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BOOK REVIEW : Memoir for Readers, Writers : NEW WORLD AVENUE AND VICINITY by Tadeusz Konwicki Translated from the Polish by Walter Arndt Farrar, Straus & Giroux $19.95, 212 pages

January 23, 1991|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tadeusz Konwicki is ironic, bemused, and fatalistic, a man who has purged himself of all vanity and scourged himself with the iron rod of self-revelation.

He describes his own "New World Avenue and Vicinity" as "yet another book that nobody needs," and confesses that he has "grown disillusioned with readers" after "writing the same book over and over again for 20 years."

"I don't write the truth," announces Konwicki, one of Poland's commanding literary figures. "I write half-truths of a sort, curlicues, periphrases, concealments by silence, utterances of spurious candor, pretended openness. I produce all this fearful literary noise, foam whipped up on the rivers of facts, a vast fog in which we blunder with outstretched hands."

And yet this collection of musings and memories has something important and even inspiring to offer the reader and, especially, the writer. Indeed, "New World Avenue" is an essential book for the novice writer who finds himself compelled to write, and for the jaded author who has forgotten why he or she began to write in the first place.

"I would honestly prefer to crush rock on a highway . . . than to write standard, regular novels," he cries out. "Those novels revolt me like carrion. And even if I made myself sit down and start grinding away at this feudal toil which is so dear to readers good and bad, smart and dull, naive and sophisticated, and even if I did violence to myself, my hands would refuse to serve me, and all of a sudden my heart would burst."

Konwicki was first brought to the attention of American readers by Philip Roth, that champion of Eastern European writers, in the late 1960s with the publication of "A Dreambook for Our Time." Born in Wilno in 1926, Konwicki fought as a partisan in World War II, and then undertook a lifelong struggle to survive as a novelist and filmmaker in Soviet-dominated Poland. Later, he avoided state censorship by publishing his work only in the underground press; one of the conceits of "New World Avenue" is the author's ironic address to the censor: "my unknown guardian, my intellectual father, my spiritual guide."

"New World Avenue" refers to the Warsaw street where Konwicki lived and worked, and--in one sense--the book is a kind of episodic memoir of a life of letters in a peculiarly Polish setting. "I was a social, perhaps even a class escapee," he writes of his early days, "who had leapt from a kolkhoz near Wilno straight into international reception rooms, where one rubbed sleeves with Picasso, Eluard, Aldous Huxley, and Pablo Neruda."

Konwicki may present himself as a curmudgeon, but he is not lacking in compassion, and there are endearing moments of charm and even sentimentality in his book. He celebrates the heroism of the doctors and nurses who revive a dying man in the bed next to him at a Warsaw hospital. He eulogizes a young Polish filmmaker "lost among the fire and ice of the cosmos." He even celebrates his beloved companion, "the cat Ivan," in a piece that may well end up in one of those books of favorite cat stories. And Konwicki illustrates his own book with pen-and-ink sketches that are downright whimsical.

But the real theme of "New World Avenue" is what Konwicki presents as the writer's solemn obligation to see himself and the world around him through open eyes, to remain faithful to his vision, and to write with honesty and integrity. Of course, the challenge had a special meaning to Konwicki's readers in Poland in 1986, when "New World Avenue" was first published, but the same message is addressed to writers and filmmakers whose only censors are to be found in their own hearts and souls.

Konwicki accuses himself of making "fearful literary noise," and I worry that the words I have used to describe his book are just more noise: "honesty" and "integrity" are the kind of platitudes that Konwicki has learned to distrust. But "New World Avenue" is not "foam" and "fog"--it is knife-sharp, and it stings. I can think of a hundred writers (and assorted television producers, movie directors, and rock stars) who ought to read it, for their own good and for the good of their audiences.

Next: Richard Eder reviews "An Honorable Profession" by John L'Heureux (Viking).

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