It's not a big deal to be alive


Some beefy Hollywood thing was several years ago touted as the sexiest man alive. Having taken a look, I thought to my self, holy Christmas! They've gone out and done it! They've cloned Caracalla! and decided that -- being alive was clearly much overrated.

Now I find people who agree with me: not one, but two.


Here Hilary Mantel talks -- very engagingly -- in a series of five five-minute programs -- about her work on the autobiography of Stanislawa Przybyszewska: poor Stanislawa, locked in a 15 square meter room in Danzig/Gdansk, eaten alive by T.B., dead of morphine overdose at age 35, obsessively writing and rewriting and rewriting her endless The Case of Danton.


The play's oceanic length has meant that it's never been staged in its entirety: and the one time it was staged -- in a drastically abridged five-hour version -- it flopped. Perhaps, suggests Mantel, the length of the drama grew out of Przybyszewska's feeling that the only way to do justice to her hero -- Robespierre -- was to write a play which would last as long as the events it describes? Anything shorter would be an abridgment: an abridgment of the accused's right to defend himself.

A twelve-year theater performance, then?

And why not? The Balinese Ramayana cycle takes seven or eight years to complete; and it derives much of its power precisely from the way it does not end, but, going on and on, interacts with life: from the way its actors and audience live, so to speak, hurriedly and absent-mindedly, in the intermissions of the play, between its acts.

I can't help thinking: an un-stageable drama which yet spell-binds certain readers... is that somewhat like Parnicki's unreadable novels, spell-binding me precisely on account of their impenetrability?

(Look about you: this isn't Kansas anymore: we're right in the middle of Borges territory).


Now, Mantel's strong attachment to Przybyszewska stems from the two women's shared love for Maximillien: the pure, the self-less, the dedicated, the loyal. Mantel herself took an inordinate amount of time out of her life (five years of a twenty-five year old person is well-nigh eternity) to write a novel about Maximillien. A place of greater safety, too, is immense even by the Anglo-Saxon book-by-the-pound ("value for money") standard: 768 pages!


Mantel speaks frankly about her obsession with Maximillien: perhaps like Przybyszewska, she says, she finds dead men more attractive than live ones. Bitter words, but expressive of a notion not unfamiliar to antiquarians: the past is better; and much of its superiority lies in the fact that it is dead: a dead man cannot jilt you, for one; a dead writer who has never written anything stupid can no longer blot out his myth by saying something stupid now; the mystery of a work of art whose author is dead is guaranteed never to disappoint by revealing itself.


Mantel says that Wajda lifted large sections of Przybyszewska's dialogue into his Danton.

Which is incredible: the film feels like an accusation of Robespierre; yet, says Mantel, the play was meant to be his defense. An interesting point about human minds, this: the same text, the same words, diametrically opposed interpretations.

Different brains, clearly.


Googling, I find that Przybyszewska, practically unknown in Poland, is becoming a bit of a minor celebrity in the West: take this, for example. In this, she's much like Bruno Szulc whose prose is thought too baroquely romantic for the Polish taste (which has had a surfeit of baroque romanticism over the centuries); but which sounds new and fresh to Anglo ears fed on the usual mixture of dry fact and cutting wit.

(I have recently had a chance to observe how ordinarily Slavic Nabokov's English prose sounds -- that prose which every anglo seems to think such a thing of beauty, a literary break-through, etc.)


The Mantel mini-series is part of a larger BBC radio series called Work in Progress. It is to be found here. Not all of it is as interesting as Mantel; most is -- plainly embarrassing. The projects people work on seem mostly incredibly pedestrian and uninspired; and what they say about the work is hackenyed and ordinary; one wonders why anyone bothers.

Ian McEwan is surely the dullest man alive. And the fellow who had designed the V&A addition, if the way he talks about it is any indication of the quality of his design, surely deserved to have it yanked.


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