Grażyna Plebanek in conversation with Maggie Gee
On Thursday, 18 October we hosted the very special book launch of our Polish author Grażyna Plebanek’s Illegal Liaisons, translated by Danusia Stok, in the wonderful Belgravia Books. Grażyna was interviewed by the Orange-shortlisted, highly acclaimed British author Maggie Gee. The book launch of Plebanek’s Illegal Liaisons was part of Pole Position – Polish Book Autumnfest, the UK’s largest Polish literary event of 2012, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute. Read this extract of an interview between Grażyna Plebanek and Maggie Gee.
MG: This is a very impressive novel and a very brave novel. It’s a book that is a satire on the life in Brussels, it’s a satire on that, I suppose, capitalist utopia which is also a no place because where does it belong to? But at the same time it is a very real, graphic and erotic depiction of an affair. And of many affairs. And of a city of affairs. So she’s doing something that is quite brave because it is not necessarily easily compatible being serious as a literary writer and writing about sex. Virginia Woolf said in Professions for Women written back in the 1930s that we had to wait fifty years or so for women to write freely about sex.
GP: With this book it felt quite natural because the subject required me to write about the body. When you quoted Virginia Woolf I thought how women were tied over centuries in conventions, in social life and they really couldn’t feel their own needs because of economical reasons and also religion. I come from a country which is very Catholic, which was communist before but now all of a sudden is very Catholic. We were brought up in this tradition of the body and soul as a completely different parts of the self, of a person. It was very important to put it together. It took me years not to be ashamed, or afraid, or to appreciate what I have so I thought it’s a path to find the body but also language. For me as a writer to find the language about the body was very difficult because it is either medical or vulgar.
MG: It’s also very difficult in English. There’s the everyday language. There’s medical language. I want to be able to write about all. Why shouldn’t we also write about sex? Of course we can. This isn’t the problem for the pot-boilers. There’s lots of graphic sexual writing but literary writing there’s still not that much I think really good writing. And there’s also the terror of the Bad Sex Award. How was it writing about sex from a male point of view?
GP: It was really challenging but fascinating. For example with my friend, who’s a writer as well, we were sitting on a bench in a park and I asked him: Could you comment on women passing by? Of course, not aloud, but into my ear. What do you like about them? What turns you on? I realised I was looking for different things, different details.
MG: Jonathan is an interesting character because in a city where power resides in jobs for the European Commission, Jonathan doesn’t have that kind of job. His wife Megi is a very powerful character and he appears to be the unfaithful one, does he not? There’s a surprise coming in terms of that. How does this relate that he doesn’t have power, economical or financial, and the fact that he is incredibly active sexually, how does it affect the marriage?
GP: I didn’t think about it before I started to write but then I thought, subconsciously, I have a link between him, a househusband, that I need a character that needs to find a different subject in his life, to empower him. A lot of people in real life – they are powerful and they are having affairs.
MG: He’s very happy when he gets a job in creative writing and he’s an exile. There’s quite a lot of how far Poles are accepted. They seem to be totally accepted on the surface but underneath these characters are trying to work out are they accepted, are they actually being stereotyped? I found it very interesting when you wrote about that casual racism even within Europe.
GP: When people are strangers they are rejected even if it isn’t an open rejection, hidden somehow. I observed a lot, not only about Poles, but different nations in Brussels and how they are accepted or not. There’re a lot of stereotypes of course so people either try to prove they are not like this or give up. I had phases in my life, as a Pole living abroad, that I was convincing everybody that I’m not a cleaning lady and my husband is not a plumber. It’s a natural process for people. I have to say I admire Belgians because they have lots of tact to accept others.
MG: Your characters are pretty selfish apart from their love for children and some affection for their friends. 21st Century human beings, rather well off, very empowered. But they are not great recommendations for the human species.
GP: In Brussels it’s very visible because there are many opportunists and people hunt for each other. I think it’s the lack of a pattern of being faithful and the fact it’s not about power anymore. Now, women are more active as well. They hunt as well.
MG: These are the surprises in the book. You think women are victims, in particular Megi, but then you find this is not the case at all. This is a book with a very strong feeling of respect for women and admiration that women are strong. You making us feel of the heartbreaking vulnerability for children, also the joy. The moment of intense happiness that Jonathan experiences as a father.
GP: I think the bond between a parent and children is the most honest, most important in life so I wanted men to experience that in my book.
MG: Do you think it is still different, more of a challenge, for a woman to write frankly about sex? I think there’s still a potential cost and I’m thinking that happened to my after My Animal Life got published. It probably doesn’t reflect terribly well on London literary life but nevertheless I was at some rather grand literary party and two writers, men, one of them said: I enjoyed My Animal Life. I was surprised and said: Oh, good. Have you read it? He said: Yes, particularly some bits. The man with him laughed and I thought: Oh, you babies. I can’t imagine that happening in the same way with women. There’s this feeling perhaps that a woman makes herself vulnerable, loses a little bit, by mentioning or talking about sex.
GP: I think you are right, it’s more difficult for women writers because our bodies in society are more visible. And of course we care about it. But it’s true I had this feeling several times when men read my book and looked at me as if asking, did you do all this stuff? Even yesterday a man – after looking through my book – asked me for a coffee.
Questions from the audience:
Q: How was your book received in Poland and why do you think your book became such a bestseller in a country with such strong Catholicism?
GP: I think it became more famous because of the erotic scenes, of the language of the body. I heard good opinions. Of course, some Catholics, and not, had problems with graphic erotic scenes. I have to say that sometimes Catholicism helps me because I write contra to that. I do this subconsciously. For example, when I write about church I kind of provocatively use this element, of course not to offend anybody, but as a provocation because I suffer too much from the upbringing . Especially for girls it is difficult to survive that kind of upbringing in a strict Catholic religion.
Q: I remember, Grażyna, when you told me about the idea for this book many years ago here in London, in the Southbank Centre, we were sitting in a cafe there and you told me that you were planning to write this book because you’ve been missing kind of explicit and beautiful erotic language. Did you enjoy writing it?
GP: I enjoyed it very much but it came naturally as a subject because I imagined the couple and what happens. All of a sudden there are so many books like that written -
MG: But not necessarily literary.
GP: It’s in fashion right now.
Q: I found it very interesting while reading it, considering the gender issues and behaviour of men and behaviour of women, I didn’t feel much judgment. Was that intentional?
GP: Yes, it was. It was one of things that reviews in Poland talked about that there’s no judgment about betrayal or being unfaithful. I wanted to do this because it’s everybody’s problem right now, especially, the traditional institution of marriage is shaken by all possibilities. Also it’s women’s fault in a way because we entered the labour market, we have money, we have power, we are independent we can decide whether we want to have an affair or not. I wanted to leave judgment for the reader. Everyday has a different experience and it depends on the generation. Sometimes it feels, for women, we are still conquering the world although there is a glass ceiling. Family has to be revalued now.
MG: Is that the central value in the book? Is it the family? Is it the children? There’s always something in the book that the author loves, or you feel that the book loves and it seems to be the children.
GP: If I’m moralistic it could be to make more value for men to be involved in the family. It could be some kind of rescue for them.
MG: I think you showed in the book their fragile position. And I think you have a degree of sympathy for them. It’s writer’s job to empathise with characters.
Q: Are there any autobiographical elements in the book?
MG: Everyone wanted to ask!
GP: I’m blushing professionally right now. I always use the city I live in right now. I introduce my city, my places, maybe the structure of the family with two kids as I have two kids. It’s difficult to be free about the plot if you write autobiographical elements. Real people are intimidating in their complexity, so I couldn’t start to describe a real person because the book would be too long.
Q: A comment I had when I talked to people who read the book, most of them were women including me, was how come you got into hearts and brains, almost everybody is reading her own story in many respects but I was wondering why you decided to sketch Andrea, the lover, in such a elusive way? In comparison to Jonathan, who is a very full blooded man, Andrea is a vision.
GP: I wanted to show her through the eyes of Jonathan or Megi and I thought for the novel this is the best way to show her. She’s more like a phantom. She’s threatening and she threatens married men and women, also I have a weakness for these type of elusive characters.
MG: She has that magical quality of great physical attractiveness. In a way, she’s a puzzle. You don’t know what she’s going to do next because their relationship is always changing. It’s one of the things I love about your book which is very un-static. These relationships are always changing. It goes from extremes of tenderness to sexual activity. It’s very hard to keep that kind of dynamic going in the novel. I think I just want to recommend this book to you very warmly and say it’s a great read, very enjoyable, it’s very clever. Thank you.
Illegal Liaisons was published in October 2012.
Read Danusia Stok’s reflections on translating Illegal Liaisons.
Grażyna Plebanek is a bestselling, highly acclaimed author in her native Poland. Plebanek’s latest novel Illegal Liaisons is her first to be translated into English. In 2011 Plebanek was awarded the Literary Prize Zlote Sowy for her contribution to promoting Poland abroad. She lives in Brussels, Belgium.
Maggie Gee has written eleven acclaimed novels, including The Ice People, My Cleaner, My Driver and The White Family, a collection of short stories, The Blue, and a memoir of her life as a writer, My Animal Life. She has judged many prizes including the Booker and has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Award. Her books have been translated into 14 languages. Maggie was the first female Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, 2004-2008, and the first conference about her writing was held at St Andrew’s University in August 2012. She is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.
Buy the book on Amazon.