Josef Sudek/© I & G Fárová Heirs

Photograph by Josef Sudek from his ‘Glass Labyrinths’ series, 1963–1972

In our modest Silesian town after the war, a certain lady, an acquaintance of my parents, composed musical works, which she then sent to eminent personages, to the pope, the queen of England, the president of the United States, the president of France. The works were never performed, but all these distinguished individuals, with their vast staffs of secretaries and assistants, thanked Mrs. L. for her compositions. And Mrs. L. would read these thank-you letters to her friends and acquaintances, letters from the pope, the queen of England, the president of the United States. True, the letters were signed by the secretaries of these eminences and not by the eminences themselves; still, they were written on letterhead so beautiful that its very appearance in a small town was a great event. It’s enough to recall the shoddy paper for sale at the local stationery store, the ugly paper on which my father wrote his memoirs…

That the answers acknowledging receipt of Mrs. L.’s compositions and thanking her for them were written on paper so unusual that it revealed mysterious watermarks when held to the light, marks guaranteeing their authenticity, that the signature was ordinarily accompanied by a round seal, like a nest holding an eagle, an owl, or a hawk, proud heraldic animals, mythical, in no way resembling their poor cousins dwelling in the real world, an ordinary forest, this very fact turned defeat into victory. Defeat? Why defeat? Mrs. L. desired nothing more. She had her thank-you letters emanating from the offices of the high and mighty. Her works were never performed, but they had their virtues; no critic could attack them. She stood beyond criticism. She was independent. She corresponded exclusively with the world’s great ones; that whole comic subspecies of critics, reviewers, spiteful ordinary people, failed artists, journalists consumed by envy, didn’t dare to touch her work. She towered above them. She moved in a different sphere. The pope and presidents. Perhaps the UN secretary-general. This was her public.

She had attained artistic fulfillment, even though her compositions went unplayed. She had discovered a new way of existing in art—a leap from completed but unplayed work to public acclaim. Mrs. L. practiced conceptual art. The intermediate step (all those rehearsals, concerts, ovations, hisses) proved unnecessary. When she received guests, persons of quality, acquainted with the hierarchy of that world, she would take these letters from a special drawer and read them out loud. Her guests were moved; thanks to these solemn letters, they suddenly, temporarily entered a higher sphere, the highest sphere.

They lived, after all, as Polish refugees in a provincial German town, which had never achieved any kind of renown—it was remembered, if at all, only because World War II had begun here in some sense, with the so-called Gleiwitz incident, but this was a rather ambiguous claim to fame. Ill-prepared SS operatives dressed in Polish uniforms had conducted an unsuccessful attack on the local radio station, they couldn’t even carry out their commanders’ instructions—they didn’t know that the station only transmitted a program originating in Wrocław, that is, Breslau, so they couldn’t even broadcast a communiqué about the purported Polish attack—no, that wasn’t serious.

Mrs. L. was displaced, one of the displaced, but she had achieved success: she received letters from truly distinguished individuals. From the secretaries of truly distinguished individuals. Let the critics sharpen their talons on other composers, ordinary composers, those who didn’t know her secret: how to create without exposing oneself to the music critics and their vulgar observations.

—Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh