Bedside table #69. Paweł Grabowski: I would like to be sentenced to Herbert

The poet, playwright, surgeon, and community activist Paweł Grabowski talks about working on a drama devoted to Stanisława Umińska, his recent readings, his fascination with Herbert's poetry, and ultimate matters.

What lingers on the pile of books you have already read and those to be read?

At the very top lies Krótka noc. Dramaty (“Short Night. Dramas") by Władysław Terlecki. A thick book. Barely touched, except for one drama Mateczka (“Mother”), which I read attentively.

Why this one in particular?

I wrote a monodrama which was accepted by the actress, the director, and the Theatre Institute. We are preparing a piece about Stanisława Umińska. When someone asks me what the play is going to be about, I say it's about a nun who killed her husband for love and was acquitted. It sounds quite good.

I searched for previously written books on the subject. Apart from the aforementioned, I am reading Album z rewolwerem (“Album with a Revolver”) by Zdzisław Umiński. A yellowed book from a second-hand bookshop, because I buy a lot of books from second-hand bookshops in general. The book’s author is my heroine's nephew, who tried to create somewhat her biography. Beneath this book lies Z podglebia ("From the Subsoil") by Jan Żyznowski, an unfinished novel by Umińska's fiancé and possibly (as biographers are divided on whether or not they got married in Paris) her husband. He was a famous literary critic, a novelist known in Warsaw literary circles. He dictated a novel when he was dying of liver cancer. I found it interesting that he dictated the Browning pistol operating instructions to her, so she would know how to shoot him. I also read Krystyna Kolinska's Słynne procesy ("Famous Trials"), where the author interviewed an over-seventy-years-old nun a year before her death. They talked about the murder, the trial, and the woman's life after it all. I still have to read a master's thesis on Stanisława Umińska, even though the drama has already been written. I have read a plethora of publications on this subject. I wanted to find a story line, because I knew other plays about Umińska, and I thought I would like to tell the story differently.

Aren't you worried of the risk of repeating what has already been said?

I have worked for many years in hospices with dying patients and have had many conversations with them and their families. Listening to their life stories, I touch entire universes. There is no way that you cannot tell something about another person from a different perspective. The most common man can have the whole cosmos in them - let alone when you have a story with murder and acquittal in the background.

Why did you choose this particular story?

I learned about Stanisława Umińska (later - Sister Benigna) from a doctor I knew, also a specialist in palliative medicine. She was friends with these nuns, and after talking to her, I casually read one thing about Umińska, then another. I thought - this is material for a theatre play, and I slowly started to talk to the heroine so that she would tell me the story. I felt that this was something I wanted to talk about 'in depth'.

What else do you have on the table?

On my table, I have Poradnik hodowcy pszczoły (“Beekeeper’s Guide”) with a calendar. There is nothing to laugh at; since I have three hives, I am responsible for tens of thousands of animal lives.

I have only read one book non-stop recently. It was Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, just after reading Camus's The Plague. I read Greene not because of the circumstances, but because I had previously come across a review that talked about escaping one's own misery into helping others. And since I meet such people, I thought I'd see how the story sounded, so I read A Burnt-Out Case from cover to cover. My belief has been confirmed - you cannot escape from your own suffering into someone else's. I later put these words into the mouth of Stasia Umińska, the heroine of my monodrama.

I have a biography of Zbigniew Herbert which I am returning to again. Thank goodness it is written in such a way that the events of his life are accompanied by the poems that were written at the time. I enjoy returning to his poems, his contemporary reading of ancient wisdom. If I were to be sentenced to read the poems of one poet only for the rest of my life, I would want to be sentenced to Herbert.

Also lying on my bedside table, just beside the headboard, is Saint Porphyrius of Kafsokalivia. Life and Words. I got this book from an Orthodox deacon and his wife. I read one or half a chapter a day. Again, I read it as a conversation with the elder, for this book is the biography and recorded words of the monk–elder in the sense of Eastern Christianity, that is, a man of great wisdom and ability to read into people's hearts and to give advice. Clever stuff that I savour as I read chapter by chapter.

I also have an anthology of New Greek poetry, which I look at infrequently, sometimes some of Constantine Cavafy’s more famous pieces. Yes, I read poetry, but I don't look for novelty - I mainly read the poems I already know.

What does a doctor need to read for?   

Everyone needs to read for very different reasons, for each person represents a unique universe. I have a doctor friend who is a connoisseur of crime fiction. She probably enjoys them in the same way as a wine connoisseur who detects the different notes.

Reading is like meeting people, like talking to many people, which expands one's thinking, teaches one to grow and mature in one's humanity. It is a conversation with the book or rather its protagonist, a narrator. Olga Tokarczuk has written about this, mentioning that for this kind of conversation, one needs certain kinds of soft skills, which she called 'intellectual skills’.

I read in order to understand reality, because I hope one of the authors will explain to me the genesis of the things that happen around us. This is how I read The New Middle Ages, astonished that the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev explains the crisis of European civilisation as early as the beginning of the 20th century.

Who is best at describing death?

Forensic textbooks are best at describing death; they do so with detail and surgical precision, describing the matter of dying and death. Were I to apply this to literature more fictional than scientific literature, I would start with Dostoevsky's The Idiot. In my classes with students, I quote a passage in which Prince Myshkin is waiting for a party at Yepanchin's house and talks about how he imagines waiting to be executed and how time drags on at such a moment. And there is a street on the way, a signboard... And this is not an imaginary thing, because Dostoevsky himself was sentenced to death and lived through what Myshkin recounts.

Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich is also worth reading, as it shows dying as a stage of life stripped of the window dressing, all the glitter and pretence. Tolstoy shows a man who is finally forced to face the truth about himself - a very powerful description, a story of a man's coming of age on his final stretch of life

A little scary, a little funny, Anton Chekhov’s The Death of a Government Clerk is also worth reading. All the more so because the author was a doctor.

The Little Prince poetically describes not only death, but the witnessing of dying. A classic, it's hard to comment on anything here, it's a must-read for every person, not just for a doctor.

Then there's this book that I haven't reached for a long time, Oscar and the Lady in Pink, a book whose following excerpt I quote to my students, "You need to know, Oscar, that there are two kinds of pain, physical pain and moral pain. The physical pain we endure it. The moral pain, we choose it.” As you can see, it is possible to write beautiful, spiritualised nonsense that does not have a shred of truth in it.

Can you say that you became fascinated with Orthodoxy while living in the Podlasie region?

I’m not sure if you can call it a fascination. Let me refer to Herbert, who once said that he remembered a Poland inhabited by people of various nationalities and religions. It was his Lviv experience that there was no more Poland, because for him, Poland was multicoloured. I went to a Tatar village, I talked to a boy and a girl, and she said - I am a Polish citizen of Tatar nationality, I talked to Belarusians and Ukrainians, of Polish nationality. A Chechen applying for Polish citizenship recited all the verses of the national anthem to my friend, until the last one, which I did not remember myself. I live in a multi-religious and multi-cultural area. As a Roman Catholic myself, I encountered the Eastern tradition - the two types of calendars, Julian and Gregorian, which are still used by the locals, liturgy in the Old Church Slavonic language, writing ikons, the tradition of "starets", and I learned, for example, what it means to be the yurodivy. I am also friends with Orthodox clergy - monks and nuns. The most important thing I have learned from them is respect for conservatism, for tradition, for roots.

Dziadek Franek (“Grandpa Frank”). What is this book about and what was the motivation behind it?

This is another book I've perpetrated, but the first book for children about dying. How did it happen that I decided to write it? I travel as a doctor to home hospices, to homes in rural areas that stretch across almost 2000 km² of the Podlasie region. Sometimes, I have visited multi-generational families, with grandparents, sometimes great-grandparents, grandchildren...
In such families, when a grandfather or grandmother died, the grandchildren were present. I saw wise parents and grandparents explaining why grandma was bedridden, why she needed to be fed, or how to change grandpa. These children grew, acquiring the conviction that what was happening was a normal state, just like the fact that grandpa had died and that there was an all-night vigil and a funeral the next day. These children are not imbued with the fears of their own parents. I thought to myself that we often project our own fears onto children. If there are no fears in the parents, there are no fears in the kids. We do not run away from weakness, from old age. If children collect such experiences now, there is a good chance they will treat their parents in the same way. I thought I would like to write a book about it. I wrote it and found an artist who drew warm, beautiful illustrations.

Doesn't writing for children require special skills?

You would probably have to ask writers who create texts for children about these competences and the need for them. I simply wrote a book for children. It wasn't my first piece written for children, but it's hard to talk about any kind of expertise in this field. A long, long time ago I wrote a children's nativity play, Dziś gwiazda drogę nam pokaże ("Today the Star Will Show us the Way"), which was published in "Wychowawca" monthly, then a play about tolerance, Opowieść o Strachu na Wróble i jego przyjaciołach (“The Tale of the Scarecrow and His Friends”), which won an award in the playwriting competition for children and young people. And years later, it was time to write Grandpa Frank in prose.

What was the reception of Grandpa Frank?

I receive information through various channels. For example, I received a call from a lady who said that her children were having this book read to them at bedtime for the fourth time. Someone else sent an email saying that they are teaching lessons at key stages 1-2 based on this book. A few months ago, I myself conducted remote lessons for children in Tarnów, and a few days ago in Hajnówka. Recently, teachers from Supraśl have included this book in the kindergarten library. It is mainly teachers and parents who contact me.

I did not receive any negative feedback. However, I'm aware that I'm just a doctor who got lucky with a publisher, an editor, and they made sure that it all came out well. I feel that I am the author of this book, but with this humble awareness that I am not a writer, that this is not my way of making a living. Chekhov remains an unsurpassed model - but in the midst of my daily activities, I don't have time to improve my technique, although I have plenty of ideas in my head. However, I will admit that last year, I received royalties for the first time, and it was a very nice experience.

It's easy to find you online, mainly thanks to different awards. How not to fall into delusions of grandeur?

I remind myself why all this is happening, I remind myself of the struggle to do what I have to do quietly, without publicity. I recall my helplessness when, after setting up a home hospice in the deep Podlasie countryside, I learned that the NFZ (the National Health Fund of Poland – translator’s note) would sign a contract with me in five years at the earliest, while people were dying and asking for help. I realised that I could not sit quietly. I have to keep raising funds to keep our hospice running. It was very useful, this time without state funding, for us, as a non-governmental organisation of public benefit, to become established and to gather around our idea people who were friendly and committed – for although we now have a contract for fourteen people, the number of residents is more than three times higher, and we still need donors to support us.

Owing to force of circumstances, I took on the role of the face of the project. I have to be outspoken until the state wakes up and gets the message that medical care in the countryside is two and a half times worse than in the city. And that something needs to be done about it. In the city, people complain about how bad it is. Just imagine what it is like here.

I have a sense of changing reality. Awards? It is nice when they happen. It's important that we're heard of - I treat it as our PR. But I know myself too well - that kind of awareness is the best preventative measure against getting airs and graces and flaunting. I do not think I am in danger of the delusion of grandeur.

You lived in Krakow and Warsaw. In the Podlasie region, access to culture is very difficult, isn't it?

It's difficult, because in Warsaw I used to go to the theatre twice a week indeed, sometimes to work on my own plays. Magda Łazarkiewicz once used one of my plays for a diploma with her students. I received several awards in playwriting competitions.

This, I think, is a bit like when a woman decides to have a baby and realises that now this little human being will be the most important thing in the world, and certain things will have to be given up for someone who is a greater good. And what I am doing now is more important to me.

As for the backwoods, I once attended the premiere of my play Siostra Mozarta (“Mozart's Sister”) in New York. Believe me, from this perspective Warsaw is also the backwoods. As you get older, you also discover other ways to travel - I don't need to go to the Seychelles to enjoy spiritual adventures. I am 40 km from Bialystok, and there is an opera house, a philharmonic hall, and museums, there is a Wierszalin theatre in Supraśl.

There's plenty of nature to go around, it's just a matter of having the time for it. I’ve adopted a dog and making sure it doesn't bite my postman is now probably more important than high culture. I feel I am changing reality with my work, and I don't know if it will be changed more by the premiere of my drama in January or by what I am doing here among the people, running a rural home hospice and building a rural hospice in Makówka. My work leads to the transformation of those I meet on my path. Maybe this is also a kind of art.

Interviewer: Andrzej Mirek

Translated by Justyna Lowe