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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