Jerzy Pilch,  photo: Wojciech Druszcz/Reporter/East News
Jerzy Pilch,  photo: Wojciech Druszcz/Reporter/East NewsCaption

One of the best-known Polish novelists and columnists. He was born on the 10th of August 1952 in Wisła.

In the years 1989-1999 he was a member of the editorial office of the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. Later he collaborated with such periodicals as Dziennik and Polityka. In 2001 he received the NIKE literary prize for the book The Mighty Angel. Currently he writes for the weekly Przekrój.

Jerzy Pilch studied Polish philology at the Jagiellonian Univeristy in Cracow. After graduating he pursued an academic career for a period of ten years (1975-1985). At the same time he consistently realized his passion for writing. In the late seventies he contributed to the periodical "Student". Later he became well-known in the underground literary circles of Cracow for his feuilletons created for the spoken gazette "Na głos". The magazine had no printed edition and the authors read their articles out loud at regular meetings. In 1988 his literary debut, the novel Confessions of an Author of Illicit Erotic Literature, was published. This idiosyncratic portrayal of the Cracow artistic scene of the eighties won him the prestigious Kościelski Award a year later. In 1989 he was also offered a job at the liberal Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. He quickly became one of the most celebrated authors of the newspaper, as his satirical essays were very popular with the readers.

His second novel entitled List of Adulteresses. Travel Prose was put out in 1993. The protagonist Gustaw, an unfulfilled writer and admirer of female beauty, takes a Swedish intellectual on a tour of Cracow. He tries to explain the national myths and absurdities of communism to his companion, but spends equally as much time reminiscing about his affairs with women. The book is written in a refined style and the easiness of the plot and seeming triviality of events capture the readers’ attention in an unimposing manner. Jan Błoński wrote in a review: "reality is created by words coming as if from Schulz, an aura of parody known from Gombrowicz’s works is present and the sarcastic humour brings to mind Mrożek’s writing". A film based on the story was made in 1995. The famous Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr directed it and played the main part.

In 1994 a collection of Pilch’s best essays from Tygodnik Powszechny was issued under the title Despair at the Loss of a Horse Cart. It was the first of three such publications. Theses on Stupidity, Drinking and Dying appeared in 1997 and The Irreversible Loss of Left-Handedness was printed in 1998. The style of Pilch’s feuilletons is defined by the mixing of genres. His texts have journalistic qualities as well as literary ones. Apart from being satirically humourous, which is the author’s trademark, they are often also based on his personal experiences. His prose-writing may also be considered autobiographical to a certain extent.

His Current Woman was the first book by Pilch to be published in English (2002) as well as in Polish (1995). In this story we witness the problems a married veterinarian has with his intrusive mistress. He eventually installs his lover in the attic of his family’s slaughterhouse. Many a comic situation arises as the main character attempts to conceal the woman’s presence from his relatives and casual visitors. A gallery of eccentric types follows. The book was warmly received in Poland and abroad. The New York Times wrote:

Wildly entertaining.... His Current Woman is a laugh-out-loud cautionary tale on the discomforts of marriage and the more painful consequences of pleasure.

In 1999 Pilch left his job at Tygodnik Powszechny and moved to Warsaw. There he took up a steady involvement with the weekly "Polityka", where he acted as a columnist. About that time he commenced work on, what was to become his most successful novel, The Mighty Angel. In the book the author describes the alcohol addiction of a writer named Jerzy. He is a frequenter of rehabilitation centres and a hopeless case. Every time he is released from treatment he stops at the closest shop to buy a bottle. Therefore he tries to build an ideology, which would justify his condition. He indulges in the stories told by other drunkards and on their basis he tries to formulate the universal tale of alcoholism. The Mighty Angel is written in a style that is spontaneous and unbridled. The author eagerly employs wordplay. The story itself is tragic and comic at the same time and is more than capable of touching the readers. The novel was published in 2000 and won the NIKE literary prize a year later. Professor Maria Janion, who was a member of the jury, which granted Pilch the award, said: "His novel is part of the national craze for spirits, it’s part of the Polish drinking literature. The author masterly plays with the tradition of drinking novels". Considered Poland’s most famous story of alcoholism, it is compared to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki. It was translated into English by Bill Johnston and adapted for the screen by Wojciech Smarzowski under the title Angel

Jerzy Pilch undertook the challenge of dissecting national myths in the theatrical play entitled The Holy Father’s Skis (2004). The action is set in a small town located in the mountains, which John Paul II used to visit for skiing. A rumor spreads among the locals that the Pope might return to the settlement in order to retire from his duties. Commotion arises as the inhabitants try to assess the consequences of such a turn of events. A sly con man arrives, who tries to sell skis, which allegedly belonged to the Holy Father. The play is an ironic analysis of the Polish cult of John Paul II. To the characters, the Pope is more of a media personage than a spiritual leader.

I’m not saying that I’m addressing the topic of the Pope out of some artistic-civil sense of duty, although the absence of this subject in contemporary art, especially in high art is astonishing. I’m not under the slightest illusion that I’m filling this gap in, furthermore, I don’t want to fill it in. I’m not asking about the Pope. I’m asking about people. I’m not asking: what’s happening with the Pope? I’m asking: what’s happening with people? What goes on, when they start to think, less seriously, seriously or dead seriously, about the Pope, about his presence in their lives? – wrote the author in the introduction to the play.

Jerzy Pilch is also the author of movie scripts. The Yellow Scarf was filmed in 2000 and was directed by the acclaimed Polish director Janusz Morgenstern. Janusz Gajos played the main part of a wealthy alcoholic struggling against his addiction. The film won the Golden Claqueur award at the 25th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia. Love in an Underground Passage (2006) is a slice of life comedy featuring such stars as Robert Więckiewicz, Małgorzata Socha and Wojciech Malajkat.

Pilch’s books have been translated into several languages including English, Spanish, French, Russian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Lithuanian and Estonian. Pilch’s other books translated into English include Tysiąc spokojnych miast / A Thousand Peaceful Cities from 1997, Inne rozkosze / His Current Woman from 1995, and Moje pierwsze samobójstwo / My First Suicide from 2006.

The American literary magazine Kirkus Review singled out A Thousand Peaceful Cities as The Best Fiction of 2010. Their starred review, written by Van Lanen, says, "If laughter actually is the best medicine, fortunate readers of this wonderful novel will surely enjoy perfect health for the rest of their days. Pilch’s writing, all of it, just jumps off of the page. It’s witty, it’s touching; his sentences have so much life, there’s a real joy in his writing…who doesn’t love a story about a drunken plot to assassinate a communist despot with a bow and arrow?" Pilch, in response, said to the Polish Press Agency that "the language used in my novels is hard to translate, so this is definitely a success." The book was also nominated for a Best Translated Book Award that same year by Three Percent, Three Percent - a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester. 

In 2012 theatre director Jacek Głomb staged an adaptation of Plich's 2008 novel March Polonia, in which a confrontation of 'two Polands' threatends to end in a bloody slaughter. Reality mingles with a nightmarish fantasy of history, mythology, truth, lies, comedy and tragedy. Welcome to Jerzy Pilch's visionary satire on Poles - the nation that seems incapable on agreeing on a common history and common bond. Later that year Kirkus Review selected the English translation of Pilch's My First Suicide for their Best Fiction of 2012 list. 

Selected bibliography

  • Confessions of an Author of Illicit Erotic Literature. Puls, 1988, London.
  • List of Adulteresses. Travel Prose. Puls, 1993, London.
  • His Current Woman. A5, 1995, Poznań.
  • The Irreversible Loss of Left-Handedness. Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1998, Cracow.
  • The Mighty Angel. Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2000, Cracow.
  • The Holy Father’s Skis. Świat Książki, 2004, Warsaw.
  • March, Polonia Świat Książki, 2008, Warsaw.

Selected translations

  • His Current Woman. Northwestern University Press, 2002, Evanston.
  • Zum Starken Engel. Luchterland, 2003, Munich.
  • Ortros placeres. Acantilado, 2005, Barcelona.
  • Sous l'aile d'un ange. Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc, 2003, Montricher.

Author: Marek Kępa, May 2012.