Herbert, who looks at the cathedral tower
Lviv, the city of Zbigniew Herbert’s childhood, is a chapter that has never ended. It is something that once and for all acquired a metaphysical form for him. Herbert resolutely separated it from the chapter of his life almost immediately after leaving the city. Yet, the poem “My city”, written in his notes in the 1950s, has a dedication: “For my city, in which I will not die…”
“Sir, don’t miss the strawberries or currants,” says a black-haired, middle-aged woman reasonably and calmly without yelling, which is unusual for this type of market. She sits on a low bench, opposite house number 55 on Lychakivska Street in Lviv. There is a whole bunch of baskets and pots with all sorts of berries in front of her: from the deep dark raspberry to the half-transparent, as if illuminated from the inside, red currant. Next to her is a late-blooming, assertive and impatient lilac. There are so many lilac branches that the woman cannot keep them all together. The lilac breaks loose and it seems that the saleswoman is paying less attention to the customers and rather speaking to the blossom inside that fragrant cloud, soothing and lulling it.
“Come on, lilaaac” she stretches the word. There is a lot of green and white one step farther: shaggy bundles of green onions sway between blocks of cheese, like the coast grass flowing between the dried up white stones at low tide. The water receded long, long ago.
“I thank you Lord, for creating such a beautiful and sundry world,” wrote the poet Zbigniew Herbert – who was born here, in Lviv.
I wonder if there was such an abundance of flora next to this gate at the time he used to pass by. Leaking away from the small neighbouring towns like Vynnyky, Hlyniany, Lysynychi, Pidbirtsi, the flora seemed to flow down Lychakivska Street and settle lower and closer to the city centre on Bernardine Square and a little farther. According to the pre-war photos this area was actually empty and dusty. The tram would pass the centre of the street – “at every corner / the tram burns / in its ecstasy / on the roof / a comet / with a violet tail” – wrote the poet who was born here. In fact, he was referring to another tram line which no longer exists. It was the line to the High Castle, while this one, on Lychakistska Street, is still running and the trams still climb up to the very top of the hill to eventually roll down with a rattle and a jar.
The ground floor of the building which has now moved forward like a rock in a wave of the marketplace sea, contains a pharmacy and a grocery store. A mosaic from the Soviet era bedecks the blind side wall of the building. It depicts two women wearing peasant handkerchiefs on their heads and holding a sheaf of wheat and a book in their hands. Were the mosaic older, its message would probably have sounded like ora et labora, but since it is what it is, the message reads “knowledge and work”. The book must foster an obedient, competent worker.
A bilingual commemorative plaque, in Ukrainian and Polish, was erected on the building only some ten years ago. It is strict and concise, as if it has to contrast with the surrounding turmoil: “Zbigniew Herbet, a poet, lived in this building in the years 1924-1933”, it reads. The woman with strawberries follows my glance and reads the plaque. Perhaps it is the first time that she ever noticed it, even though it was in front of her all this time?
House 55, flat 5 on Lychakivska Street consisted of three spacious rooms which were not enough because of the large number of residents who lived at this simple address. Little Zbyszek, his sister Halina, who was one year older, his younger brother Januszek, who was destined to have such a short life, his father Bolesław Herbert, mother Maria, and finally a grandmother, Maria née Bałaban. Or, perhaps, first and foremost, the grandmother. Zbigniew’s sister Halina calls the apartment on Lychakivska Street “grandmother’s place”. It seems like two powerful institutions, two strong instances: a rationalistic and spiritualist one, on the one hand, and a secular, religious one, on the other, opposed to each other and merged into a higher synthesis in this flat, in this microcosm.
Father and grandmother. Son and mother – classic clarity and baroque penumbra. Two generations, two worldviews, one living space and one shared historical destiny for all. Indeed, right then and right there in that house on Lychakivska Street and in their summer house in Bryukhovychi (outside of Lviv), that paradise of childhood (one photo depicts Herbert’s mother Maria with her three children posing among the high pines in Bryukhovychi; there is also a fragment of a door and a little bit of a tiled roof, constructed in the Carpathian style) where the great pendulum had swung. It was that mechanism of balance in the imbalance, which disturbed Herbert all his life and drove him forward to new places, museums and books, to some ghostly, but tempting purpose. Even at the end of his life, when he himself was physically unable to travel far, he asked his wife to be the envoy of his unrest, to go to the countries of the Great South instead of him, to learn and to remember. Everything started there, in Lviv and in Bryukhovychi, where his father and grandmother, both attentive to the children (and to the grandchildren respectively) had their endless, hopeless controversy.
Herbert’s father was a doctor of law and a bank and an insurance company director. In other words, he was a respectable man with his feet on the ground. But at the same time he was a delicate spirit, a connoisseur of ancient literature and Polish romantic classics. As Halina Herbert recalled, her father invited the children to his office in the evenings and read long poems under the light of a table lamp for them – while other children were reading fairy tales to sleep – and then he explained the contents of the poems. And how he did it! We do not know for sure if that was really the case, but Zbigniew Herbert himself described these home-based “humanities seminars” later almost as lessons of critical interpretation of classical literature. That is what he said about them in the verse “Transformations of Livy”:
Only my father and myself after him
read Livy against Livy
carefully examining what is underneath the fresco
His father’s shadow stood beside him every time he was reading and interpreting ancient literature. It travelled with him to the large and small museums of the north and the ruins of ancient cities of the south. Herbert acquired this eternal longing to travel due to the influence of his father and his spirit. The first, yet imaginary and naïve child’s journey, Herbert had when reading his father’s favourite books at home on Lychakivska Street. Those were the guidebooks about various cities and countries of the world by the Bedeker publishing house.
And grandmother… Grandma was the object of universal love and a living legend of the house at the same time, even though such a combination of qualities happens quite rarely. Always close and always present, she is a descendant of a Lviv-Armenian family. She was Polonised and converted to Roman Catholicism long ago, but she embodied some exotic eastern mystery at the same time:
I sit on her lap
and she tells me
I know everything –
– the one thing about herself
she won’t tell is her ancestry
grandmother Maria née Bałaban
Maria of Bitter Experience.
The charisma of his grandmother, this “Armenian with lovely ears and beautiful skin”, who lived through her husband’s suicide when she was still young, had a mystical nature. A modest halo of Catholic saints was shining above her. As Katarzyna, Herbert’s wife, recalls, his grandmother was “a mysterious example of spirituality” for Zbigniew. Her virtue was concise: it is not even known if Zbyszek talked to his grandmother a lot. It seems not. They understood each other at the level of glances, touches and intuition. Isn’t it the best school for the poet who, having words as the only instrument, can realise their imperfection?
Being a true Christian, i.e. a person for whom Christianity is not a habit or ritual, but a deep ethos, grandmother Maria preferred doing good anonymously, often feeling ashamed for her good deeds. Although she was a member of the so-called “Third Order” (the secular Order of the Franciscan benefactors), she had a lot of the city’s beggars under her guardianship. She visited them quite often with little Zbigniew. We will never know how many times Herbert took the risk of walking to the Lviv ghetto in order to pass fake documents during the German occupation. We will never know who exactly he saved that way due to the ethos of anonymous good he adopted from his grandmother. His wife knew something about it, but the details drowned in modest silence.
Herbert understood what an extremely strong relationship he had with his grandmother, even felt it as something unnatural and excessive. He called her “the only woman I loved in my life”. Grandmother’s silence and intuition, faith and mystery against father’s orderliness and intellect, clarity and sense of purpose: how could they be in peace? Bolesław Herbert, who loved his mother very much, always tried to save her in his own way, converting her to the “light of mind”. Zbigniew recalls how his father once locked the door of their apartment so that his mother would not go to church. So she escaped through the window. And then Herbert adds, like it was an afterthought: “father was very much the same as grandma”.
But in what way was he very much the same? I think I know. Their resemblance lies in the synthesis of these two bright opposites… Or rather in something from where these two antipodes grew so resolutely in different directions, like the branches from one tree trunk. Their similarity lies also in the deep innate rejection of any imposition, any intolerance and totalism, any exclusion of the Other and the Different, of any search for the justification of violence. For some reason, there exists an image of Herbert’s father as an authoritarian and powerful person. Is it due to his high social position? A future poet and a person so gifted and inclined to humanities, Zbigniew Herbert went to study law and economics instead of literature and history. Does this classic scenario of “realising the parents’ unrealised desires in their children” make us see the father’s inevitable hand in it? Herbert even stated in vain: “I was interested in Roman law, the history of regimes and criminology. I wanted to dedicate myself to criminal studies”. His sister says even more categorically: “It was never forced – never.”
The empire will fall
But all of the father’s (and accordingly the son’s) soul is in that admiration for journeys and adventures, in those “seminars of humanities” with the children and above all – in what Herbert wrote in the end of the already-mentioned poem “Transformations of Livy”:
My father knew well and I also know
that one day on a remote boundary
without any signs in heaven in Pannonia Sarajevo or Trebizond
in a city by a cold sea
or in a valley of Panshir
a local conflagration will explode
and the empire will fall.
Yes, it is about hatred for the empire and imperialism, for everything that is continuous, centralised and monotonous. And even while converting his own mother to the “religion of mind” so intolerably and “non-dialogically”, he silently paid the bills for her charity. And what about Maria née Bałaban? Was she, who came to the Franciscans’ asceticism through a number of life dramas, wise enough not to consider weakness an inevitable sign of guilt and Otherness – a brand? Yes. Herbert recalls his grandmother taking care of a girl loyally and without any rebuke: “Grandmother never exploited her religion as an argument, that this is how one should live … She thought that those who believe otherwise have their right to do so. If they come for help, you have to help them. Like the angels.”
However, there is another character in this small family circle, in this home of diversity, love and acceptance. And it is the city, which is not a background but, indeed, a character. Lviv, this motley and diverse city, is intensely present in everything that Herbert, his sister, school friends and wife say during those years. The city was reflected in this small, multi-ethnic family community: his great-grandfather was English, he arrived in the city in approximately the middle of the 19th century (Herbert once noticed that Lviv always welcomed all foreigners), his Armenian grandmother, and his mother from an ethnically Polish family… The language of family communication could be different: the choice in favour of Polish, which was prevailing in the city at that time, must have been made later in the generation of Herbert’s grandfather. But the shadow of other options was present in the family all the time, so that it always maintained the atmosphere of tolerance and friendly interest in the Other.
The phrase “May all of them do as they like” from Herbert’s poem “High Castle” is the best example of Lviv’s spirit of mutual tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Still, Herbert never idealised the Lviv of the interwar period. He never made a multicultural paradise out of it. After all, Lviv had seen better times in terms of tolerance. After the Polish-Ukrainian conflict of 1918-1919 the city looked very much like a house where all the relatives fight to the death, but have to live together, turning their eyes away. An outbreak of antisemitism caused by those events (because each side blamed Jews for supporting the enemy) made it even worse. Herbert also did not idealise the pre-war autonomy of Galicia (still within the Austro-Hungarian Empire), even though he had a personal sentiment to the good old Austria as many among non-Polish ethnicities or mixed families of Galicia. As Herbert’s nephew recalls, his uncle always kept some object associated with those times; usually it was a small portrait of the Emperor Franz Joseph.
But there was something Herbert felt for the first time in Lviv and he was searching for it in different countries and on different continents all his life. He called it “a peaceful clash of ideas and thoughts” and thought that the most interesting and exciting things happen in culture due to it. Herbert, first as a “listener” of his father’s “humanities seminars” and later as a student of the Gymnasium #8 (which was actually focused on maths and physics, but had a quite high level of teaching history and languages) already had an eye for Lviv’s architectural symbiosis, where quite often different cultures and even various civilisations merged within one building. He saw the Armenian Cathedral, where the medieval eastern architecture was entwined with Western European modernism. He saw the Ukrainian-style secession architecture on the “Dniester” Credit Society building. He saw how Oriental ornamentation and western functionality combined in the façade of the Jewish Hospital. And then he returned home, to his grandma – who resembled an “orchid” and “constellation”; this keeper of silent eastern mysticism – who continued her endless controversy with the father’s western rationalism.
When did Lviv end for Herbert? Perhaps not in 1944, when having survived calamities of occupations and anticipating the same disaster with the inevitable return of the Red Army, his family decided to move from the city a little farther to the West. Lviv must have ended even earlier for Herbert: with the first German bombings that found Herbert’s family in Bryukhovychi. It happened with the almost simultaneous death of his grandmother – the flesh and blood of this city and an important and special link to it for Zbigniew – with the advent of Soviet power that very month and the arrest of his father, who luckily managed to escape from the clutches of the NKVD with the first Soviet deportations; with the German occupation, the Jewish pogroms and the bombings of synagogues and the creation of the Lviv ghetto.
So the departure in 1944 was simply a logical conclusion of the inevitable. Was this connection between Herbert and Lviv marked by a sense of insult, historical injustice (Herbert writes a lot about “historical necessity”, but never about injustice), the search for the guilty or expectation of someone’s apologies? No. None of what was said or written by him gives grounds to say so. We will never know what was under the surface of all that was written and said. The school of noble silence named after Grandmother Maria was not in vain for Zbigniew. Herbert first mentions Lviv in his collection of poems Epilogue of the Storm only in 1998. Any mention about Lviv and Vilnius as symbols of lost lands in the East was prohibited in the Polish People’s Republic (although it proved to be not too strict in reality). But as Andrzej Franaszek notes in his two-volume biography of the poet, Herbert avoided calling this city by name even in private conversations with friends.
Lviv is a chapter that has never ended for Herbert. It is something that once and for all acquired a metaphysical form for him. Herbert resolutely separated it from the chapter of his life almost immediately after leaving Lviv. The poem “My city”, written in his notes in the 1950s, has a dedication: “For my city, in which I will not die…” And in 1973 he stubbornly repeats it again: “I left it [the city], it happened a quarter of a century ago and in order to never return.”
He did not condemn anyone and we, the present-day citizens of Lviv, must understand Herbert’s choice and position: “My one and only true city is, of course, Lviv”, asserted Herbert, as if giving us the key to many doors we will be able to open if used properly. This key is somewhat paradoxical. Are “my” and “true” not in contradiction here? Can “my” be true, not just imagined, seen in a dream?
A few years after writing “My city”, he made a comment about the poem which contained the following sentence: “Whether it was possible to see the tower of the Cathedral from the Batory Street – that the Author cannot remember; who knows maybe this architectural complex is not here the genesis of the work…” Today, Batory Street is named after Prince Roman and – yes, Mr. Herbert! – the cathedral tower can still be seen from the beginning of the street. It is seen now just as it was seen then, in the days of your youth.
We can easily imagine how in the end Herbert comes to Lviv to dispel his doubts. He looks at the tower of the cathedral, feels regret, joy, astonishment and, perhaps, indifference. There is a city – and there is a poet in it. There is only no poem.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka
Ostap Slyvynsky is a Ukrainian poet, translator, literary critic and literary scholar. He is based in Lviv.