Kornel Makuszyński was a prose writer, poet, feuilletonist, theatre critic and journalist. He was a member of the Polish Academy of Literature and one of the most popular pre-World War II writers. He authored children’s books about Matołek the Billy-Goat and the little monkey Fiki-Miki, as well as the juvenile books Satan from the 7th Grade and Follies of Miss Eva.
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Kornel Makuszyński was born on the 8th of January 1884 in Stryj and died on the 31st of July 1953 in Zakopane.
An important role was played in Makuszyński’s artistic output by the stories in verse form meant for the youngest children, which may be considered precursors of comic-books. A four-verse stanza composed of octosyllables was printed below each of the 120 drawings that appeared in subsequent fascicles.
Such a form was given to Merry Zoo / Wesoły zwierzyniec, a work illustrated by Kazimierz Grus. In 1933, Makuszyński published the book The Adventures of Matołek the Billy-Goat / Przygody Koziołka Matołka, which was illustrated by Marian Walentynowicz. It became Makuszyński’s most popular work.
The stories centre on Koziołek Matołek’s (literally translated as Duffer the Billy-Goat) journey to find Pacanów (a real town in Poland), where he believes he can get goat shoes. He ends up travelling to various corners of the Earth, from Africa to the Wild West. Matołek is a clumsy, naive, and loveable character. The story also bore patriotic undertones – such as the main protagonist’s appearance (red and white, reminiscent of the Polish flag), and his perpetual longing for his homeland.
Even though the critics reacted rather negatively and mocked the doggerel rhymes, the colourful books were much sought after. They were a sensation, as Disney films were to be a while later. After publishing four books about the adventures of Matołek the Billy-Goat, Makuszyński and Walentynowicz created a pair of new heroes.
The similarly illustrated The Rows and Pranks of the Little Monkey Fiki-Miki / Awantury i wybryki małej małpki Fiki-Miki appeared in 1936. The monkey, together with a friend, Goga Goga, experienced adventures that were much more exciting, if only for the reason that these adventures took place in a mysterious and exotic setting, which tempted with usually inaccessible mysteries. History repeated itself as the drawings with the strongly saturated colours commented on by simple rhymes causing the critics to grumble and children to marvel.
In 1938 the same authors decided to present the mythical history of the Polish nation in a two-part series entitled Kraków Legends / Legendy Krakowskie, which consisted of About the Wawel Dragon / O wawelskim smoku and Wanda Is in Our Land / Wanda leży w naszej ziemi. The critiques eased up, but so did children’s interest. The serving of patriotic, nationalist content in such a new form didn’t really work out.
A similar work, Poland Grows under King Piast / Za króla Piasta Polska wyrasta, was written by Makuszyński in 1939. It was published as late as 1985 with illustrations by Andrzej Darowski. Without risk of error, one might assume that to most Polish readers Makuszyński is above all the author of The Adventures of Matołek the Billy-Goat.
Makuszyński began to write poems as a fourteen year old. At first he showed them to Leopold Staff. Two years later the Lviv newspaper “Słowo Polskie” was the first to publish his works.
When Makuszyński came to collect his fee, Jan Kasprowicz (the chief editor) couldn’t believe that the author of the published works was a youngster in a worn-out school uniform. In 1904 Makuszyńśki became a theatre reviewer for “Słowo Polskie”.
At the Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv, he studied Polish studies and Romance studies. In the years 1908-1910, he furthered his education in the field of Romance philology at the Paris Sorbonne University.
Makuszyński traveled across Europe in the company of Kasprowicz, Staff and Władysław Orkan. The author of The Adventures of Matołek the Billy-Goat visited Russia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and England.
In 1913 he married Emilia Bażeńska, a Lviv muse who was well-known among the artistic bohemia and adored by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński and Staff. In the years 1913-1914 Makuszyński lived in Burbiszki. Makuszyński was fascinated with Zakopane architecture, and, in a manor park in Burbiszki, set up a house brought from the Tatra mountains. World War I caught up with him there He was arrested as an Austrian citizen hostile to Russia and was detained together with his wife.
The Makuszyńskis found themselves in Kostroma in September 1914 , but thanks to the efforts of their families and friends the couple was released from detention and allowed to move to Kijów. There, the writer became the chairman of the Association of Polish Writers and Journalists and the literary director of the Polish Theatre.
After World War I ended, the Makuszyńskis moved to Warsaw, where Kornel began a steady collaboration with such periodicals as “Rzeczpospolita” and “Warszawianka”. Later, the writer also regularly collaborated with the newspapers “Illustrowany Kurier Codzienny” and “Kurier Warszawski”.
Emilia died of tuberculosis in 1926. She was buried at the Warsaw Powązki cemetery next to the grave of her friend Władysław Stanisław Reymont. After his wife died, Kornel Makuszyński ceased going to Lithuania.
From 1923, Makuszyński wrote for periodicals from the Tatra mountains area: “Gazeta Zakopiańska”, “Głos Zakopiański”, the Podhale region edition of “ABC” (1927). He was also published in such periodicals as “Zakopane” (1929, 1931, 1938), “Zakopane i Tatry” (1931, 1932) and “Młody Taternik” (1933, 1934).
On the 30th of August 1927 Makuszyński married once again, this time to the singer Janina Gluzińska, who was the daughter of a professor of medicine of Lviv University named Antoni Gluziński. The writer’s new parents –in-law owned a villa in Sienkiewicza Street in Zakopane called Ustronie, which became Makuszyński’s new sanctuary. This house is where the action of the novel The Girl with the Wet Head / Panna z mokrą głową takes place.
In 1929 the writer became an honorary citizen of Zakopane. This goes to show that the inhabitants of the Podhale region had a sense of humour – they didn’t make too much of the good-natured sarcasm which the author included in his series Letters from Zakopane / Listy z Zakopanego that had been published since 1921 chiefly in “Rzeczpospolita”. According to Makuszyński Zakopane is a: “Village on a huge road from Trzaska to Karpowicz” – in the interwar period Trzaska and Karpowicz were well-known Zakopane restaurateurs. The writer also stated the following: “The charm of staying in Zakopane consists of this: you always walk upwards there. Not a lot of cities in the world have such a characteristic advantage”. Makuszyński also noticed that: “On the left there is Mount Giewont, on the right there is Mount Gubałówka, and in the middle there is rain…”
On Makuszyński's initiative, a sanatorium for juveniles was created on the slopes of Gubałówka. The writer also raised funds for skiing gear for the poorest highlander children. Eventually a thousand pairs of skis were bought. In 1930, the first contest for the Kornel Makuszyński Cup was held. The contest featured the participation of such prospective champions as Bronisław Czech and Stanisław Marusarz.
During the siege of Warsaw in 1939, a German bomb hit the tenement house in which the Makuszyńskis’ apartment was located. The writer miraculously survived but he lost his entire art collection and all his manuscripts, including the text of the book Satan’s Second Holidays / Drugie wakacje szatana, the publication of which was planned for December 1939.
The writer lived through the German occupation in Warsaw. He collaborated with the insurgent press. After the capitulation of the Warsaw uprising, he went through the camp in Pruszków. Afterwards he journeyed to Kraków. In November 1944, he settled down in Zakopane.
Makuszyński was above all known to be a cordial, humorous man with a good natured approach to the world and its people. Antoni Słonimski wrote about him:
It was impossible not to like Kornel or to start a conflict with him. He was infinitely cheerful and compliant. To him everyone was the “only beloved loony”. His pen, like Midas’ hand, changed everything into gold. Although not into the purest kind. God was “a golden beloved loony, who created this entire, crazy, golden world”.
As a gymnasium student the priest Jan Twardowski wanted to meet Makuszyński.
My favourite writer lived in 14 Aleja Róż Avenue. A maid opened the door, let me in and said: ‘I’ll tell the sir that you have come’. After a while she brought me a letter from Makuszyński. I read it and I was very surprised. ‘Dear boy, I’m in such a mood that I would like to hang myself’. Despite everything, he didn’t always feel like a good-natured joker.
After 1945, Kornel Makuszyński was banned from publishing and suffered harassment. He linked this state of things to the fact that he was admitted to the Polish Academy of Literature in 1937. The rejected Makuszyński managed to publish only one book in the new reality – Letter from That World / List z tamtego świata (1946). This book was issued thanks to a publishing house that remained privately owned.
In Zakopane the impoverished and forgotten Makuszyński lived in a cramped apartment. His wife earned money giving music lessons. Meanwhile for him, a man of success, one of the most cheerful and optimistic writers of the twenty-year interwar period, suddenly there was no room. The decision makers of those times decided to protect young readers from the cheerful optimism that emanates from Makuszyński’s books.
Kornel Makuszyński died on the 31st of July 1953. He was buried at the Cemetery for Persons of Merit at Pęksowy Brzyzek in Zakopane.
Kornel Makuszyński’s output still awaits to be seriously and justly summarized. The prolific and extremely popular writer wasn’t much appreciated by the press. The message of his books, in which “cheap” optimism and the author’s naive belief that the goodness of human nature always prevails, was negated.
Other writers also treated him condescendingly. Słonimski for instance mocked Makuszyński’s “always cheerful mood”. Few people talk about Makuszyński’s output without spitefully referring to his polite style, which rejects discontent and merges humour with lyricism and narrative zest.
Makuszyński was reproached for even turning irony into jokes. Meanwhile “good natured irony” – as noticed by Bohdan Dziemidok, an expert on the subject – or praise expressed in the form of a reprimand, is completely justifiable.
Actually irony isn’t spiteful by nature. It sometimes may have a humorous, good willed character. Such good willed irony is typical for the humour of Makuszczyński or Zoszczenko (Bohdan Dziemidok, About Comedy / O komizmie, Warsaw 1967).
The writer was entitled to consider himself a fulfilled man and creator. However, everything he achieved, he achieved before the war. Later, he was condemned to silence.
In 1926 Kornel Makuszyński received a state literary award for the poem Song About the Homeland / Pieśń o Ojczyźnie. The same year he received a Golden Academic Laurel and became a member of the Polish Academy of Literature. He was honoured with the Officer’s Cross (1925) and the Commander’s Cross (1938) of the Order of Polonia Restituta. He was also honoured with the National Order of the Legion of Honour (1926), the Order of the Crown of Romania (1924) and the Order of the Crown of Italy (1930).
A museum devoted to the writer is located in his former apartment in the Zakopane villa “Opolanka”. Kornel Makuszyński is the patron of many schools. The Kornel Makuszyński Literary Award has been given since 1994.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, July 2013.
Translated (with edits) by: Marek Kępa.