Literary novel
Artur Grabowski
Am (A Diary from the Other Side)

A European intellectual on the road through America, dealing with the midlife crisis. Debut novel by an acclaimed playwright and poet

22 August

It’s my fucking birthday again! A non-moveable feast that even non-believers can’t ignore, although it’s less and less welcome every year. I’m sitting at Letitia’s with my morning coffee (freshly brewed, Italian half-espresso, half-milk) when my mum calls to say she has stomach ache.

For quite some time (it’s got to be three years) I’ve been stuck in the middle of a midlife crisis (does that mean it’ll continue?), in the third phase of chronic depression, when the sufferer instinctively forgets about birthdays, and just my luck, my mother’s eating up 50 cents from my phone. Because the way that bloody thing works, it expects payment just for dialling, no matter who’s calling, and even for missed calls. I can’t stand mobiles; I don’t know what possessed me to shove it in my pocket. I’m pissed, but I’ll soon get over it. Because . . . Mum, I’m glad you were with me for those two minutes. Tears ought to be rolling down my cheeks, but they aren’t. I hang up. And at once I feel a particularly Slavic, spiritual pressure weigh me down. Thanks, my unholy mother, my sinful mother, that I’m still your mummy’s boy.

The clock strikes ten (where?); I was born almost five hours ago. My God! If you believe historians and the Revealed Truth, I’ve outlived Jesus by five years. Well?

Hey, I’m talking to you, Jesus! Why didn’t you leave instructions on how to imitate you after crossing that line, when people deserve to be properly crucified?

The End of August

Seven-seventeen. What’s everyone doing in the street at this time? I mean they aren’t here by choice. They’re hurrying. To work.

Work, work. Being constantly busy is the most American of diseases. Barbarka was telling me on the phone yesterday (at almost midnight!) that she was about to leave for a party and, already made up (‘I even put a towel on the pillow!’), decided to take a rest on the sofa. She slept for 26 hours.

It isn’t obesity but overactivity that kills them. May they rest in peace.

Noble Avenue

The Algren writing method. Write, write again, edit, cut, paste, patch up, write again, write, write out a fair copy, then change something, then rewrite this and that, and so on . . . First the passages that have to be written down. Why? Keep writing, writing about that. And now more clearly, more neatly. Then the composition, splice it together, matching your memory to the allegory. The scenes, the frames, each dialogue is a micro-drama. Charging tanks with bravado, drunk, riding a mustang you caught by accident. Heading God knows where, always on the edge of a blank sheet of paper, without a plan, without predictions, without protection. Always disorganised, always desperate, always uncertain. And strong because of that – a literature addict, being held up by what finishes him off.

You become a writer after you die, before that, at best, you can be a narrator.

Excerpt translated by David French

Literary novel
Artur Grabowski
Am (A Diary from the Other Side)

A European intellectual on the road through America, dealing with the midlife crisis. Debut novel by an acclaimed playwright and poet

Publisher: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 2018
Translation rights: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, e.szwagrzyk@piw.pl

Artur Grabowski’s Am (A Diary from the Other Side) isn’t a typical journal. It’s actually a work combining features of the essay and literary fiction: the account of a Polish intellectual who relocates to the United States to lecture and write. The narrator drinks in his surroundings and travels around, examining Polishness and himself.

The enigmatic titular Am is the first syllable of the word ‘America’ as well as the verb in the phrase ‘I am’. The ‘other side’ is also significant here: the narrator isn’t just on the far side of the Atlantic, he is also halfway through his life. Like Dante, he’s undertaken a journey that will change him. Grabowski’s writing becomes something of a taking stock of life and also a free variation on identity and literature. Reality – his description of life in the States – is here interwoven with philosophical and poetical passages, and in the end with projections of the narrator’s overactive imagination. We learn about his literary fascinations, witness moments of marital intimacy, and are party to encounters with an imagined lover and a homeless friend. With Grabowski we travel across an American wilderness.

Poles have long dreamed about the United States. The fact that Grabowski chose a trip to Chicago as the background for his soliloquy is proof positive. Am, however, gives readers much more than an account of time-worn Polish fascinations. The book documents the bitterness with which an epigone of European culture discovers American otherness, its formalism and ahistorical carelessness.

In Am, retrospection collides with fabrication. In it, writing is an experiment, a way of creating oneself. Artur Grabowski’s story is a compelling self-portrait of a man in a midlife crisis, and as a diary it represents the best of Polish journalling traditions.

Marta Kwaśnicka, translated by David French

Publisher: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 2018
Translation rights: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, e.szwagrzyk@piw.pl

Selected samples

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