Ten Centuries of Polish Literature

Translated by Daniel Sax.

This is a collection of essays covering ten centuries of Polish Literature which looks at literary movements, writers and the historical context that they inhabit. It was well worth reading – I would now like to read some of the older writers mentioned, particularly Mikołaj Rej. It seems there are a few anthologies available.

Things don’t get really interesting, in my opinion, until Romanticism. I didn’t realise how Romanticism as a literary movement was so closely tied to the Polish uprisings against the partitioning powers. After 1864 the society seems to have split into two camps the traditionalists and the progressives. Literature also fractured along these lines as well. What I also found intriguing was that because of this Poland didn’t have the usual strong left vs right paradigm that we see in most of Europe. This is still seen today in that one side has conservative values while also advocating socialist-type government control and the other ‘liberal’ side while being more tolerant advocates free-market ideology. So the established political norms don’t work for Poland and this is true in literature as well. Many of the nineteenth and twentieth century writers seem indefinable. Grombrowicz for example seems to be many different things: a conservative of noble lineage but also an atheist and troublemaker kicking against mediocrity. As for Witkacy, he was a renaissance man who created independent of any movement that has been retrospectively defined in any canon. The same applies to Schultz. The collection describes Witkacy’s philosophy below:

“The aim of art was to assuage man’s intellectual anxiety; it should arouse ‘metaphysical feelings’ and clarify the Secret of Existence. Art, therefore, had a particularly important role to play, as an instrument of cognition enabling one to draw nearer to this Secret, by cracking the shells of false appearances, shattering the conventional order, and reaching the authenticity inherent in situations and in mankind. The shattering of forms was supposed to lead to the emergence of a new Pure Form, stimulating the mind and imagination, suggesting new, unexpected meanings. Of key significance here was the development of tension between a work of art and mankind. On the one hand, by thwarting old habits, by seemingly introducing chaos and chance, by shocking, provoking, and undermining patent truths, art attacks its addressees, forces them to revise their beliefs, and offers an opportunity to experience ‘metaphysical feelings’. On the other hand, by shattering the established order, art should reveal what lies hidden behind external form: the truth. The absoluteness of these two actions require that brutal measures be employed: the language of irony, parody, the absurd and the grotesque – generating a style that offers the possibility of maximally strong expression.”

This trinity (Gomrowicz, Witkacy – or Witkiewicz, and Schultz) are the modern writers you hear most of in the west, but there are many others, though admittedly it will take a while to track down translations of their work. I really must read ‘the Doll’ by Prus and anything by Irzykowski, Berent, Komornicka and Orzeszkowa.

I can’t say this was an ‘enthralling’ read, but it really interested me especially in the latter stages. I can tell that I will refer to this collection of essays in the coming years as one writer leads to another and so on. On a current note – Pilch and Stasiuk both have new translated novels out. These two seem to be keeping Polish literature alive whereas I am not sure who is keeping English literature alive. Maybe a Scotsman – James Kelman?

Soundtrack: Czesław Niemen – Strange is this world.

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The History of Pugachev

By Alexander Pushkin.

I thought that this could be quite a dry work of history, however Pushkin’s narrative was entertaining and there were some good Pushkinesque asides.

Revolution is what happens when those who govern fail to listen to the mass of people. In Russia there was a great deal of poverty then as now and what Pugachev seems to have offered was some hope for a better life. There wasn’t any grand military plan either from Pugachev or the Yaik cossacks but their battle experience, when matched against commanders who were made up of the minor gentry, was telling. Pugachev won a great many battles and Catherine the Great was greatly concerned for a time.

Did Pushkin have an object in writing this history? Possibly – or it could be that he simply saw Pugachev as an attractive romantic figure. The title of the work eventually had to be changed to ‘The History of the Pugachev Rebellion’ as Tsar Nicholas didn’t think a revolutionary could have a history.

In context, many of Pushkin’s friends had been exiled and executed after the Decembrist revolt of 1825. The question must be asked – would the Decembrists have succeeded if they had not been merely dissatisfied gentry, but had canvassed popular support? If the Decembrists had been led by a Pugachev the outcome may have been very different.

Once again, Pushkin proves himself to be a literary genius. Not content with writing Poetry, Novellas, Novels, Drama, Prose in Verse and codifying the Russian literary language by encompassing spoken dialects – he was a historian as well. We know he was working on a history of Peter the Great, unfortunately his death in a duel meant this was never written. Still, at least he had an additional ten years of writing more than Lermontov. Both of their oeuvres were cut short and we can only speculate as to what may have been. Maybe there is room for a novel to imagine a future world where Lermontov and Pushkin survived their respective duels.

Soundtrack: The Able Tasmans – Sour Queen.

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Torrents of Spring and Mumu

By Ivan Turgenev.

I have read this before but I really can’t remember when. It is interesting that Hemingway has a book of the same name – perhaps as homage to Turgenev. Turgenev’s novella is very affecting and a book that once you start, must be finished. Turgenev really is a master at analysing relationships and creating emotion in the reader. This is one of the most perfect novellas or short pieces I have read for a while.

Mumu is an interesting story as well, it is much shorter but no less profound and filled with melancholy. It tells of the trials of the peasant Gerasim serving a gentrified household. Ultimately, his return to the countryside is shown to be a more satisfactory life, despite the hardships, than the false atmosphere and people of the house.

Turgenev is interested in people and their relationships and love – the personal over the public. Reading these after War and Peace makes these themes of Turgenevs seem more pronounced. War and Peace had a grant scheme or context while Turgenev’s novella shows a microcosm of life which affects the participants profoundly and changes the course of their existence – no less important than the grand battle at Borodino for those involved. Turgenev seems to have received a lot of criticism for his inward focus but his writing had real strength in this area and if you add a dash of politics (which Torrents of Spring doesn’t have) you can see why his novels are still read today.

Torrents of Spring is really worth reading, the characters are quite exceptional and it was was a nice change following War and Peace.

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War and Peace (original version)

By Leo Tolstoy.

Having read so much Russian literature I finally decided it was time to read War and Peace despite misgivings about the size and the importance of the novel. I found that there isn’t just one authoritative text – there was the original serialised version which was first published in 1865 based on Tolstoy’s first drafts of 1863. However, Tolstoy wasn’t happy with this version and decided to make it broader in scope – so he did additional research and a number of versions appeared over the coming years and these were much larger with a different ending. What causes difficulty in determining an authoritative version is that Tolstoy lost interest in the novel and so his wife Sophia kept adding and editing over the years with many more different renderings.

I decided to read the original version which some commentators have described as less war and more peace. There is something special about a first draft – it can be seen as a snapshot of something a bit more raw before things get too considered.

It was good to read this impression first. The novel really was great – I read it quickly – in nine days, the translation was smooth and it felt cohesive. The text did seem quite a ‘light’ read at times – it didn’t require too much discipline as the story carried me along and I just kept on reading. There were some excellent characters and the narrator’s occasional intrusions were very welcome to break up the plot. The writing was masterful and controlled – Tolstoy really knew what he was doing. Most of all I like the fact that the characters change and develop as the novel progresses – you can see personalities react in response to the events of the novel. As a result, I have found myself thinking about the various characters and relationships since finishing. There was also much left unsaid in this version in both the backstory and future events. I suspect Tolstoy, in broadening his scope in the later versions, may have left less to the imagination – in the same way that George Lucas did in editing his own ‘epic’ creation – which is a pity.

The main idea that interested me was Tolstoy’s argument that history is created by movements of people. Only afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight, do historians reevaluate and then paint in broad brushstrokes the individuals that supposedly shape history. Why do they do this? Maybe it is a basic human desire to prove that geniuses exist that can alter the path of history and/or mankind, and the knowledge of these higher beings gives some comfort. The wise are those that are aware of the irrational flow of events and move with it as shown by the actions of the commander Bagration early on in the novel.

As I really did enjoy the novel I find myself curious about the longer more epic version and I think I will have to read it. It is quite ridiculous really – because I read the original version of one of the longest novels ever written, I now have to read an even longer version. Maybe in March next year I will become a mad March hare and read about more war and less peace.

Soundtrack: Belle & Sebastian – I Fought in a War.

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