André Tchaikowsky (1935-1982) was a brilliant pianist and composer. Halina Janowska, a music graduate, PhD in criminology and a writer. My Guardian Demon is a collection of their letters spanning twenty five years, translated from Polish by Jacek Laskowski to such an excellence that it reads as if the letters had been written in English, and published by Smith-Gordon.
Tchaikowsky and Janowska met at a party at the Warsaw Conservatoire in 1953. André was seventeen, had just come back from Paris and was already famous, Halina was a fresh music student. ‘Everything that happened between us was either funny or sad’ – she writes in the Introduction to the book My Guardian Demon. ‘After the Chopin Competition André felt lonely and sad – the reason was unrequited love for a young man. He asked me whether I would like to move in with him. We lived together for nearly one year. It was a good time for us: we were close friends and really understood each other. That time probably inspired him to invite me to Paris and write about marriage and children. The correspondence between us started after he was awarded the 3rd prize at the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 1956 in Brussels and decided not to return to Poland’
Separated by the Iron Curtain, they write passionate letters to each other, discussing music, literature, theatre, relationships, children, life and love.
‘Beloved Andrzej, My Darling…’ she writes. ‘Darling, crazy, surely happy little Funnyface’ – he answers. ‘Little Monkey, I love you very much, whether it’s allowed or not’ – he writes. ‘Sweetest Andrzej, write, and that will save me’ she answers. They write about everyday things, about their friends, their passion for music, their life, and above all, their mutual love for each other. After Halina marries, and shortly after her daughter, Basia arrives, their correspondence is cut, with mutual agreement, only to be rekindled again after a few years, and the parting of Halina from her husband. The letters are not any less passionate than before. They want to meet, but can’t, they want to be together, and are not, but the constant undertone is that of love and friendship, above any other kind of love.
André continues his music performances around the world, his composing, and he writes constant, frequent, inquiring, mad, loving, crazy, demanding, romantic letters. Halina’s answers are equally passionate and deeply involved.There is in their writings, above all, the naked, piercing honesty that strikes out and refuses to be covered. There are admissions of guilt, of longing never to be fulfilled. They talk about humiliation, of cowardice, bravery, criticism, of courage. Halina writes about her daughter Basia, of her work and her feelings. André remembers his friends from Poland. (One such friend he mentions is Józef Kański, a pianist and music critic, who I was astonished to notice, was the same person that in the 70’s played Chopin every single day on his grand piano in an apartment next to where I lived in Warsaw.)
There is a poignant, chilling remark at the end of one of André’s letters when he visits the legendary pianist and composer Vladimir Horowitz in New York; ‘I was at Horowitz’s. He is old, sick and sad. His wife’s eyes follow him, and they’re filled with love. They have not said a word to each other in four years. I’d really like to die young. A.’ Horovitz subsequently conquered his depression, returning to performing until his death in 1989, aged 86. André died of cancer in1982 aged only 48.
After years of writing and longing for each other, Halina and André eventually meet again in England, but it is an unhappy meeting, never fulfilled, as if it was never meant to be. The same question – what is love? – comes to mind again and again, because the letters continue after that encounter, with the same intensity, the same passion, after the initial admittance of failure, with even more honesty than before.
There are books that are written and some that have always been there, as love is always there, and My Guardian Demon is such a book. Deeply moving, astonishingly clear and honest, fascinating, wise and tender. Once you open the first pages, you won’t be able to put it down and that question will come to your mind again and again. What is love?
I first came across the letters by chance, after they had been published, and very well received, in Poland. Out of the blue, Halinka sent me a copy of the book asking if I would be able to write a few comments in English which she, and her publisher, might be able to show putative English agents and/or publishers. To be honest, I wasn't very keen to do so: Polish books are hard to place in the English-speaking publishing world, and books of letters between two people, of whom only one had a very modest reputation in Britain, seemed to me to be a truly Quixotic undertaking. But I did start to read the letters and very quickly became enthralled, engrossed, and enchanted by them.
The relationship that emerged from them was so touching, so unusual, so warm that I couldn't stop reading. Having spent six years in Poland and understanding some of the difficulties encountered by people trying to maintain any kind of relationship on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain I found the pair's determination to keep the deep affection and mutual admiration alive despite numerous obstacles truly uplifting.
I wrote a fulsome recommendation. But that was not enough. When Halinka then asked me if I would be prepared to translate a few fragments by way of a taster for potential publishers, I knew I was caught. I would have to translate the whole book. And that's what I did. I found the experience as exciting and as moving as I had done my first reading of the book: by the end of it I felt that these two people, who had been complete strangers at the start of the undertaking, had become very close to me and I felt a great affection for them. I continue to feel that affection for Halinka to this day, having met her on several occasions and visited her in Warsaw.
Why did the author turn to me in the first place? I had done several translations from and into Polish, mostly plays. The letters are, I suppose, a kind of dialogue so perhaps my experience with plays helped me in conveying the sense of an extended conversation between two fascinating personalities for whom their relationship was a kind of permanent feature in their ever-changing and very different worlds. In addition, having spent six years in Poland during the years of the so-called Cold War, I had some understanding of the difficulties encountered by friends and families who were living on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This, I think, helped me to capture the tone of the exchanges and the context in which they occurred.
I was born in Britain (more precisely Edinburgh) and was brought up speaking Polish at home and, in due course, English when I went to school. Although chronologically speaking it was my second language, in time English became my mother tongue: all my friends at school were English as were my teachers. By the time we were about ten years old, my brother and I spoke English with each other, and Polish only with our parents and their friends. So I think that when I started translating from Polish, English was as natural to me as it would be to any other native speaker.