A friend came to see me in a dream. From far away. And I asked in the dream: ‘Did you come by photograph or train?’”
– A Seventh Man by John Berger.
It seems to me that art is nearly always about extending the friendship of thought and sensibility to others. If I think about the most-loved books on my shelves, they are there because they continue to have a very particular conversation with me, in every phase of my life. And, although I often complain that books are hard to write, it is this particularity that helps me understand why. It shouldn’t be too easy to write a book.
I am fortunate to have collaborated with a number of genius Polish artists in my writing career. I had a theatre training, and when I was obsessed with writing plays, the work from Poland that most influenced me was the avant-garde theatre of Tadeusz Kantor; also the performance group Akademia Ruchu – sometimes described as the Theatre of Behaviour. To this day, it would be true to say that my own writing is always attentive to the theatre of historical and emotional behaviour – and of course, I have my eye on the aesthetic behaviour of the writing itself.
In the 1980s I wrote a play titled CLAM (published by Methuen in Levy’s Plays 1). The first production was directed by Anna Furse and performed by Mine Kaylan and Andrzej Borkowski – who, as it happens, was a founder member of Akademia Ruchu. Mr Borkowski is also a distinguished visual artist and critic. He designed the book covers for the first editions of my collection of poetry An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell and for my second novel, Swallowing Geography. Meanwhile, the cover of my debut novel, Beautiful Mutants, was designed by the artist Andrzej Klimowski. The strange thing is we did not meet each other until 20 years later, when I was teaching script-writing in the animation department of The Royal College of Art, where Mr Klimowski held the post of Professor of Illustration.
In 2016 we collaborated on the adaptation of one of my short stories for a graphic novel, titled Stardust Nation and published by Self Made Hero. It is Mr Klimowski’s art work that does all the magic in this adaptation.
I am not really sure how Poland arrived in some of my fiction.
Yet in my 2012 novel, Swimming Home, hiding in the shadows of the main character’s turbulent childhood are his loving Polish parents. To save his life, they tell him (when he is five years old) that he can never return home. He searches for them for the rest of his life – but not literally; rather, he searches for the love that has been lost to him. He is always trying to return to love.
I suppose it is possible that when I wrote Swimming Home I was having a conversation with my paternal Jewish grandmother, who was born in Lithuania. She never spoke about her own childhood, which is why the echo of her silence is some of the noise in Swimming Home.
Hopefully, you will encounter an abundance of talent in this issue of The Riveter. Some of the writers featured here might even become your friends in thought and sensibility. For this, we must all thank the amazing translators of literature who are often invisible in this sort of conversation. They make our world bigger and less lonely.
By Deborah Levy