Danilo Kiš: New York Recollections, part two



Danilo Kiš: New York Recollections 2

by Isabel Bau Madden

©isabel bau madden

To read in Serbian, please click HERE

Za verziju na srpskom jeziku, molimo kliknite OVDE

“If there is any substitute for love, it is memory.” 

Joseph Brodsky

There have been several  instances in my life fate has been immensely gracious toward me. I could not have possibly imagined, while growing up in my native Buenos Aires, what a wild ride it had in store for me. I never expected to trade Argentina for the U.S., more specifically, New York City in 1963. Too young to do so, it was a decision made for me. Even less so that my destiny would henceforth become so completely enmeshed with everything Yugoslav, including the language. My very first trip, in 1969, which saw me cross the border by train in Sežana and disembark at the central railway station in Belgrade, was a transformative experience. In the decades that followed, I was exceptionally lucky to forge lifetime friendships and to cross paths in the late 1970’s with Danilo Kiš. In subsequent years, we met up in Belgrade, Dubrovnik, Paris,and New York.  

Delving into layers and layers of memories, some vivid, some fading, is an intimate and powerful act. Reminiscing about Kiš, for a fleeting moment creates the illusion, the pen, by some magical virtue, should be able to change the tragic final outcome. 

Isabel Bau Madden


“I came to Paris for the first time in 1962; New York was not yet New York.” Danilo Kiš . May, 1984, speaking to journalist Brendan Lemon in Paris*



What a difference twenty years makes! Two decades later, New York took to Kiš and Kiš embraced NY.

Danilo Kiš Iz fotodokumentacije Arhipelaga

Danilo Kiš Iz fotodokumentacije Arhipelaga

During his first trip to NYC, one of three he would make in the 1980’s, Danilo Kiš received a pampered welcome. He put down his suitcase on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and 61st Street, overlooking Central Park, thanks to the gracious hospitality of an influential philanthropist descended from Eastern European Jewish refugees. Kiš’s posh lodging had been arranged by a mutual friend who helped sponsor his North American visit.  The thirty-four story building at 800 Fifth Avenue, where Donald Trump once occupied a penthouse, sits where the famous Dodge mansion, belonging to a Rockefeller heir, had graced this prime real estate corner until 1977. The apartment, decorated floor to ceiling in white, belonged to Nina Rosenwald, an heiress of the Sears Roebuck fortune. The setting was a far cry from Kiš’s rather spartan abode on Rue Tesson in the Parisian 10th arrondissement, or his flat on ulica Milośe Počerća in Belgrade. He joked and took a childish delight in the luxury, like the kid left home alone. Standing by the windows, he experienced a postcard perfect landscape– the only split second when he took in the city as a tourist. The remaining snapshots of Kiš sojourn were all about friends, literature, and getting his work published.  Coincidentally, his temporary home was only blocks from mine, its windows clearly visible through my binoculars. As I peeked eastward, only the trees in Central Park stood between us.

 Roger Straus and Joseph Brodsky with Isabel at PEN Center, 1987, photo © Czeslaw Czaplinski

Kiš’s champions in NY: Roger Straus and Joseph Brodsky with Isabel at PEN Center, 1987, photo © Czeslaw Czaplinski

It was in this lavish setting, one early evening, Kiš hosted and introduced me to exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987.  They greeted each other with the characteristic effusiveness of their slavic tempers;  a fraternal affection and complicity was immediately evident though it may well have been their first personal encounter.**  Brodsky, smiling from ear to ear, carried a large bottle of vodka in a brown paper bag under his arm. In his company, Kiš seemed at his most content and relaxed. Within minutes of Brodsky’s arrival, it was party time. From the kitchen, where I was preparing a small spread,  I could hear laughter and animated conversation.   After bringing out two shot glasses,  some hors d’oeuvres, and several ashtrays, I discreetly slid out of the smoky apartment. They hardly noticed. The festivity continued a few evenings later.  Joseph Brodsky and the genial film director Dušan Makavejev, were guests at an intimate gathering in Kiš’s honor offered by our friend, Svetlana Stone, who had organized the sponsorship of his visit. We ended up lingering at the dinner table until well past midnight.

Joseph Brodsky/ Josif Brodski, 1992, foto © Czeslaw Czaplinski

Joseph Brodsky in his Wash. D.C. home, in the spring of 1992, speaking to Roger Straus about Danilo Kiš. foto © Czeslaw Czaplinski

Brodsky and Kiš were fortunate to come to share what was one of the last old-fashioned literary houses in the U.S., the renowned Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Its formidable co-founder, Roger Straus, related to the wealthy and influential Guggenheim and Straus families, presided over the company with an old-fashioned European panache. This translated into frequent long lunches with Kiš, mostly in a mix of French and English, at the Union Square Café, where Straus,   was an habitué.   There was hardly a need for me to act as interpreter, though I deeply regret not bringing along a tape recorder.  With Robert Silvers, the eminent and revered Sorbonne-educated  editor of the New York Review of Books, the conversation flowed for hours in fluent French at the legendary Italian restaurant Patsy’s. Founded in 1944, a Frank Sinatra favorite,  it still  stands on West 56th Street.

 Patsy's, New York City

Patsy’s, New York City

I can thank Danilo Kiš for what turned out to be my special friendship with Joseph Brodsky. In the ensuing years, whenever I approached him about a matter related to Kiš, he was always quick to intervene. At one time, in May 1992, in Washington D.C., during his tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States, his mediating effort resulted in the publication of Homo Poeticus by F.S G. in 1995. This collection of essays and interviews was edited and introduced by Susan Sontag.   No sooner did I ask for his help, Brodsky without so much as taking his coat off, phoned Roger Straus in NY to set up our meeting.  The moment was captured by renowned Polish photographer Czeslaw Czaplinski during the shoot of a documentary I was helming:   “A day in the Life of Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize Winner and Poet Laureate of the U.S.”  In December 1989, Joseph Brodsky’s was instrumental in helping me organize a Danilo Kiš Memorial at the Yugoslav Press and Cultural Center with the cooperation of its director, Damir Grubiša.  Besides Brodsky, other notable speakers were Susan Sontag and Roger Straus. A the very last minute, writer Branislav Crnčević managed to catch a flight from Canada to participate. I translated his text and read it in English:

Danilo Kis Memorial NYC, 1989.

Speakers gathered for Danilo Kiš Memorial at Yugoslav Press and Cultural Center, Dec. 14, 1989.
Among them Susan Sontag, Roger Straus, Joseph Brodsky. photo © Czeslaw Czaplinski

It read in part:

“No writer I know loved and feared the word more than he did, though he used it bravely.  Danilo Kis was a  high priest of the word, a rabbi, a magician in love with every word…  He played with words in brilliant intellectual displays giving them his singular meaning. He loved all words, tender and cruel, disturbing, dangerous, ironic, curse-words. He knew how to say them, even sarcastically. To everyone, to Danilo’s friends, and to every writer who knew him, at times it was not clear: did Danilo use words or did words use Danilo?” 

“What gets left of a man amounts to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech”
 Joseph Brodsky 

St. Moritz Hotel- PEN Congress

Hotel Sen Moric (St. Moritz), Njujork

St. Moritz Hotel, New York City, photo by Gryffindor via Wikipedia

In January 1986, as a guest of the legendary 48th International PEN Congress organized by Norman Mailer,   Kiš slipped into the overcrowded lobby of the St. Mortiz Hotel, at the corner of Central Park South and 6th Avenue.  Carrying a small suitcase, he seemingly tried to go unnoticed in the crowd of literary celebrities. After  he checked in,  we rode the elevator with the taciturn Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. On the way up, I unexpectedly found myself warning Miłosz, in his native tongue, that a large cockroach was crawling on his shoe.  Without losing his composure, Milosz simply shook it off and, without a word, exited the elevator on his floor.  Kiš was assigned a very small corner room, higher up with a view of the park. As soon as his luggage arrived, we headed for a drink to the hotel’s Café de la Paix, where we mingled with the likes of Claude Simon, and Saul Bellow.

Kiš’s presence at the PEN gathering attracted attention. He belonged to the group of writers whose importance at the event Salman Rushdie, remarked about in a New York Times article in 2005: ” Enjoyable as such recollections are, the real significance of the congress lay deeper. In those last years of the cold war, it was important for us all to hear Eastern European writers like Danilo Kiš and Czeslaw Milosz, György Konrád and Ryszard Kapuściński, setting their visions against the visionless Soviet regime.”

The list of writers Norman Mailer managed to convene for the debate around the theme, “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State”, boggles the mind: Joseph Brodsky, Günter Grass, Amos Oz, Wole Soyinka, Mario Vargas Llosa, Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver, E. L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Edward Said, William Styron, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Claude Simon, Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag. It is little wonder Salman Rushdie describes himself as being awestruck.

Danilo and his companion, Pascale Delpech,  traveled together to New York in the fall of 1986, immediately after French Culture Minister, Jacques Lang, bestowed him the honorific title of “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres”.  Danilo Kiš had accepted an invitation from New York University and was provided with faculty housing a couple of blocks from Washington Square.  After landing in NY, Kiš jested he and Pascale were still nursing a hangover following a wild nightlong fête celebrating his investiture ceremony in Paris. From the moment of his arrival, Danilo did not feel well. It was not just a nagging cough which bothered him: he could not shake a low grade temperature. He was bedridden for days, exhausted, with a small wet towel over his forehead.  He hesitated to seek medical attention because he had not disclosed when securing his American visa, the fact that earlier that year he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He feared the consequences of his concealment, but  as  his condition was not improving, we finally convinced him to seek medical attention.  On Dec. 3, 1986, he underwent en endoscopy at New York Infirmary/Beekman Hospital.  As fate would have it, I found myself sitting next to Kiš, as his interpreter, when his pulmonologist, a native of India, gave him the bad news. While I sat there, speechless, Danilo turned to me and ordered: Translate!  Translate!

Not long after receiving  the devastating diagnosis of lung cancer, Danilo and Pascal returned to Paris. Our drive to the airport on that chilly winter night, with artist Radovan “Lale” Djurić at the wheel of his battered graffitied van, was mostly silent and emotionally crushing. The last phone call registered on Kiš’s NY phone bill  was on Dec. 6, 1986.  After their departure, their correspondence, was forwarded  in care of my name and address.

Monte's Trattoria, NYC

Monte’s Trattoria, New York City


A few days before Pascal’s and Danilos’s return to Paris, we stopped for lunch at Monte’s Trattoria, at 97 MacDougal Street in the heart of the West Village. This cozy Italian family-owned restaurant, in existence since 1918,  was where we began to say our goodbyes. Kiš’s demeanor remained pessimistic and he spoke of suicide. We were not to see each other again until August of 1989, in Belgrade. We had lunch, outdoors, in a floating restaurant on the Sava River. It was to be our last reunion.

“I wish to live in peace with myself and not with the world.” 

Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

Kiš's Gorak Talog Iskustva, published in 1990, a gift from the actor Josif Tatić dedicated to Isabel

Kiš’s Gorak Talog Iskustva, published in 1990, a gift from the actor Josif Tatić dedicated to Isabel

Kiš’s body language was very distinctive.   Sitting, Danilo coiled,  like a fine wire, into a letter C. He curled his long thin frame into a ball, legs crossed,  smoking a Gauloise,  as he spoke, slowly and deliberately. Another typical mannerism was clearing with his free left hand, the hair off his face, pushing it back, again and again.

Occasionally, despite a busy schedule in New York, going between here and there, or taking a coffee break along the way, our conversations veered toward the personal. I confided in him and was rewarded with sound advice. Kiš was an attentive listener, curious about my multicultural experiences and background. We spoke in Serbian; it never ceased to amaze him I spoke it without an accent.


This is how I remember Kiš at the end of 1986 – when he and Pascale lived at 3 Washington Square, Apt. 10J,  in the vicinity of New York University. At the time, his close friend, the poet Milan Milisić,  tragically killed when a shell struck his home in Dubrovnik in 1991, was a visiting lecturer at NYU.  He and artist Jelena Trpković had been living at the Washington Mews faculty housing when I visited them along with Danilo and Pascale. The Mews, a historic, private, gated street in the West Village,  evokes many memories, as well as the desire to relive, time and again, the anticipation of Kiš’s landing in New York City…yet one more time.


by Isabel Bau Madden

 [*] From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1994, Vol. 14.1

[**] I don’t remember whether Danilo Kiš was in Belgrade during Joseph Brodsky’s visit in October 1988.

To read Part One, please click HERE






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