Jacek Dehnel writes a taxonomy of the literary event attendee, including ‘the star’, ‘the obsessive’, ‘the well-meaning person’ and ‘the fixer’, all of whom keep life interesting – and strange –  for the travelling authorTranslated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-JonesI have once again been travelling the length and breadth of Poland to attend a series of meetings with the public. In big cities, in small towns, in the north, in the south, at libraries, at cultural centres, within festivals and without – all sorts of literary events.Attending literary events is a strange way of passing the time, both for the author and the audience. I deliberately wrote “passing the time” not “passing free time” because it can vary: sometimes it’s entertaining, but sometimes it’s hard work. Both for the author, I repeat, and the audience. Listening to boring, mumbled answers to boring, mumbled questions, punctuated by the author’s inept stammering as he attempts to delight with extracts from his work, even though he is scared stiff of public appearances, is torture. But it’s just as much torture to battle with a group of uninterested locals who for some reason have felt compelled to go to the cultural centre, enticed by free biscuits and coffee, or other such rewards, though of course there can be attractions on offer for the author anywhere, provided by the audience more than anyone. Recently for example, instead of flowers I was given a bottle of home-made liqueur, and that is a shining example, because flowers are quite impossible to carry home; after a long ride in a Polish State Railways train they arrive wilted, whereas the liqueur gets there in superb form and provides lasting enjoyment, all the more if it’s home-made and quince-flavour, not some shop-bought sulphate. But I was going to talk about something else, before I went off on a culinary tangent. It’s that every small town (not to mention the big cities) has its own Meet-the-Author eccentric. I don’t mean the usual boozy types (who come along, see if wine will be served after the meeting, and if not, go off in search of a private view, but if so, stay until the glasses are raised, down three or four and leave, luckily without asking any questions), but the sort of nutters who join in with the discussion. They divide into several types including: the stars, the obsessives (positive and negative), the well-meaning, and the fixers, all of whom often feature in intermediate, hybrid forms as well.The star asks a question in order to shine. He delivers a long monologue, full of digressions, duly highlighting his extensive experience of life and the depth of his meditations; quite often it also includes remarks aimed at real or imaginary enemies. Usually no actual question is asked at all, and if it is, it generally has nothing to do with the monologue. Sometimes, with the preface “But Mr Author must surely be tired by now…” the star suggests reading excerpts from the book himself, because in the third year he took drama classes, and was even going to apply for the Academy, but became a phytosociologist instead; despite protests from the audience and a lack of enthusiasm on the writer’s part he starts to read, theatrically, with emphasis on every word, but as a rule he has to stop in mid-flow, because performing his chosen extract would take far longer than the entire meeting. Other stars recite paeans of their own devising, quote their own epigrams, or even try to sing.The positive obsessive has come because he has a passion, and there’s something he loves. He wants the author to make an entry in the chronicle of the town of C., which he has maintained since 1973 without missing a single day (apart from 16 May 1984, when he had the whooping cough). No author’s entry is ever long enough, of course, and no author’s signature is ever flamboyant enough, as proof of which he shows the entry for 19 March 1992, which is by a root-sculptor and is four times as long, and the far more flamboyant signature of the Fire Chief from 2 December 2001. Or else he collects visiting cards, immediately handing over four of his own, laminated, each one featuring his own photograph (full length); on hearing that the author’s card case has accidentally remained at home, he makes a face entitled “the tragic mask” and begs to be sent a visiting card by post, but not to the address that appears on the four cards (because it is out of date), but to this one (here he pulls out a scrap of paper and writes it out by hand). Or else he is an amateur genealogist, who in one of the local parish record books has found someone with a slightly similar name, so he asks the author three times, let’s say me, whether I can be certain that “Władysław Daniel” or “Albrecht Dengel” aren’t relatives of mine, and whether I’m absolutely sure I haven’t any relatives in the Lower Burbleton area.The negative obsessive has come because he has a passion, and there’s something he hates. Here’s one I encountered in Warsaw, for example: “What do you think of Tuwim’s poetry?” So I replied that I read it and think highly of it; then I said why and even embellished my answer with an anecdote about reading Tuwim. “But do you know that Tuwim was a Jew?” the obsessive digs deeper. I say that I do, and that so were lots of Polish poets, and so on. Finally he puts his cards on the table: “Don’t you think there are too many Jews in Polish literature?” I say no, I don’t, and explain that I myself was once included in an online “List of Anti-Polish Jews” (for translating Mandelstam), by which token I meet the worst expectations of the questioner, who demonstratively leaves. Of course, negative obsessives are not limited to the so-called Jewish Question; sometimes they merely have a bone to pick with the Municipal Parks Service which has ordered the felling of a poplar “which has stood here for thirty years, sir, and never hurt a soul – on the contrary, it has adorned our city!” And they want to “take the opportunity” to “alert public opinion and those sensitive to literature” to this “ensuing fact”.The well-meaning person has come with sympathy for the author, and for literature in general, because he loves literature, and is a cultured individual. Sometimes he has trouble with his hearing and only catches every third word, and sometimes he falls asleep during the meeting, but whenever he can, he’s eager to speak up in defence of the author and of literature in general. Thus he rebuffs any question with a shadow of criticism lurking in it with a loud “harrumph!” and would be most willing to respond to them all, to save the author trouble – he’d be happy to give the questioner a good kicking while he’s about it. Instead of asking a question, he delivers an apology, but it’s always the least appropriate of the crop of potential apologies; if there happens to be some pointless argument in defence of the author or his work, the well-meaning person is sure to find it and repeat it, while looking the author straight in the eyes in the expectation of some reward, or at least a hint at a thread of understanding. If someone asks: “Why is this poem about death so sad?” he will set about proving that the poem is essentially cheerful and jocular, and if someone asks about the “L.O.” (lyrical object) in a poem, he will cry out in indignation that there is no “P.L.O.” in the poem.Finally the fixer comes along in the belief that the author is basically a pretty good guy, except that he has no idea what he’s doing. But never mind, the fixer will soon put him right. The author writes sad poems? Let him write jolly ones – Poland is hosting Euro 2012, we should be rejoicing, supporting the national effort, but meanwhile none of the poems read out today were about the new national soccer stadium. The author has written a family saga? Very nice, but it doesn’t include a relative who perished in the Gulag, or at least who did forced labour in a Siberian forest, which is a serious oversight and ca
sts a shadow, puts a stick in the spokes or scatters sand in the cogs of the book as a whole. The author has used an imprecise rhyme? The fixer will find him a nice, smooth, perfect rhyme. The author has tossed a foreign word into his poem? The fixer has prepared for this meeting – he checked in the dictionary, and has brought along the name “German turnip” on a slip of paper, or a proper quote in Polish, not French – it looks awful in French, quite awful. There is no suggestion for improvement or rationalisation that he fails to share, although the meeting ended long ago, and the author’s train is leaving in two minutes.There is at least one of these delinquents at every such meeting, sometimes several; occasionally they talk to each other and largely take control of the entire audience. And yet without all these characters“Meet-the-Author” events would be far less interesting, duller in fact. So as I enter the room, I try to seek out the expert questioner, and with increasing frequency I recognise him at first sight; I cast him a knowing glance as I walk towards the table covered with green cloth, where the mineral water stands gleaming in its bottle.About the authorJacek Dehnel (born 1980) is a poet, novelist, painter and translator. In 2005 he was one of the youngest ever winners of Poland’s Koscielski Prize for promising new writers. He studied Polish Literature at Warsaw University then wrote his PhD thesis on the Polish translations of Philip Larkin, some of whose poetry he has translated himself. He has published four volumes of his own poetry which has been widely translated, including into English.His novel Saturn, was published in the UK in 2012 by Dedalus Books.About the translatorAntonia Lloyd-Jones is a full-time translator of Polish literature into English. Her published translations from Polish include novels by Paweł Huelle and Jacek Dehnel, short stories by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and non-fiction, most recently by Jacek Hugo-Bader and Wojciech Jagielski.Additional informationJacek will be touring the UK this November. He will also be appearing in conversation with translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones at the London Review of Books Bookshop.