Published originally in 1946, this classic Polish children’s book follows the story of 12-year-old Adam Notagree, who, along with 24 other pupils whose names also start with the letter A, enrols in the eponymous boarding school run by the eccentric Professor Ambrose Inkblot. Here, assisted by the learned starling Matthew, the Professor instructs his students into a make-believe world of magic and fairy tales, teaching classes that include inkblotography, threading letters and healing broken furniture. But this idyllic world is bound for a head-on crash with reality as Professor Inkblot must face his arch-nemesis, a barber by the name of Phillip.
The Academy, which was eventually followed by two sequels of further adventures, was written during World War II by a Jewish author (Jan Brzechwa being a pen-name of Jan Lesman). The book has been seen as “a form of escape from reality” for its author, but also an arcane roman-a-clef (about war and the nature of evil), as well as a postmodern metafictional novel. More recently – and rather retroactively – it has been linked to the Harry Potter series, with which it shares some obvious similarities.
In the following excerpt from the book’s first English translation, we are shown around the premises of the Academy, learn about its specific rules and visit the neighbouring fairy tales, which all happen to stretch just outside the Academy garden’s wall.
My name is Adam Notagree, I am twelve years old and I’ve been at Professor Inkblot’s Academy now for about six months. When I lived at home, nothing ever went right. I was always late for school, never managed to finish my homework on time, not with my two left hands. I dropped everything I picked up, smashing it all on the floor, while glasses and saucers cracked and fell to pieces at the very sight of me, even before I managed to touch them.
I hated groats soup and carrots, which is exactly what I got to eat each day, because they’re filling and nutritious.
When, to top it all, I spilled ink onto a pair of trousers, a tablecloth and Mum’s new suit, my parents decided to send me to study and learn good manners with Professor Inkblot.
His Academy is located right at the end of Chocolate Street, in a large, three-storey mansion built of multicoloured bricks. The top floor is reserved for Professor Inkblot’s own secrets – no one is ever allowed up there, and even if someone did think of trying to sneak in, they wouldn’t have any way to do so, because the stairs only lead up to the second floor and Professor Inkblot gets up to his secret level through the chimney stack.
All the classrooms are to be found on the ground floor; on the first are the student bedrooms and the dining hall, while Professor Inkblot himself shares a single room on the second floor with Matthew, all the other rooms on that floor being locked shut.
Professor Inkblot’s Academy only accepts boys whose names begin with the letter A, because – as he explains – he has no intention of cluttering his head with all the letters of the alphabet. That is why the Academy is home to four Adams, five Alexanders, three Andrews, three Alfreds, six Anthonys, one Arthur, one Albert and one Anastasius, making a total of twenty-four students. Professor Inkblot himself is called Ambrose, and so the only person in the whole Academy whose name doesn’t begin with the letter A is Matthew. Although Matthew is not really a student. Nor is he a person. He is a learned starling who belongs to Professor Inkblot. Matthew can speak fluently, but he can only pronounce the ends of words, not paying any attention to their beginnings. So when he picks up the phone, he will usually answer:
“lo, is s r lot’s emy.”
Which actually means:
“Hello, this is Professor Inkblot’s Academy.”
Those who don’t know him cannot understand a word he says, though Professor Inkblot and all of his students have learnt how to understand him perfectly well.
Matthew helps us with our homework, often substituting for Professor Inkblot during lessons, when the head of our Academy is out catching butterflies for our brunch.
Oh, yes! I almost forgot to tell you that our Academy is surrounded by a huge park, full of all sorts of pits, ravines and small valleys, all of it surrounded by a tall wall. No one is allowed to step beyond that wall without Professor Inkblot in attendance, because it is a wall which is like no other. On the side which runs along the street it is completely smooth, with only one opening – the glass gate which is our main entrance.
Meanwhile, in three other sections of the wall there are long rows of iron gates, secured with small, silver padlocks. All those gates lead to many neighbouring fairytales and fables – our Professor Inkblot is very good friends with them all. Every gate has a sign on it, telling us which fairytale it leads to. There are gates which take us to all of the stories written by Mr Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, another which leads to the fable of the Nutcracker, and another about the fisherman and the fisherwoman, about the wolf who dressed up as a beggar, about Mary the Orphan and her gnomes, about Wacky Ducky and many, many other fables. No one actually knows how many gates there are, because anyone who tries to tot them up always eventually makes a mistake and loses count. Gate 12 is suddenly gate 28, and where nine should be we have 31 or six. Even Matthew doesn’t know how many fables there are, and when asked answers:
“Aybe dred, aybe dred...”, which everyone knows means either one or maybe two hundred.
Prof Inkblot keeps the keys to all the gates in a large, silver chest and always knows which key goes into which padlock. He often sends his students out to visit various fairytales in order to run errands. He often chooses me to do so, because I have bright red hair and so I stand out from the crowd.
Then this one day, when Professor Inkblot ran out of matches, he called me over, handed me a golden key on a golden ring and said:
“My dear Adam, you’ll pop over to Mr Andersen’s fable, the one about the Little Match Girl, and ask her for a box of matches.”
Delighted, I ran over to the park and, not really knowing at all how, managed to instantly find the right gate. A moment later, I was on the other side.
I then saw a street in a strange town, crowded with people. It was snowing, even though on our side of the wall it was summer. Everyone walking past shook with the cold, something I couldn’t actually feel – not one of the snowflakes falling from the sky landed on my head.
As I was standing there, surprised, an elderly, grey-haired gentleman approached, patted me on the head and said, smiling:
“Do you not recognise me? My name is Andersen. You are surprised to see that snow is falling, winter all around us, but back where you come from it is June and the cherry trees are just starting to ripen. Correct? Young man, you do have to understand that you come from a totally separate fairytale. Why did you pay us this visit?”
“I came here, dear sir, to get some matches. Professor Inkblot sent me.”
“Ah, you’re the one Prof Inkblot sent!” cried Mr Andersen with joy. “I like that odd fellow. Soon, you will receive your box of matches.”
Saying that, Mr Andersen clapped his hands and, a moment later, a small, shivering girl appeared from around the street corner, carrying boxes of matches. Mr Andersen took one box from her and handed it to me, saying:
“There you go, take this to Professor Inkblot. And stop crying. Don’t feel sorry for this girl. She looks poor and frozen, but it only seems so. This is a fairytale, after all. Everything you see here is invented and unreal.”
The girl smiled at me, waved to say goodbye, and Mr Andersen walked me back to my gate.
When I told the other boys back at the Academy about my adventure, they were all very envious that I had met Mr Andersen.
In time, I would go to visit various fables and fairytales on a range of errands: one time, I had to bring back a pair of boots from the fable about the Puss in Boots, and another time mice appeared in Professor Inkblot’s secrets and I had to get Puss himself, or else when there was nothing to sweep the courtyard with, I had to go borrow a broom from a certain Baba Yaga from the fairytale about Bald Mountain.
Then, one beautiful day, a strange fellow appeared at our gates, wearing a long, velvet coat, a pair of short velvet trousers, a hat topped with a feather, and insisted on being taken to see Professor Inkblot.
We were all incredibly curious as to what the man had come for. Professor Inkblot talked in a whisper for many hours, serving him the same hair growth pills he himself liked snacking on, and then – pointing at me and one of the Andrews – said:
“Listen, boys, this here gentleman has come to us from the story of the Sleeping Princess and Seven Brothers. Two of the brothers went into the forest yesterday and have not returned. So you surely understand that the story about the Sleeping Princess and Seven Brothers has lost its ending. This is why I am assigning you to this fellow for a couple of hours. Just remember – you have to be back in time for supper.”
“upper ved fore ix,” Matthew called out, which let us know supper served before six.
Andrew and I followed the chap wearing those exotic velvet garments. Along the way, we learnt that he was one of the Sleeping Princess’ brothers, and we too would have to dress up in similar velvet outfits. We agreed readily, because we were both very curious to see what the Princess was like.
I will not here go into detail about what happened next in her fairytale, because everybody has heard it all before. I do however have to say that, after she had awoken from her sleep, the Princess asked Andrew and I to tea.
Not everybody knows what princesses have for tea – especially not those princesses who appear in fairytales. Her servants brought in trays piled high with cream cakes, along with bowls full of just fresh cream by itself. We both received as many cakes as we asked for, along with three whole glasses of cocoa, solid bits of chocolate floating in each glass. There were tables loaded with silver trays, full of animals and dolls made out of marzipan, as well as jellies, candies and sugared fruits. And then there were crystal plates and vases filled with grapes, peaches, tangerines, strawberries and many other fruits, as well as various flavours of ice cream in pots made of chocolate. The Princess smiled at us and encouraged us to eat as much as we could, because no amount of eating could do us any harm. Everyone knows, of course, that in fairytales no one ever gets sick from overindulging, something which is never true in real life.
I put a few of the chocolate cups with ice cream in my pockets, to take back to give to the other boys at the Academy, but the ice cream melted and dripped all down my legs. Good thing no one noticed.
After tea, the Princess gave the order for a couple of ponies to be hitched to a small carriage and rode along with us all the way back to the walls of Professor Inkblot’s Academy.
“Please, give my regards to the Professor,” she said in parting. “And do ask him to come round to have some butterflies dipped in chocolate.”
After a moment, she added:
“I have heard so much about Professor Inkblot’s fables. I simply have to remember to pay them a visit some day.”
This was how I learned that Professor Inkblot also had his own fables, but I only got to actually hear them much, much later.
In any way, from that day on I respected our headmaster even more than before, and decided to become close friends with Matthew, in order to learn from him as much as I could.
Matthew is not keen on talking, and there come the days when he refuses to talk to anyone at all.
Professor Inkblot has a special cure for his stubbornness, and that cure is – freckles.
I don’t remember if I have already mentioned that Professor Inkblot’s face is completely covered with freckles. At first, I was most surprised by the fact that every day those freckles would change their position: one day, they would sit upon Professor Inkblot’s nose, the next they would move to his forehead, to then on the third day appear on his chin or his neck.
It turned out this was caused by Professor Inkblot’s absentmindedness – every night, his custom was to take off his freckles and hide them in a golden snuffbox, and then reapply them in the morning, but always in a different part of the face. Professor Inkblot is never apart from his snuffbox, which contains many replacement freckles of numerous sizes and shades.
Every Thursday, a certain barber comes over from our town, by the name of Phillip, and he brings Professor Inkblot new freckles, which he removes from his customers’ faces while shaving them with a razor blade. Professor Inkblot studies each freckle with great care and attention, trying them on in front of a mirror, and then hides them carefully in his snuffbox.
On Sundays and school holidays Professor Inkblot always says, at 11.00am sharp:
“Now, it’s time to apply some freckles.”
Saying that, he takes four or five of the biggest and the most impressive freckles from his golden snuffbox and places them on his nose. According to Professor Inkblot, there is nothing prettier than large, red or yellow freckles.
“Freckles are very good for the brain and protect us from catching colds,” he would often say to us.
And this is why, if one of the students studies particularly hard during a lesson, Professor Inkblot will make a show of taking out a fresh, as-yet unused freckle from his snuffbox and attach it to the nose of the lucky lad, saying:
“Wear it with pride, my boy, and never take it off, because this is the highest award you can ever achieve in my Academy.”
One of the Alexanders has already earned three large freckles, and some others have either two or one, and they wear the freckles with great pride. I envy them, and don’t know what I would give to receive such a reward from Professor Inkblot, but he tells me that I still don’t have enough skills.
And so, coming back to the topic of Matthew, I have to say that he loves Professor Inkblot’s freckles, and considers them to be the greatest delicacy. Any time Matthew decides to be completely silent, Professor Inkblot takes the most used up freckle from his face and hands it to Matthew as a snack. The effect is immediate: Matthew starts talking and answering all questions. This is the way Professor Inkblot handles his starling!
One day, about half way through June, Professor Inkblot fell asleep in our park and completely failed to notice he was being stung by mosquitoes. He began scratching his nose with such fervour, all his freckles came away. I quietly gathered them up and took them to Matthew. Since that moment on, he has truly befriended me and told me the incredible story of his life.
I repeat it here in full – the only thing I changed, of course, is to add all the missing beginnings to all the words Matthew used to tell his tale.
This is a chapter from the book “Professor Inkblot’s Academy” (2020) by Jan Brzechwa, published as an e-book in English by Off Press, translated from the Polish by Marek Kazmierski.
You can read our interview with Marek Kazmierski here.
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