- March 2, 2022
“There’s no turning back from what we have achieved together for 30 years in Lithuania” (Bridget Gautier)
“At some point, I have realized that I need an intellectual challenge in my life, and Polish language proved to be just the challenge I was looking for,” says Prof. Bridget Gautier, expert and translator of Polish literature into French, who visited Vilnius in February.
The professor’s meeting with the Vilnius audience was held within the “Kolokwia Warszawsko-Wileńskie” project, that is, a series of meetings with leading European intellectuals in The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The meetings are to take place every month until the end of the year. It’s a project of the Centre for East European Studies of the University of Warsaw and The Palace of Grand Dukes. Polish Embassy in Lithuania, Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, and Vilnius University act as its co-organizers. This invitation finally motivated me to come here.
Russian threat through the eyes of Frenchwoman
The French guest’s lecture was held on February 15. “I appeared in Vilnius thanks to the invitation from the director of Centre For East European Studies UoW, Ph.D. Jan Malicki, who has a very good idea for “Kolokwia Warszawsko-Wileńskie.” I’ve wanted to visit Lithuania for a long time. Unfortunately, I still haven’t had the time. I am very happy, because the city is beautiful, and the people are nice. It is also moving since I’m in the country that de facto gained its independence only 30 years ago. Despite the threat we feel from the presence of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border, I believe that there’s no turning back from what we have achieved together” emphasizes in a conversation with Kurier Wileński Prof. Bridget Gautier from the Polish section of Charles de Gaulle University – Lille III who delivered a lecture “Insurmountable! Glipse of Polish literature.”
Bridget Gautier is known for her translations of Zbigniew Herbert’s works into French. Her book titled “Poetry against chaos” came out in 2018, and in 2020, together with Prof. Maciej Urbanowski, she published a monograph “Herbert and poetry of gift.” She also announced the production of a volume of Herbert’s correspondence with people from the circle of Parisian “Culture.” Gautier recently got interested in Ksawery Pruszyński’s works; she did the translation of, among others, his book “In red Spain”, dedicated to the civil war in the years 1936-1939. This piece of literature turned out to be a real discovery for a lot of French people.
Kurier Wileński asked Prof. Gautier about the current issues in the matters of geopolitics. There’s often a case of experts and politicians from Central and Eastern Europe criticizing the western countries for the excessive submission to Moscow. Brigitte Gautier, however, does not agree with such view(s).
“Of course, not every Frenchman thinks about Ukraine after waking up, because he has his own life, his own job, his worries and problems. But I do think that this whole crisis, which actually lasts for several years now, is known to the French. We’ve heard a lot about Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. Many French people drove down to Ukraine to observe the democratic election. It was a sort of European joint initiative. Later the annexation of Crimea happened, so it was clear to the French that Putin poses a real threat. Russian-French relations are not the best due to a variety of reasons. Recently, when Russian influence had spread to the Republic of Mali, it became trouble for us as well, because this country is a sphere of French influence” comments our interviewee.
Martial law and emigration
Bridget Gautier started to be interested in Polish literature during the 80s of the twentieth century. Earlier, however, she graduated in Romanistics and English studies in France.
“At some point I was hesitating about what to do next. I understood that I need an intellectual challenge, and learning Polish turned out to be just the thing, because this language has seven grammatical cases. Some people are joking that even Latin doesn’t have so many. Polish verbs have perfective and imperfective aspects which I, truthfully, have not mastered yet. I started studying at the Institute of East Science in Paris, but I acknowledged, that until I have come to Poland, there is not a chance I will learn to properly speak Polish. It was the memorable year 1981, 1982, when I received a UNESCO scholarship to stay in Poland” Gautier shares her memories.
After the return from Poland, she started contacting large Polish diaspora in Paris, including Jerzy Giedroycia’s “Culture” background.
“I had to decide in which field to write my doctorate – and I have chosen/chose to write about Polish contemporary literature. It was much more interesting than another debate about French, English, or American literature. It just so happened for me to stay loyal to my calling” she adds.
Wonderful Mickiewicz, lesser Konwicki
For those unknown to the history of Poland and Lithuania, it is very often unclear as to why the greatest Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz started his epic with these words: “Oh Lithuania, my fatherland”. Gautier agrees on that, although, personally, it wasn’t a problem for her.
“I had enough knowledge about Polish poetry to understand where did it come from. I imagine this is why Poles, Lithuanians, and Belarusians consider Mickiewicz as their poet – and I think that’s just wonderful! Thanks to him existing in this piece of Europe, where three different cultures meet, each of them has a right to own him up” evaluates translator and literary scholar.
Our interlocutor is convinced that Polish literature, not only past one, but modern as well, can still impress a western reader. She herself, however, is unable to choose just one contemporary writer or poet whose works she enjoys the most.
“I really like the works of Paweł Huelle from Gdańsk. Looking a little back — I very much respect Włodzimierz Odojewski’s novel It will bury everything, it will blow. Titles of Czesław Miłosz — Family Europe or The Issa Valley — are important due to their references to Mickiewicz. There are also various novels or Tadeusz Konwicki, but these are of lesser importance, in my opinion. I think highly of Leopold Tyrmand’s novel The Evil One, which is a kind of pseudo-thriller, yet in reality has a much deeper meaning than that” confesses Prof. Bridget Gautier.
Miłosz versus Herbert
The conflict between Miłosz and Herbert is recognized as one of the biggest literary disagreements of the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a discussion of two great poets about understanding Polishness and Europeanness. Many commentators claim that Herbert should have received a Nobel Prize in Literature, just like Miłosz. In Gautier’s opinion, despite the difference in their worldviews, both artists respected each other, and Herbert certainly did not envy Miłosz for his Nobel Prize.
“Nobel prize and Oscar award are kind of similar. Someone’s got one at a certain point, and this is very good and prestigious. Due to the fact, people know them and read about them worldwide. It does not necessarily mean that it is the best poet in the world — just like an Oscar winner does not have to be the best director or actor out there. Giedroyć believed it was thanks to his favoritism that Miłosz received a Nobel. He was sure it would be the same with Herbert. It did not work out. Well, that’s just life. As far as I’m concerned, more important is whose works will be read in 50 or 100 years. I am positive people will read Herbert” interviewee of Kurier Wileński ends the conversation.
Translated by Sonia Dados within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.