By some circuitous (or merely confected) coincidence, author Maeve Brennan, who I mentioned in my post about Olga Tokarczuk and the Leipzig Book Fair a few days ago, returned today via an essay I’ve just read by Polish author Eustachy Rylski. Rumor has it that Brennan, who worked together with Truman Capote at Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker for a spell, was the inspiration for the character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And Rylski has written a rather compelling little essay about that book and its heroine—whom he encountered for the first time in early 1960s Poland at the tender age of eighteen—and on the competition between great works and popular literature for the author’s imagination.
Not that most Americans much care about this sort of thing (or do they?), but the essay also provides a rare glimpse into the subjective, intimate reception of a work translated “from the American English” into another language—in counterpoint to the stochastic view, and is a great meditation on the power of character in fiction. (Interestingly, I think most Americans would immediately associate Holly Golightly with Audrey Hepburn in the film version; Rylski’s essay returns her character to the realm of the written word.) In any case, despite his reservations about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, its negligibility as compared with “the Russian classics, Iwaszkiewicz, Camus and Mauriac,” Rylski does find something to value in it:
What Capote’s characters say to us is: why not hang out with us here and there, get knocked about a bit, listen to us talking bullshit, soak up some sun with the girls on the fire escape, have a chat with O. J. Berman about the movie career you’ll never achieve, sit at the bar in Joe Bell’s, and if you get bored of yourself or us, of the city or life, we won’t hold you back. But in parting we’ll say: don’t you worry about the one-eyed cat, he’ll be fine. If the first merit of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is general lack of obligation, the second stems from it, which is youth.
(Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
The essay appears (in Polish) in a collection of Rylski’s articles and essays titled PO ŚNIADANIE (After Breakfast) just published by Bertelsmann subsidiary Świat Książki. The Polish Book Institute just posted a write-up of the book on their website. They also have more information on Rylski, who is well-respected in Poland as a novelist, but arrived on the scene rather late (his first book was published after he was forty).
On other fronts in the European reception of American literature, the Leipzig Book Fair has awarded its Translation Prize to Eike Schönfeld for her translation of Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. Great choice, though Kinsky’s Tokarczuk would have been lovely, too.