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Sefer

Athabasca University Press | Mingling Voices


Poetic, witty, and ever so faintly surreal, Sefer delicately explores the legacy of the Holocaust for the postwar generation, a generation for whom a devastating history has grown distant, both temporally and emotionally. The novel’s protagonist, Jan Sefer, is a psychotherapist living in Vienna—someone whose professional life puts him in daily contact with the traumas of others but who has found it difficult to address his own family background, especially his memories of his father. During a two-week trip to his father’s birthplace, Kraków—a visit he has long postponed—he begins to sort out some of his feelings and to connect with a past the memory of which is swiftly disintegrating. Much like memory itself, Sefer speaks to us obliquely, through the juxtaposition of images and vignettes rather than through the construction of a linear narrative. With its fragmentary structure and its preference for hints rather than explanations, the novel belongs to the realm of the postmodern, while it also incorporates subtle elements of magical realism.

One of Poland’s best-known poets, Ewa Lipska is today a major figure in European literature. In their translation of Sefer, Lipska’s first novel, translators Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard deftly capture the poet’s unmistakable voice—cool and precise, gently ironic, and deeply humane.

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“Ewa Lipska is an acclaimed Polish poet and a major figure in European literature. Hopefully, this new translation of her complex, haunting novella, Sefer, will widen her English readership. ... Lipska is strong on mood and Sefer is peopled with an array of interesting characters. Her lyrical passages are beautifully translated by Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard. Vienna is described as the land ‘where Mozart melts in chocolate and the Sonata No. 10 in C Major resounds inside every praline.’”

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“The novel is both an allegory about post-war, post-Holocaust life, which remains fragmented, shattered, and an allegory about contemporary Poland. Ordinary lives have to be constantly reconstituted, mingling broken memories from the past and the joy of living in the present. ... [The] ‘new’ Poland, after Communism, is seeking to find itself anew; but Lipska seems to indicate that it is still struggling to find a new soul.”

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“The pleasures of Lipska’s narrative are intense; endless juxtapositions apparently without coherent plan give an overall effect like Mondrianesque boogy-woogy mosaic. ... This is a novel over which to puzzle with great pleasure: whimsical goldsmith’s work in Cubist perspective. Read.”

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"Lipska describes a kind of history that exists in what her English translators, Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard, call 'the cinema of memory.' [The main character] roams Cracow's colourful streets and dingy parks, explores synagogues and bars, and goes to a party attended by the city's intellectual elite. Thanks to his guide and own talent for observation, he learns a great deal about contemporary Poland—its insecurities, follies, aspirations, and hopes. ... As the city of his father's youth goes about its present-day business, Sefer admits: 'Increasingly I realized that there is no place for the past tense outside of grammar.'”

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Born in 1945 in Kraków, Ewa Lipska was for many years the poetry editor of the literary magazine Pismo, which she co-founded, and was active in Poland’s Nowa Fala, or New Wave. Her many prizes include the Ko?cielski Fund Award, the Robert Graves Pen Club Award, and Pen Club Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement. Her poetry has been widely translated, into Hebrew as well as into European languages.

 
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