writings. I think this is more conducive to the sort of world which I would like to still develop before I die. This, this world of understanding more than one language, even in the metaphorical sense of the word. And so now I think I'll rewrite it in English, and there are some, some, some metaphors, some, some allusions to the Polish scene which had to be translated in American terms. But this is really a very minor point, it's-
Studs Terkel They'll be no other translater. You yourself will write it in English. You wrote it in Polish and now you will write in English.
Maria Kuncewicz I think I'll do the reverse to what I have done for "The Olive Grove."
Studs Terkel "The Olive Grove" you wrote in English
Maria Kuncewicz I wrote in English and then I rewrote it in Polish. And now I had that very pleasant experience that people who are taking their PhD at the universities are writing about my work. And that's for the first time that they were allowed to deal with my books which I wrote after I had left Poland. And "Olive Grove" is included.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking as you said a moment ago, it is good to be bilingually, you say or multilingually, the metaphorical implications of this.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes.
Studs Terkel That un-, that is, I suppose the idea of the cultures of various lands
Studs Terkel meaning one understood by
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes. After all we don't develop some understanding of each other, so what's the alternative? It's the bomb.
Studs Terkel Don Quixote and the bomb.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes. [laughing]
Studs Terkel So when Don Quixote, the romantic, even though Cervantes wrote this as a satire on the age of chivalry,
Maria Kuncewicz Yes.
Studs Terkel at the same time that windmill is quite real.
Maria Kuncewicz Very real, yes.
Studs Terkel And the windmill is quite lethal today, isn't it. More than Quixote's windmill.
Maria Kuncewicz So it is, yes [laughing]. And I shivered when I heard Cyrus Eaton being referred to yesterday on the radio, on your station radio, and here [ten days?] back from travels in Eastern Europe and he says if we do not stop all these warnings in foreign parts, well there might be the bomb.
Studs Terkel This comes incidentally from Cyrus Eaton, one of America's most renowned and celebrated industrialists-
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, isn't that strange, yes.
Studs Terkel who indeed succeeded in this society, who was saying we must look elsewhere too to live, you know, understand the others too.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes. I think he's one of the, of the most original and worthwhile personalities of the time. Of course I don't know the first thing about what he's like when you come to know him. He may be a hypocrite. [laughing] I don't know.
Studs Terkel That, at the moment, is unimportant,
Maria Kuncewicz But this is unimportant.
Studs Terkel The truth he says is
Maria Kuncewicz But what he says, what he's trying to impart on people. I think it's very essential just for the survival of mankind.
Studs Terkel And so "Don Quixote and the Nannies" seem so directly related to us today. I mean, again, the nannies, the unthinking authority that grab that, but this could appear in censorship of course quite clearly. Quite obvious parallel is there.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes.
Studs Terkel But censorship of any kind of thinking, couldn't it? The repression of any kind of thinking.
Maria Kuncewicz Definitely
Studs Terkel A little girl named Maria Kuncewicz in Poland some years ago. And a little picture book that she enjoyed very much.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, [laughing] that was so.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking perhaps, how quickly the time has gone. You mentioned countries, Poland. We know that there's so much we read of this and, thanks to you too Madame Kuncewicz and your articles and periodicals and your comments. And there is a great deal that is bourgeoning there, isn't there, in the arts. I mean, we think of this country that has both the east and the west, in a sense, takes
Maria Kuncewicz Yes. Well I have been in Warsaw at the time where that Chopin thing that was developing. You know that people from, from all countries and all continents are coming there for that concourse and they are playing Chopin and getting prizes that then gave them an entry into the wider world of pianistry. And this really struck me, how that city, after all not very prosperous and with so many worries, private worries in the private homes, how exciting that event is for them. How they all hang to, to their radios to listen to that concert and the beautiful interpretations of, and trained interpretations of that music which is so close to their hearts, and how they live by this event and many other cultural events. This is a, a thing really, this is their luxury. That's what they enjoy. This takes them away from the humdrum reality of everyday and they enjoy all these occasions to the full, really.
Studs Terkel You're talking, aren't you, about people's quest for beauty. That may be beyond their realistic life, the life of reality yet this quest for beauty.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes. Well it is this sharper in Poland that the life is still pretty humdrum there. Of course you know about the, the terrific ruin that land was brought to, through the war and the Hitler occupation and so on. They had to build from scratch. Warsaw was practically non-existent after the war and now it is a lovely city with many new quarters and good architecture and lovely theaters and elegant people and a lot of interest in abstract matters. They are not as romantic as they used to be, oh no. They went through an experience that was much too bitter for them to still believe in Don Quixote's quest for the ideal entirely. But yet, they are given to those flights of fancy. And you can see it in their literature, the way how they treat the theater. Theaters in Warsaw are very good, very good indeed.
Studs Terkel All of the contemporary theater, avant garde as well as traditional classic theater.
Maria Kuncewicz Oh yes, yes definitely so. They have even provincial towns that are specializing in the avant garde treatment of the classical material for instance. And they reinterpret the romantics for instance in the light of what they see today. And this is quite an experiment.
Studs Terkel I can't help but remember a band, a jazz band, very modern, very progressive that passed through America from Krakow with Adam [Vashko?] the, the jazz critic along with them, marvelous jazz band.
Maria Kuncewicz Oh yes they are crazy about these new dances and all that. You can see them dancing those dances in the, in the public squares. And in this they do differ from Russia where people are still waltzing. And we had this last summer.
Studs Terkel Even jazz is coming there too, I understand.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes. Oh yes. But it's not as popular as it is in Poland. In, in Russia it's rather selective and it's supposed to be a little, well they are a little suspicious of it. It's terribly avant garde. Whereas in, in, in Poland it is quite the thing to swing and to-
Studs Terkel Somehow all this seems related, strangely enough and yet not strangely, to your work. "Olive Grove" itself, the, the, the wellsprings of antagonism that can be there in a seemingly decent man, you know. And now we come to "Don Quixote and the Nannies", the opposite this. Quixote and his quest as against authority seems to be the question of the world today, doesn't it? The quest for beauty that is there
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, the quest for beauty and also for individual freedom which is so tremendously threatened by that mass civilization which we have to face now. And that poor human being, the individual, rarely squeaks and, and, and weeps sometimes for a little more freedom, a little more imagination.
Studs Terkel Isn't this then the, the underlying theme, the basic theme of your work "Don Quixote and the Nannies?"
Maria Kuncewicz Yes it is. In that particular book, yes. But this is one of the eccentricities of, of so-called fiction writing because I still think that "Don Quixote and the Nannies", in my interpretation, it still is fiction because this is my individual vision. I can't, of course, say that this is so. It is so for me, I don't know how it is for other people. It is so for me. And well, it is, well I, I'm afraid I lost my thread, I-
Studs Terkel You were talking about, though it may be, it's fiction for you because it is your vision,
Maria Kuncewicz Yes.
Studs Terkel And I was about to contradict you. I was about to say yet there's the truth here too.
Maria Kuncewicz Well there is always, I think, a residue of truth in any fiction. And so there is, there is I think some truth in it because after all human beings, although they live in different climates, geographical and historical climates, they are intrinsically related to each other and they follow about the same path. So I think that this can be related to, to any country. And, by the way how, how these excerpts, these fragments that were published in periodicals, [in parent] of that new book of mine, from the reaction I already got, I think that there is nothing that would be incompatible with the way of thinking of people behind the so-called Iron Curtain. They, they have the same Don Quixotesqe strivings as anybody else.
Studs Terkel As we do. I'm thinking, the book you called fiction, how can we describe the book? Technically it is not a novel. Your impressions, essays, what is it? How would you
Maria Kuncewicz Well it is, it is very difficult really to pinpoint it to a, to a definite literary style. I think it is a mixture of reportatge, travel, travelogue as it is called here, and personal experience and, well fiction too because there are whole scenes which are not taken directly from life. Scenes which rather symbolize some, some states of mind and some, some types of people whom I was meeting
Studs Terkel One thing is certain, it is a book, it is not a non-book, to use a phrase fashionable these days. It is an is-book. It is a book, quite
Maria Kuncewicz definitely. Whatever,
Studs Terkel There is a statement that you are making, your observations and your memories and
Maria Kuncewicz Well anyway, it was a book which, which I took great pleasure in writing. And I was writing it, of all places, in Poland. And somehow it was a quick job. And from the response which it had til now, it is being published now as a book after it was published in, in those reviews, I gather that there are some generally human ideas in it and bits of reality that appeal to people there and here.
Studs Terkel Madame Kuncewicz, a request. Hurry up with your writing of it. Obviously, the book, that is. Something we need today, very much indeed.
Maria Kuncewicz Thank you for encouraging me.
Studs Terkel Do, do you think that, you have any idea when, when it might be in English, ready?
Maria Kuncewicz Well there, there is a man, a translator who had translated a few of my previous books written in Polish who lives in England and who is already busy translating it. And I have also a publisher interested so
Studs Terkel But you will work on it yourself, too.
Maria Kuncewicz Yes, yes I will. He will just give me, that what he's doing now is really because I'm teaching now at the Chicago University, I had no time to prepare that piece for the publisher. So he's doing that and then I'll do the, the remaining
Studs Terkel I point out that Maria Kuncewicz is visiting, how can you, professor of Polish literature-
Studs Terkel at the University of Chicago. Again I say to you, Madame Kuncewicz, Maria Kuncewicz, thank you very much for being a guest again. Now we know this will not be the last visit, but perhaps the next time is when we'll discuss the book even further, when we see it and read it and the listeners do indeed, in English, and, what's a wonderful, I'm asking you for a Polish, Polish phrase for good luck. How do we say good luck, or a toast to life.
Maria Kuncewicz Ah, well, zdrowia!
Studs Terkel Zdrowia?
Maria Kuncewicz Zdrowia panu or zdrowia pana which means your health.
Studs Terkel Zdrowia pana, Maria Kuncewicz.
Maria Kuncewicz Thank you, Studs. [laughing]. It's lovely talking to you.