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Foreword to the Collected Works of Ilonja Szieckwicz


This is another piece from my college days. Perhaps under the influence of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I tried to put together my own “unreliable academic” piece. It’s a pastiche of various elements that annoyed me when reading literary critical essays: useless Latinisms, untranslated quotations, assuming too great a familiarity with the author’s works, careless and unsupported scholarship, an editor that seems to frankly dislike (or be jealous) of the author, and flights of speculative fancy that go too far.

I had a lot of fun “translating” this into an Esperanto short story, “Antaŭparolo al la Plena Verkaro de Yvette Swithmoor.” Esperanto culture provided its own set of academic conventions, “favorite horses,” and literary stereotypes. I think the story is more successful in Esperanto, perhaps because I was closer to the target I was aiming for. The Esperanto version also includes a suggestion that the editor fabricated the author’s entire ouevre [right there in the title!], which doesn’t come across in the English precursor.

Foreword to the Collected Works of Ilonja Szieckwicz

While the writer Ilonja Szieckwicz (1835?-1879?) is unknown to the vast majority of even educated scholars des lettres, her novels Guard Towers and Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life, as well as selected poems and letters, have now become widely available to English-speakers in the present volume.

Compiling a list of literary influences on the works of Sziwieck is difficult. Her works generally do not make use of foreign tongues, except for a few Latinisms scattered a priori. But we can perhaps assume that she knew Polish (as Poland exerted a large influence in the area) and had perhaps read Mieckiewicz’s Dziady, a play in which the character of Konrad is featured prominently, as in Guard Towers. I hold with certain others that many of Konrad’s speeches in Guard Towers borrow largely from Mickiewicz’s works, but this theory has not gained wide acceptance. In her school years, Sziewick most likely learned Russian and was thereby exposed to the cult of Pushkin and his Eugene Onegin, the official religion of Russia (“ymom rossia nye ponyat”). Some of Onegin’s relationship with Tatyana comes out in Elster’s courting of Natasha (some would say too much). In one letter to her sister, Sziwekicz mentions that she has read Tolstoy, but denounces his works as “sozsyem tre plokega” (a comment to which I take particular affront, but I shall let it pass as a private remark made without forethought for future scholars). As for religion, allusions seem to be of the very pedestrian type that run en mass in Judeo-Christian literature.

All of this speculation on religion and literary influences is based on close readings of her works, since Szieckwicz’s life is not well documented. We know, after extensive research conducted in Estonia and parts of Latvia, that families by the name of Sziewick lived in Gadki, Pustoy, and Ostarozhna, but most scholars agree, based on certain details of architecture in the novels, that Ilonja’s branch of the Sziewicz’s lived in Jablika, about ten miles from Gadki. Sziwieck is herself elusive when speaking of her family and writes to Hans Birchmann in 1872:

“Do ich ne mogu parbolshe pri mia cemya ot tiom, kiom ich scii, ich ja mogu skazhat.”

From his extensive analysis conducted in church basements in Jablika, Matich found a marriage certificate that he believes represents Sziwieicz’s parents, dated 1834, and a birth certificate, dated 1835 (quite an anus mirablus in itself), for an unnamed female child of the same surname. There also seems to have been another child in the family, Olga, three years Ilonja’s junior; this matches a detail gleaned from one of Sziwiecz’s letters, written to an Olga in 1878:

“Menich tri god pli staraya ol’ vi, senkonechya.”

In Jablika then can we find the unhappy prison-school of the third vision of mitotic life (see pages 334-347), the cathedral to which Sosha runs for sanctuary while being pursued by cannibals (pages 115-118), and the unpaved streets along which Konrad crawls, nose in the mud, sniffing for the Spice of Infinite Time (pages 12-49). Of course, there are still scholars who put forth the argument that Sziwieck lived in Palivek, though this is clearly ludicrous, judging by her use of dialect, or even in Dunchekskia (an even more preposterous supposition, one possessing only those “lacking in the reason which divides man from beast”). Matich, at first one of the great Sziwiecz scholars, was driven mad after years spent in church basements (see above) and, in later life, claimed that Sziewieck was in fact English and had written a forty-seventh vision of a mitotic life. But these assertions are clearly instances of insanity—”o what a noble mind is here o’erturned!”

There is no record of Schiweicz ever “going at last to husband,” and no mention in any of her letters of a husband or children or even “wee sleeket hause beasties.” Her affairs “of the coin and purse” are a mystery—her father, a cobbler, could not have left much behind in his will, nor are there pleas for money in any of her collected correspondences. While Szieiwiecz could have lived by patronage, this seems unlikely, given her place of residence and the state of the country at the time, in medium res. Most likely, she was a simple laborer or farmer by day and writer by night, though Nussbaum, in his none-too-scholarly monograph on Sziewivcz, reading too much into the more graphic passages in the Visions, suggests that she lived as a common prostitute. I find such suggestions distasteful and hesitate to even share them with the gentle reader, lest he get the wrong idea.

In mining Sciwiez’s novels for her biography, we find that one of the premier observatia is thus: she seems to have been a rather unstable person, prone to episodes of melancholy, panic, and confused thinking—her prose from such times is unsettling. Her deepest periods of melancholy, full of strum und drang, generate a prose that is seemingly nonsensical, but through careful readings and prolonged exegesis, much of it has been elucidated. See especially my work Binded in a Nutshell: Szkiewicz and the Troubled Mind, Nussbaum’s chapter on Szchiweich is his Lesser-Known Women Writers in Late 19th Century Estonian-Latvian Literature, and parts of Mendelfarher’s “Screw the World, Give Me a Beer!” The Proletarian Sensibilities of Poetics of Estonia-Latvia. In one of Szieiwieczh’s most personal correspondences to her sister, we have an account of an episode of paralysis, a time when Sziwhiecz found herself unable to move, and, as she described, thinking about nothing:

“Tiam ich mogla nechevo fari, nechevo movi, nechevo pensi. Estis odin ot mayick plej plokega vremi. La mir chesis cya dredeli i ich estis odna denove vo la holodnost moeymu tserb.”

It is not often in the letters that Sziwkeiwick is so touching, so reflective.

The average scholar, ignorant of Szieckwicz’s background or works (eh, hypocrite lectur?), may find it odd that we have such a complete collection of her writings yet know so little about her life. This average scholar cannot therefore guess how tenuous our link with Szieiwieciz is, or how close we came to losing this valuable literary figure forever to the “sand of time.” The world’s very acquaintance with Szieiwcz’s writings owes itself to a happy accident, a “wind of fortune in life’s great sails.” A cleaning woman in a Bucharest rail station in 1985 uncovered a leather suitcase lodged behind a commode. While the suitcase was badly damaged, apparently by befouled water leaking from the commode, the bundle of papers inside was legible, though soiled. The cleaning woman took the case to her supervisor, who then dumped the contents into the wastebin. Ah, if that supervisor had only known the worth of those beshitted papers! Fortunately for us critics, the inquisitive trashman, a Latvian immigrant, possessed a good knowledge of Sciwieck’s dialect. He eagerly read the manuscripts, even making translations of a few of her poems and shorter prose pieces into Romanian, beginning Scziweich’s greater introduction into the literary world. Here is a list of the contents of the suitcase, which now forms the complete canon of Sziewick’s work:

A six hundred fifteen (615) page manuscript entitled Garantaj Turi [Guard Towers]

This work is written entirely in pencil. There is evidence of about three dozen corrections to the document, all made in black ink, in the same handwriting as the original.

A forty-six (46) page manuscript under the title of Kvardecyat Shect Posmotriyies al Miomiti Zhiv [Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life]

This manuscript is presented entirely on very large sheets of paper in a phenomenally small handwriting, without correction. In this English volume, the translation of Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life comprises over six hundred pages. Fitting so much writing onto forty-six pieces of paper is a feat in itself, and when one considers that these forty-six pages contain some of the finest prose ever to emerge from Estonia and parts of Latvia, this manuscript is even more incredible, a magnus opum. The seventh page is written in red ink, the rest in green.

Six (6) poems of varying quality, each written one-to-a-sheet in a fine hand

Evidence of thorough self-editing. The sheet containing the poem “Kracnii Kroot” is torn in the lower right corner without affecting the text. The sheet with “Plocka Scio,” a mediocre work, is damaged apparently by fire, leaving the conclusion to the reader’s imagination and scholar’s interpretation. Perhaps a final stanza would have catapulted this work into greater prominence, but an answer to this hypothesis is impossible; “the key turns once in the lock only!”

Eighty-seven (87) letters, dating from 1864 to 1879

All are without envelopes and, according to the statements of the Latvian trashman, were originally clustered together by sender—seventeen sent to Szikeweech’s sister Olga, forty sent to a Mr. Hans Birchmann, twenty-two to a lady by the name of Galya Simirova, and the remaining to a mysterious Konrad. These letters have often aroused much debate among Sciweicz scholars—after all, if the letters were sent to different recipients, how have they all arrived in this suitcase? My theory, presented at the 3rd International Sciweizch Conference on June 30th, 1996, and reprinted in Eastern European Literary Controversies 114 (Fall 1997), has met with some acceptance, despite jeers from the ignorati. Let us remember that Konrad, Hans, and Galya are all mentioned in Guard Towers or Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life—Konrad has a large role in Guard Towers, while Hans and Galya are bit players in the Visions. It seems most likely that these letters were, in fact, meant to be “sent” to the fictional characters. Their content is highly disorganized, filled with phrases and ideas that later appear in the larger works. It is as if Siewicezk were “working out” her novels in these fictional correspondences, and then saving these letters, either for inspiration, historical record, or for eventual inclusion in the printed versions of Guard Towers or the Visions. The letters to Olga are of an entirely different nature. They span the entire duration of correspondence and seem to be of a fairly routine nature—cold comments on life and living, the price of bread. There is little about the novels, except for a few brief references which help us place their composition chronologically. It seems Guard Towers was written primarily during the summer and early fall of 1870, and the Visions begun in late November of that same year, though only one chapter was written at that time. Most scholars agree that this single chapter was the one written in red ink, numbered as the seventh vision. The remaining chapters were written between 1872 and 1878. The final letter to Olga is dated October 30, 1879. My theory as mentioned above postulates that just after this date, Sziwiecz collected all of her novels, poems, and letters to Konrad, Hans, and Galya, and caused them all to be delivered to her sister (perhaps in the mysterious suitcase?), at which time the correspondences collected by Olga over 15 years were added to the accumulated materials. Some critics, because of certain circumstantial evidence, assert that Olga was not, in fact, a real person—that Sziwieckz wrote to her just as she wrote to Konrad or Hans or Galya, as a means of exorcising her own demons. It is true that no replies from Olga have been discovered, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Somehow, all of these manuscripts and letters were preserved from 1879 to 1985. If Ilonja did not send them to Olga, perhaps Olga collected them from Ilonja’s residence sometime after 1879—most likely, Ilonja died shortly after her last letter to Olga, but her grave and epitaph are “forgotten to all human memory.”

An untitled prose piece

This is the most mysterious of all Sziwieckz’s works and is dated October 31, 1879. It consisted of a single piece of hide (most likely sheepskin, though possibly from some large flightless bird), inscribed with a dark red ink. The handwriting matched all of the other documents recovered from that fateful suitcase, but this piece was clearly composed very quickly—the script was rushed, and there were no corrections made. I say “consisted” and “matched” and “made” because this piece of history has been lost, having quickly and mysteriously decayed following the recovery of the manuscripts. Fortunately, early scholars did their utmost to faithfully transcribe the contents and describe the form of this piece, and we have a reasonably good image of the whole. Since it is so brief, I shall provide the entire piece here (the translation is my own):

Then one night, I was visited by a woman clothed in green robes and leaves. She took my hand and led me out into the night. I was very small. There were many tall women with arms like branches held high in the air. And there were others in the sky, whispering delicate music on the air. In the water, too, were wispy forms of female figures—their long hair appeared to be no more than the slight wake of their smooth motion through the water. I could hear them all, speak their languages, and jump to fly or splash to swim or totter to dance.

And three years passed as the sun slowly crept into the night, and I could see light running between the blades of grass that didn’t seem as tall and gentle as they once did. Then a piercing scream shattered the last fragments of night, and with the sun came a tiny animal covered in blood, like nothing ever before in this world, and it was screaming, and then it was suddenly quiet. The dryads by their trees (I had since learned the name of the old spirits of our land) had stopped dancing, and the naiads stopped playing in the waters, and the sylphs paused in the air for the screaming and for the silence afterwards. And after a time, all the action began again, but somewhat sadder than before. And I never saw that animal again, never except in nightmares.

Then I knew of the blood in my own body, and I looked into it and saw hundreds of men and women wiggling in red slime. They followed patterns that bore nothing of happiness or ecstasy, only of an inevitable end.

And I tried desperately to find the songs and rhythms of the spirits of the old world in their former joys and strengths. I licked the salt of time from the waves of the water but it was bitter, and I climbed the watchtower, plagued by thieves, to feel the failing breeze in my hair, and I spun in endless circles to dance, but I felt sick.

And day by day, the sun traversed the sky, crossed the zenith, and began to fall towards the opposite shore. I knew that the sylphs’ songs were becoming softer, and I understood less of their whispered words. The naiads’ water was becoming dull and still, and the dryads’ dances were slowing. Some days, I found myself stopped, unable to move, and my brain felt empty, but slowly again it would resume the hollow rhythm of life that fewer spirits upheld, since many them had already vanished, gone to somewhere I was not privileged to see. And one day I felt that the sun was about to disappear into the red-orange abyss of the bottom of the earth.

I saw before me a long, low building made of smooth stone, and I went inside. There was a great noise. A hundred people talking rapidly in a language I refused to know. From the distant horizon was a whistle which frightened the few remaining sylphs and made them fly in timid circles. And I saw the dragon eye of a great iron beast rumbling towards me, but as the beast came closer I saw that the eye was unblinking, then I saw it was a lamp. The beast rolled to a stop before me, and against all will, I climbed aboard. And another whistle rang harshly in my ears, and the beast with me inside began moving forward, slowly at first, then faster, away from the low building of featureless stone.

From my head I pulled my brain, and I placed it beneath my chair. And you who animate from beyond the grave what should have been consigned to die will not find it there! Corpse dancers! Begetters of monsters! Then I could move no longer and stared silently out of the window, and I thought of nothing. I saw the last of the dryads renounce their trees and begin to float upwards, and I saw the naiads shake off their watery cloaks and join the dryads, and I saw the sylphs join hands with the naiads and the dryads, and I saw the last of the old spirits depart my weary life.

Perhaps I should apologize to the ignorant reader. You have faithfully and correctly begun his adventures in the present volume with the Foreword, only to encounter this piece of turgid and frankly amateur prose. It might have been the inspiration for a thousand insipid and lamentable acoustic rock songs, were it not recently discovered in a bus station. Who knows, though? Maybe there’s something still to suck from those symbolic sentences.

I do not hold that this document represented Sziwieickcz’s best writing. In particular, I am bothered by the somewhat wearied metaphor of life’s journey as the progress of the day’s sun. And by 1879, Scziwiecz certainly would have been familiar with trains, train stations, etc. and the tiresome “train as iron beast” idea seems artificial, as if she wanted to pretend that she did not know of trains at all. Also, the frequent use of “and” grates on the ear as overly biblical, perhaps a final attempt at self-sympathy or a resignation to some “inevitable fate.”

The importance of this piece to Schizecwh scholarship, though often overblown, is nevertheless rather great. As is so often the case with such symbolic and confused manuscripts, we scholars, with our knowledge of the future, tend to read as prophecy words that are only the frantic writings of a fading genius. Some of the more romantic among Sziwiecz’s critics hold that this prose piece reflects a deep spirituality, a hope for escape from the dreary world even if it meant (creative?) death. The ever-inventive Moroson even proposes that Sziwieicz was indeed taken away like Enoch into the bosom of the eternal. I hold with many others on a much more terrestrial theory: this is Sziwiecz’s suicide note, her embrace of “what dreams can come” when “we have shuffled from this mortal coil.” But it is not our place to create a history or legend where none existed before. Whether her soul took flight with the spirits of the old world is a matter for theologians, not for literary critics.

Written by timwestover

October 3rd, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Short Stories

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