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Marek Hłasko

Marek Hłasko, photo source: INTERFOTO / Forum

Marek Hłasko (1934 -1969) a writer whose private life resembled the life of characters of his works - romantic, tough outsiders, who became symbols of disappointment with realities of the 1950s.

I remember my first visit paid to Sandauer; I went to borrow some money. Sandauer started to read Białoszewski's poems to me, I was sitting, understanding nothing. Finally Sandauer stopped reading.

It is a long-time observation that the brevity of Marek Hłasko's life is no help to his biographers. Indeed, Hłasko's life, with its tragic course and mysterious end at 26, Hauberisserstrasse in Wiesbaden on the night of 14th June 1969, can be divided into a few parallel biographies which bear so little resemblance to one another and are so different and self-contradictory as if they were some multiple choice alternatives.

The ambivalent and often mutually exclusive "eye witness" accounts - by those who spent time and drank with Hłasko - create a tangle which is hardly undone by literary critics, who either remain too involved and partial or, in contrast, make no allowances, challenge the idol, focus on the details, and accuse the Hłasko biographers and acolytes of imperfection and erring.

It makes no difference that the day after Hłasko received the Publishers' Award on 11th January 1958, Artur Sandauer, the pope of angry critics of the October 1956 thaw, praised him for breaking the social-realist conventionalism, for authenticity, the skill of "detached and sober observation - like in the American novel" as well as a characteristic note of lyricism, the "dark, desperate, squandered lyricism which is sometimes evocative of Yesenin" (quite a recommendation for a first step into the clouds...).

In no time will the award conferred by such a respectable and distinguished group of the finest writers be questioned, however. It will turn out that, enraptured by the good looks and youth of the debutant, the elderly gentlemen (Kotarbiński, Słonimski, Iwaszkiewicz, Górski, Wyka, Przyboś...) and even more elderly ladies (Zofia Kossak and Maria Dąbrowska) have succumbed to a collective euphoria and rewarded a … piece of junk, A First Step into the Clouds being a collection of short-stories of uneven value, marred by the stigma of social-realism and too easy, sloppy, waffle narrative. Worse still, Sandauer is accusing Hłasko's following short stories and micro-novels, notably The Eighth Day of the Week and Next Stop - Paradise, of using the same themes and ideas which, on top of that, are not always original and more or less skillfully from Western literary and cinematic hits, such as Arnaud and Clouzot's Salaire de la Peur. This was said while the works in question were appearing in the press (Next Stop - Paradise was printed in the Silesian Panorama under an even more direct title of The Fools Have Faith in the Morning) and enjoying tremendous popularity among the readers.

Sandauer continues his critique by pointing out that Hłasko's story of drivers working for Paged company, supposedly realistic and anti-hypocritical, is ridden with swear words (like in the later films by Pasikowski), shows all women as whores and all men as tough guys; everybody has bad luck and all pains of body and soul are treated with vodka. The story mechanically replaces the official pink-tainted vision with a black one and over-optimism with over-pessimism, elevating obscenity to the status of revelation. This is a story "whose every part brings a case of maiming if not murder, a piss-up if not necking".

Universally praised and endowed with a natural story-telling talent, Hłasko starts to hurry (to laurels in Poland and abroad?) and so bungles and does a botched job. Sometimes, "having left a character dead in one paragraph, he absent-mindedly revives him in another". In other words, the author of Next Stop - Paradise, a story "written with the left leg", imitates and self-imitates and flies down rather than soars using simplistic means, reflexively contrasting a false, dogmatic thesis with an equally fierce, untrue and bleak antithesis - all to the detriment of the story's realism. The piquancy is provided by the fact that the Hłasko discussion is superseded by an explosion of trust and a collective euphoria, that the filmmakers are fighting for his screenplays, signing contracts in advance, before the works have been printed. Things are not good if critics offer nothing but praise, when "he gets the highest distinction at a time when a word of warning is due, and when it is awarded by a group which should by definition be particularly sensitive to the symptoms of demoralization and simplification".

This is how Sandauer ends his essay "O pewnej nagrodzie / On a Certain Award", included in his fundamental work Bez taryfy ulgowej / Making No Allowances (1958). Time would prove him petty-minded and prophetic in equal measures, wisdom and silliness present in him side by side on many former and later occasions. He was personally well predisposed to Hlasko, appreciating his talent, his role in the October 1956 breakthrough, the momentum of his youth and the power of his madness, yet suspecting him of being somewhat raw and cheap, becoming mannerist rather than mature, being "poorly led", spoilt by praise or magnanimously and unwisely left to his own resources ("It would be more prudent not to give him any good advice", recommended Henryk Bereza, Hłasko's friend, confidant and subtle, insightful critic). Perhaps Sandauer intended to "set up" Hłasko the way he earlier did in respect of Białoszewski's poems published in the volume Obroty rzeczy (1956), it being too late to discover a new star or to polish a diamond. The two met a couple of times, acknowledging their differences; those icy-and-grotesque meetings reverberate in Piękni dwudziestoletni /The Beautiful Twenty-Year-Olds (1966). Those who knew Sandauer will appreciate Hłasko's virtuosity in observing human characters as much as his craving for fair judgment. Sandauer's off-putting "What are you aiming for?" is said to have been the leitmotif of their meetings in Iwicka street.

    -"Do you understand?"
    -"No", said I.
    -"Please listen", said he and resumed reading. I was sitting, still understanding nothing.
    -"Do you understand?"
    -"No", said I.
    -"Nothing at all".
    -"Please listen", said Sandauer and again resumed reading ... After a few séances Sandauer concluded I was an idiot and threw me out of his flat. It was at the time when he resolved to crush on the Polish literature, making no allowances. As far as I remember, Adolf Rudnicki was the first one to come under his fire. Sandauer read to me his manuscript, in which he wrote down those sentences from Adolf's prose where he failed to express himself accurately in Polish. I was surprised that a man of such intelligence should be glad to have found such failings. A critic is entitled to despair, but he is not entitled to what they call Schadenfreude.

Hłasko was unable to hide his disappointment and surprise, and this evoked a typical response from the critic of the thaw period.

    -"What are you aiming for", interrupted Sandauer.
    -"I don't know", said I. "But I hope you can explain it to me using this opportunity".
    -So he explained: it was when I received the Publishers' Award; Sandauer was the first to start persecuting me, he was indeed doing it without making any allowances. At that time they would not print me any more; the publishers had rejected my two new books, and all the Marxist critics found me a pervert and a degenerate.

Despite Hłasko being a bit soft on himself here, the scene at Sandauer's place is masterful and, one could say, objective in characterizing both parties and the highly subtle matter of the artist-critic relationship. Sandauer's January 1958 dig in Hłasko's ribs, while tempering the feverish excitement, predicting the end of the epidemic, of the hectic rousing and of the "heroic" phase of the Polish October [1956], was still an admixture to stroking. In spite of that the admirers of the venerated writer received it as a crackdown on him, or worse: as an encouragement for the party press to do away with the masses' favourite, their darling, their idol, which it did a couple of weeks later, when a certain Skiz (Zbigniew Wasilewski) masterminded the burial of the "defector", "lampooner" and "traitor" in the Warsaw party daily "Trybuna", the same one which accepted Hłasko's essay on Dostoyevsky after it had been rejected by his employer, the "pugilant" Po prostu magazine.

In his story The One-Week Prima Donna (Trybuna Ludu, 5 April 1958) Skiz made his job easy for himself by using Sandauer's arguments and changing warning into attack and condemnation, gathering and intensifying Sandauer's epithets, and lending them a specific ideological and political interpretation. He calls Hłasko's Cmentarze / Graveyards, printed by the Paris-based journal "Kultura" and immediately awarded a prize, "a profoundly political story", revealing the influences of "Orwell himself, that classical master of anti-communist pamphleteering". It is an utterly pessimistic story about "the Warsaw of vomit-covered drunkards in the gutters, prostitutes soliciting from house gates, miserable, terrified people sneaking between military and police patrols, mendacious posters on the fences". By selling it to foreign enemies and slanderers of the People's Poland for Judas' pieces of silver (that is, to "Kultura"'s Giedroyc for what must have been a pittance given that a couple of months earlier Bobkowski earned a mere four hundred dollars for his invaluable, voluminous Szkice piórkiem), Hłasko has given himself over to "international traffickers of anti-communist weapons".

Interestingly, despite Marek Hłasko's hurried, or accelerated, departure for Paris on 21st February 1958 (nota bene as a recipient of an official scholarship arranged by the Ministry of Culture and Art and including also Henryk Bereza, Sławomir Mrożek and Wisława Szymborska), despite the "Hłasko case'' at the Culture Commission of the Polish United Workers' Party Central Committee, despite the ban on printing and information, despite the smear campaign and Skiz's virulent story, the "Hłasko issue" continued. Although sometimes difficult to understand and accept, Hłasko's doings were supported by the Kronika Filmowa newsreel (with the famous Bereza-invented cheer "Take care, Marek!"), the radio programme "Muzyka i aktualnosci" featuring Barbara Czekałowa's phone calls to Paris, the well-wishing ordinary people who were levelled down rather than up during the hopeless, bleak and uniform years and longed for a true, i.e. foreign success, an achievement by their compatriot. Short stories and screenplays by the lampooner continued to be screened into rotten, depressing, detrimental movies about Poland "which does not exist" and had to be "improved" in the process, which resulted in Hłasko removing his name from the credits of Czesław Petelski's Baza ludzi umarłych / The Depot of the Dead (1959) - a pity given that the strong screenplay and acting have made it one of the top accomplishments of the Polish film school. Other films were barred from release or festival shows - such was the fate of the Polish-German Ósmy dzień tygodnia/ The Eighth Day of the Week, a German-Polish production prepared for Cannes like the secret weapon Wunderwaffe. The movie was made by Aleksander Ford, a director trusted by the Party, a mandarin of Polish film-making. Ford, whom Hłasko considered a typical product of the system, a particularly nasty vermin capable of "screwing everything up", took the still-hot-from-the-press work of the fashionable debutant (printed in "Twórczość" in November 1956) not for the sake of the truth or art, but in order to profit from someone else's achievement. As a result he produced a complete rubbish, wasted the topic and laid himself open to the Party. Let us turn over to Hłasko himself, whose invaluable, if not undervalued Piękni dwudziestoletni / The Beautiful Twenty-Year Olds provides a scathing portrait of the "heroic opportunist" with whom he had to work, though as a matter of fact it says more about its author, about the wrath and radicalism of this vengeful outlaw ("books are worth writing only if one crosses the last border of shame"), his juicy language and his writing skill.

I have come to know many cunning people in my life: I have known those who sold sugar for morphine, the sellers of Persian carpets which were made two hours earlier in Tel-Aviv's Ben-Jehuda Street; during the occupation I knew a guy who loaded himself with diamonds by selling flour to Jews and telling them it was poison that would save them from suffering when there was no way out … but I have never met a man as faultlessly cunning as Ford.

I think I can write so with confidence, for I know how many people, ideas and films this man has wasted, being most cunning and foxy opportunist who pretended to be most embittered and infuriated by the stupidity of the authorities. 'Ósmy dzień' was a bad story, yet could have been turned into a good film. But you need to be able to make good films. Ford, who knows Warsaw only through his car windows, moved the plot to the Old Town; Agnieszka wanders along sugary-sweet streets; those streets are filled with extras dressed in T shirts and pretending to be lumpenproletariat elements who accost her. The point of the story, which I unfortunately bungled, though I like its idea, was as follows: the girl who can see the grime and sleaze of it all wants only one thing for herself and her boyfriend - a beautiful start to their love. The idea of Ford's film is that people have nowhere to fuck, which is obviously untrue, for you can fuck anywhere … The film was to win him a Cannes award, recognition by the Marxist critics [who had made a spectacular, adaptive conversion after the "breakthrough"] and subtle criticism from party authorities. It turned out a piece of shit - unluckily for Ford, but luckily for myself.

A couple of years later Hłasko will grasp the essence of the communist tangle and political surrealism that has accumulated in the minds of the "citizens", their sobriety coming from vodka and their strength from madness. He will do it from the outside, as if in passing. Indeed, how deeply perverse and surrealist it is to be able or, more, to have to feel happy about the failure of one's own work in inept hands, to sigh with relief, metaphorically speaking, at the news of the death of an innocent at a first attempt of violence, to delight in his dead and pure independence. The communists, wrote Marek in Piękni dwudziestoletni, "crossed all the borders, created a fantastic world". The Warsaw teddy boys defended themselves against this world with their slick, long hair fixed "with sugar, egg white and glass water", too large, home-made jackets, narrow, ankle-length pants, thick-soled shoes, awful ties with images of ships under full sail and sunglasses à la general Douglas Mac Arthur. Others read Hemingway and Dos Passos with abandon, listened to jazz, watched non-Soviet movies at the US Embassy and flocked to the Warsaw Arsenal to see the 1958 "This is America" exhibition which was to make them loath that "beautiful country of forty-eight stars", but instead advertised it and intensified the dream of a freedom paradise. The Polish faith in America, in its opening - be it by way of nuclear power - of "the road to abundance" persisted contrary to facts and logic. "It is", writes Hłasko, "a miserable, totally unrequited love, and seems to be the last one". At the time of the Korean war and Harry Truman's presidency, it reached its incomprehensible, ecstatic and suicidal peak in the Polish "songs of hope", such as: "One H-bomb will take us back to Lvov" or "Truman, Truman, drop that bomb, we can't bear it any more".

This paradoxical, topsy-turvy country à rebours, sensing a chance in self-annihilation, saving itself from despair with gallows humour, laughter at the funeral and political jokes, defending itself against gloomy hopelessness, from getting bogged down in trivia with a display of colourful butterflies - this country created Marek Hłasko and the phenomenon of his writing. Hłasko was right when he answered Skiz - care of Trybuna Ludu (which remained deaf to any explanations and corrections) - that he was from here, from this country and this nation, and from Warsaw, from the same "desert full of despair and fury, where any friendly gesture may become a gesture of self-destruction".

It was not I who made the Warsaw in which people trembled with fear; it was not I who made the Warsaw in which the greatest treasure of the poor was a bottle of vodka; it was not I who made the Warsaw in which a girl was cheaper than a bottle of vodka - it was that Warsaw that made me. Who and by what right is telling me to keep quiet about it?

And he did not keep quiet - either then, in that surrealist country, or later, in the so-called free world of social nature ("for ... the world is divided into two halves, except that one is unlivable and the other intolerable"), when, filled with terror and sentiment, he thus reminisced in Piękni dwudziestoletni about the country à rebours which was sullied and denied him:

I was eighteen at the time. ... I worked fourteen hours a day, including Sundays and holidays, and made around seven hundred zlotys a month. ... Had I told a German worker that I could buy a pair of shabby shoes for four hundred and twenty hours' work a month, he would have shrugged and gone away.

One could get an impression that, besides everything else, Hłasko's opus vivendi is an attempt to identify the external reason for his internal confusion, for all those cramps and bedsores of the soul, the conflicting pressures that tore him apart, the irrational or, if you will, spontaneous or romantic motives, paroxysms and reflexes which he followed and which ultimately led him to disaster. With an all-neutralizing giggle of a facetious macho, he tries to explain the murkier or more controversial aspects of his nature, weaknesses of character, superficial fascinations, chaotic choices, costly pursuits, naïve illusions, aborted ideas, misguided paths and painful errors. He seems to be doing that in order to be given absolution - not by the political rulers of Poland, who in 1958 treated him like a hoodlum, lured into a Berlin trap, implicated in a murderous tug-of-war with human life and dignity at stake, and buried instantly; and not by the nation, which was the bargaining chip and a hostage of the Authorities, but by his mother, a group of friends, and readers - all those who offered him trust in 1956, regarding him as an icon and safeguard of the October transformations, and whose faith could be undermined by the following ten years.

I write about people I have known and loved. … It is for those people that I would like to write why I do not live in Warsaw. I would like to write it because I owe a lot to those people, I have not stopped loving them and cannot forget them. ... I have told myself: Poland is not Putrament or Kruczkowski [the latter summed up Hłasko at the 12th plenum of the Central Committee in October 1958 in the following way: "As we can see, comrades, the road from a first step into the clouds … to the last step into the bog of imperialist intelligence is not long"], and all the others. Poland is all those people who read me and believed in me. ... I knew of course that nobody believed in my working for anti-Polish intelligence, but should there be one reader who believed that, this book has been written for him.

By all indications, Marek Hłasko atoned for the sins he committed and did not commit with his suffering and his writing, returned to the hearts, and has been given absolution.


Despite the aforementioned convolution of Marek Hłasko's biography, let us review the key facts of his life and work for the sake of a biographical and bibliographical order.

Marek Jakub Hłasko (the abbreviated form of his middle name is borne by Kuba, the tragic protagonist of his early short story Pętla / The Loop) was born 14 January 1934 in Warsaw to the civil servant Maciej Roman Hłasko (1906-1939) and Maria Lucja Hłasko nee Rosiak (1908-1987). An attractive woman of unquestionable intellectual and artistic ambitions, Maria was impatient and unsystematic. Having studied three areas (Polish studies, French studies and law) at Warsaw University, she did not earn a single degree. The Hłaskos' marriage did not last long; after four years (1933-37) the father leaves and marries again. He dies prematurely of a kidney infection (or tuberculosis according to other sources) in the first days of the war, on 13 September 1939. Left to her own resources, mother runs a food stall during the occupation. At that time she meets Kazimierz Gryczkiewicz, a much more senior man whom she will marry in 1949 to the disapproval of her only, adolescent son.

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which does not get emblazoned in the memory of the ten-year boy and will not be much reflected in his writing, deprives the Hłaskos of their flat at 10, Ciepła Street, of their entire belongings and documents. After the rising has fallen, they leave the ruined town on 2nd October and, staying for a while in Komorów and Mszczonów, move to Częstochowa, where they live for a few months at the place of a friend of Marek's mother, Irena Kozłowska, at 84, Sobieskiego Street. While in Częstochowa, they are witnesses to the great offensive of the Soviet troops - the one which will not stop until next spring in Berlin. Years later Hłasko's Piękni dwudziestoletni (1966) will bring a shocking account of the march of the Red Army and the NKVD detachments, of the war abuses and atrocities, of the Soviet soul and the homo sovieticus mindset.

This traumatic experience pushed Marek to take his first notes in an attempt at sorting out emotions and events. He will continue writing his confidential diary in Hajduki (presently Chorzów-Batory) in Silesia and later in Białystok, where the Hłaskos try to settle, Gryczkiewicz accompanying them though persistently ignored by Marek. Finally, in January 1946, they settle for a longer while in Wrocław. There, after numerous perturbations, in June 1949 Marek will finish the primary school with poor grades and on 2nd July of that same year Maria Hłasko will formalize her relationship with Kazimierz, a decent and caring man. While they will live at 44, Borelowskiego Street, in Wrocław-Sępolno until the end of 1950, Marek will move to Warsaw in September to continue his education at the State Secondary School for Technology and Theatre. He lives in a dormitory in Tarczynska Street and is taken care of by his aunt, Jadwiga Oraczewska. Although he likes the school and appreciates the employment opportunities it can open, he will not stay there for long; a highly unconventional and insubordinate pupil, he will be expelled on the strength of a school's resolution in late December, and will go back home, to Wrocław, for the last year of schooling.

Hłasko finishes formal education at the age of sixteen and embarks on his adventure with paid work. A few bad ideas are followed by a good one, and in June 1950 he completes a driving course, obtaining a car and truck driving licence. The assistant trucker's job he then gets becomes his true school of living and endurance. He transports timber in the extreme autumn and winter conditions, driving along mountain roads which are particularly dangerous for huge, heavily loaded vehicles. He endures that for six weeks, from 15th November till the end of 1950, and then - unluckily for himself and luckily for the Polish literature and film (Głupcy wierzą w poranek - Następny do raju - Baza ludzi umarłych) - gets a job at a depot of the National Timber Centre PAGED in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, the area which will be suggestive of the Bieszczady region in the young driver's best-known short story.

From 1951 Marek Hłasko lives and works as a driver in Warsaw, his mother and step-father having been given a tenancy of a bed-sitter at 17, Mickiewicza Street in the Warsaw district of Żoliborz. The street wedges into a more exotic, rough and raw Marymont, an area which Hlasko finds more exciting and which he will immortalize in Sonata marymoncka, his debut (preceded, however, by the 1954 appearance in print of Baza Sokołowska, a short-story with distinctive traits of social realism propaganda. One of Marymont streets will ultimately be named after him.

During his exceptionally long (over one year) employment in the purchasing department of the METROBUDOWA enterprise, the Party unexpectedly rewards him with its trust and he is appointed field correspondent by the daily "Trybuna Ludu". Hłasko's aggressive and witty interventions in this combined capacity as an untrained journalist and an informer must have found favour with his principals, for he wrote in Piękni dwudziestoletni:

One day I was summoned to 'Trybyna Ludu' to collect an award. It was the novel 'The Drivers' by Anatoly Rybakov. It had an electrifying effect on me … It was the first social realist book I had read; I must admit it left me dumbstruck. I too can do such a stupid job, I said to myself. And so I started.

In this unsophisticated way the Party turned the driver into a writer - only to slander, debase and destroy him years later. The future life and destiny of this talented and resolute youngster would be determined by the bug of literature he had caught, the persisting family problems and the help of Stefan Łoś, a family friend fascinated by the handsome eighteen-year-old, who will try, with the help of Newerly and Czeszko, "to get [Hłasko] out of this drivers' tangle". Hłasko will do the driver's job in two more periods: from 4th August to 1st December 1952 at the Warsaw Grocers' Cooperative and from 15th December 1952 to 30th April 1953 at the transport section of the Municipal Retail Trade Service. His Piękni dwudziestoletni will bring a detailed account of the habits and ways of the employees of the two enterprises, including their swindles and frauds, and of those who created this surrealist, absurd System, the exorbitantly expensive first soap opera for the masses…

I was eighteen at the time; I am not ashamed to be writing about it today. Let those who forced me to do so be ashamed... The power of 'commies' lies in the cheapness of their ideology. The power of 'commies' lies in the fantastic nature of the phenomenon. … German journalists used to tell me: 'Do not forget that they were to first to enter the sky'. I am no engineer, but it seems to me that you can talk about a technological success only if you know the cost of the project. If you use thousands of trees to make a thousand toothpicks, it is only a game.

Owing to months-long grants for emerging talent provided by his caretakers from the Literary Union and to his proselyte's enthusiasm for intensive self-study, from mid-1953 Hłasko is preparing to become a writer. This unusual union of a bright and outspoken driver, a hot-headed enfant terrible with a disciplined man of letters will bring astonishing results in the following years. Hłasko will become recognized and famous overnight, taking the position of an idol and spokesman for the oppressed, deceived majority. With that comes, however, the risk of "soda water" and the very real danger of "the people's power", i.e. the usurpers ruling in the name of the people, coming to dislike him. After all, they only tolerate the "qualified", predictable, self-limiting, mild Saturday night revolutions by rebels on the leash. Hłasko, driven by his post-October 1956 youthful radicalism and creative urge, will break the rules of the game between the authorities and the society in what will seem like a deliberate act. Earlier, however, he will make a staggering career in daily newspapers and exclusive literary journals as the author of Baza Sokołowska / The Sokołowska Depot, Robotnicy / The Workers, Żołnierz / The Soldier, Dwaj mężczyzni na drodze / Two Men on the Road, Targ niewolników / The Slave Market, Gawęda Staromiejska / An Old Town Tale, Trudna wiosna / A Difficult Spring, Okno / The Window, Pętla / The Loop, Najświętsze słowa naszego życia / The Most Sacred Words of Our Life and other attractive, voluble short stories that will challenge the common standards. His works will get printed in magazines as diverse as "Sztandar Młodych", "Po prostu", "Świat", "Nowa Kultura" and "Twórczość". A symbol of the 1995-56 social and political transformations, "Po prostu" employs his on 1st September 1955 as a full-time columnist/prose editor and prints a number of his short stories, most of them highlighting the brutal contrast between the vision of life and life itself, like Śliczna dziewczyna / A Pretty Girl or the superb Najświętsze słowa naszego życia. Hlasko contributes a column almost every week. "Nowa Kultura" (no. 47/1955) prints his little work Pierwszy krok w chmurach / A First Step into the Clouds. It will become a cult object and will lend its title to Hłasko's first volume of short stories, which will come out in the publishing house Czytelnik a few months later, in May 1956. Three editions in several months, fifty thousand copies, enthusiastic reviews and the Publishers' Award are a testimony to the tremendous success of the twenty-year-old with absolute pitch. The characteristic beginning of the title story is worth quoting here:

On Saturday the city centre looks the way it does every other day of the week. Except that there are more drunks; the smell of digested alcohol is everywhere - in eateries and bars, buses and gates. On Saturday the city loses its hardworking face - on Saturday the city has a drunken gob.

Although good contracts with publishers and with the Central Film Production Service earn Hłasko a fortune, he is always short of cash and never helps his family. His letters to mother invariably bring the same promises of improvement and assistance. Lack of responsibility for others, of a logical management of his life, of self-control and self-discipline and, finally, alcoholism, are clearly the biggest weaknesses of Hłasko the man. They will come handy when the authorities decide to crack down on him in the wake of his publishing of Cmentarze / The Graveyards and Następny do raju / Next Stop - Paradise by the enemy of the People's Poland, Giedroyc's "Kultura", in 1956. It did not matter that both works had been printed the year before during the post-October 1956 thaw: "Panorama" had printed Głupcy wierzą w poranek / The Fools Who Believe in the Morning in installments, while excerpts from Cmentarze appeared in "Kulisy". Nor was it significant that in April 1956 Hłasko had been given a flat in a location of his choice (he went for Czestochowska Street in the district of Ochota; he never came to like it, though) from the pool available to the prime minister Józef Cyrankiewicz for the cream of writers, or that in December of that year he had joined the Union of Polish Writers and was put forward for a foreign scholarship which was awarded to him the following April. Hłasko's literary and social heyday was coming to an end - and it was no surprise given that the Party was launching a new ideological offensive and started to fasten the screw which had been loosened by the events of October 1956. The thaw was giving way to a frost. "Po prostu" was closed in October 1957, on the anniversary of the transformations. "Europa", a new cultural monthly with Jerzy Andrzejewski as editor-in-chief and Hłasko on board, was disbanded while the first, November issue was being typeset or printed. It had proved insufficiently "socialist"; its "liberal and bourgeois program" was exposed and reviled. Gomułka himself is believed to have said, with his usual knack for a choice of words, that "there will not be any ‘Europe' here".

Hłasko, who had a good feel for both favourable and unfavourable winds, realized that there was nothing to wait for, that his vital interests were elsewhere, especially that he was facing a multi-year service on a U-boat, his military service still due, as well as a real threat of his passport taken away. As he would write in Piękni dwudziestoletni, he found himself at a cross-roads, touched the edge, and life demanded him to make radical moves and definite decisions:

I had eight dollars on me; I was twenty-four; I was an author of a published volume of short stories and of two books which they did not want to publish. ... Those who buried me with the skill of professional gravediggers were thirty or more years my senior. ... getting off the plane at Orły airport I was thinking I would be back in Warsaw in a year at the utmost. Today I know I will never return to Poland, yet I also know I would like to be wrong when I am writing this.

He was not wrong, but equally he did not know he was past his zenith by that time, or that the second part of his existence would be so turbulent, chaotic, and short. Anyway, Friday 21st February 1958, Okęcie airport - or Orły, if you will - marked the end of the Polish period and the beginning of the émigré, or strictly speaking, foreign period in Marek Hłasko's life and work. Like many before him, he started from Paris and a visit at Giedroyc's at Maisons-Laffitte. There he got a home, food, and protection of his vital publishing interests. However, after the initial delight with the "wunderkind", the "ill-treated and unhappy boy who has rebelled", the prince-of-the-editors and his home crew led by the Hertzes soon got disappointed and impatient with the one who, irrespective of the circumstances, followed the old-Polish, Warsaw's or drivers' ways, abused their hospitality and played a media circus star intoxicated with freedom and a sense of self-importance. Graceful, aware of his good looks and charm which he had previously tried on women, editors and their secretaries, he does whatever pleases him: gives interviews to second-rate, silly, sensation-seeking French tabloids, wastes the cash earned on his published and prize-winning books, hangs around with tarts and drinks vodka, preferably in Russian bars."Having come to Paris, I behaved like a total idiot", this Polish Dmitri Karamazov will soon confess.

The short stories, especially those written in Israel, in which Hłasko, "crossing the last border of shame", poses as a pimp distributing "girls" (as in Opowiem wam o Esther / A Tale About Esther or a male prostitute, a gigolo living off rich women (as in Drugie zabicie psa / Killing the Second Dog), are naturally a literary fiction, but one which falls within his convention of "true fabrication".

There must have been something in it, for Marek had an unlimited imagination and would sometimes authenticate, arrange and try out its products in his "lifewriting", often in a risky and costly way. His sharp, vibrant literature was squeezed out of life, obtained through living, incubated in and tested on himself. He did not want it to rustle with paper; he was ready to waste his health, position, dignity for it. Credible description, natural dialogue, psychologically true behaviour were to him categorical and sacred, priceless imperatives. This is of critical importance to understanding whatever sense and logic there was in his adventurous life, his European, Israeli and American hustle with the intermingling countries, landscapes, women, standards, habits, occupations, psychiatric clinics and prisons, publishing houses, the cars in which this "communist James Dean" sped and the planes in which he cruised over California. His life from 1958 to 1969 was a hectic, impatient and seemingly chaotic run which was initially counter-pointed by his meandrous and unsuccessful attempts to return to his Country from Paris, West Berlin, Tel Aviv, and which later became more disorderly, capricious, driven by depression, a sudden impulse, a desire to see someone's face (Janek Rojewski's, Esther Steinbach's), to enter into a relationship with a woman (Sonia Ziemann) or conversely, to run away from her, from the bourgeois captivity of well-being and the boredom of the German Gemütlichkeit (Sonia Ziemann, her father and brother). It must have also been driven by his urge to travel and see new regions of the world or nooks and crannies of existence, or by simple business (the publishing house Kiepenheuer und Witsch in Cologne, Roman Polański in Hollywood, ZDF's editor Hans-Jürgen Bobermin in Wiesbaden). This chase, those comings and goings, gettings together and leavings, marriages and divorces, the glass wool factory and the tin wholesale business, the construction site, the measuring staff and foundry furnace, the cockpit, the night club and the cheap, lousy hotel eroded Hłasko's invaluable energy of youth, legendary vitality, resilience and perseverance, spiritual balance, daring, humour, good feeling and sound sleep (he was getting increasingly addicted to tranquilizers and sleeping pills). "We lose life when we live" - but then he was gaining a thing which is priceless to a born, organic writer: literary themes which have been paid for and verified by life.

The struggle which he continuously treated himself to, be it in France, Italy, Switzerland, England, Germany, Israel or the United States, must have had a certain mysterious therapeutic property and contained or released some compensatory and defence mechanism, for it translated into spontaneous and regular creativity. He was constantly on the lookout for this or that, chased and destroyed it, overfilled with a restless spirit of contrariness, challenge, rebellion - a truly Hegelian spirit of instant negation of whatever condition has been achieved. And all this hustle and bustle would regularly - despite Hłasko's lack of organization - spew out new short stories and novels like a devil's mill, their time and method of conception a mystery to everybody. What came out were shapely, fair little pearls of "Polish", "Israeli" and "American" stories.

In one decade Hłasko managed to have produced - in addition to smaller works, such as the essays on contemporary filmmaking for the Swiss "Die Weltwoche" or Listy z Ameryki / Letters from America, which were printed in Giedroyc's "Kultura" - a long number of fair-sized, outstanding short stories and novels which were translated into many languages. These included Cmentarze / The Graveyards, Następny do raju / Next Stop - Paradise (Instytut Literacki, Paris 1958), Powiedz im, kim byłem /Tell Them Whom I Was ("Kultura" 1961 nr 10), W dzień śmierci Jego / On the Day of His Death ("Kultura" 1962 nr 5), Stacja / The Station ("Kultura" 1962 nr 12), Opowiadania / Short Stories (Instytut Literacki, Paris 1963 - an enlarged version of his 1956 debut, Pierwszy krok w chmurach / A First Step into the Clouds , including Ósmy dzień tygodnia / The Eighth Day of the Week and a couple of short stories written in exile), Wszyscy byli odwróceni / All Backs Were Turned, Brudne czyny / Dirty Deeds (Instytut Literacki, Paryz 1964), Drugie zabicie psa / Killing the Second Dog ("Kultura" 1965 nr 1-2), Nawrócony w Jaffie / Convert in Jaffa, Opowiem wam o Esther / A Tale About Esther (Polska Fundacja Kulturalna, Londyn 1966), Sowa, córka piekarza / Owl, the Baker's Daughter (Księgarnia Polska, Paryż 1968). His "American" novel The Rice Burners, finished in 1969, was published posthumously.

Regardless of all those more or less clever discussions about this "confabulation", "lark", "literary autobiography", "para-autobiography" or "diary turned into fiction", a separate and extremely important place in Hłasko's output is taken by Piękni dwudziestoletni, a work written at Maisons-Laffitte, whose first excerpts were immediately printed in "Kultura", vols. 11 and 12, at the end of 1965, and which was published by Instytut Literacki in May 1966. This extraordinary book waited for publication in the author's country another twenty plus years to finally, castrated by the censorship and with a non-committal publisher's foreword, came out in Czytelnik in 1988.

Hlasko's tangled, turbulent and yet literary fruitful life came to an end in 1969. Aged thirty-five and an exile for eleven years, he died on the night of 13th June at 26, Hauberisserstrasse, Wiesbaden, in the flat of the aforementioned German television editor and screenplay writer Hans-Jürgen Bobermin, in unexplained circumstances. The immediate cause of the death which occurred "between 1 and 8 am" was a collapse due to an overdose of sleeping pills combined with alcohol. So much for the medical report. The multifarious indirect causes which the years deposit in one's consciousness are usually unknown to ambulance doctors.

Author: Tadeusz Stefanczyk, December 2006.'s picture
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Marek Hłasko


The Depot of the Dead, dir. Czesław Petelski, 1958, in the photograph: Teresa Iżewska and Tadeusz Łomnicki, photo: Tadeusz Roman/Filmoteka Narodowa/

The Depot of the Dead is a 1958 film directed by Czesław Petelski. Film historians count it as a representative of the 'black series’, a group of documentaries and feature films of the late 1950s that approached the social reality with a critical eye. Read more about: The Depot of the Dead – Czesław Petelski

Gustaw Holoubek starring in Noose directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, based on the short story by Marek Hłasko, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa /

Pętla / Noose is a feature film by Wojciech Jerzy Has completed in 1957 and based on a short story by Marek Hłasko. Read more about: The Noose - Wojciech Jerzy Has

Marek Hłasko


Ksenia Staroselskaya, photo: Maciej Żenkiewicz / AG

A study of Polish-Russian relations in literature: readers in Russia can enjoy everything from the Polish classics to Polish literature of the 21st century – and the person to thank for that is Ksenia Staroselskaya. Read more about: Polish Literature in 4 Minutes: An Interview with Ksenia Staroselskaya

Screenshot from the exhibition in Google Cultural Institute, photo:

Skopje: The Art of Solidarity is the amazing story of the Polish art collection in Skopje, as well as the Poles who took part in reconstructing the Macedonian capital after the devastating 1963 earthquake. This exhibition is now available online on the Google Cultural Institute platform. Read more about: Polish Artists’ Solidarity Act for Skopje

Gustaw Holoubek in Wojciech Jerzy Has' Pętla, based on Hłasko's novel, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa /

For decades, cinematic and literary artists either glorified drinking or laid bare its ugly truth. Some portrayed the pits of this addiction and unravelled its false myths, while others chose to describe its heroically dizzying heights. Meet the chroniclers – and victims – of Polish alcoholism. Read more about: Artists in the Land of Wodka

Marek Hłasko, photo: INTERFOTO / Forum

The translation of Marek Hłasko's Beautiful Twentysomethings is now available to English-language readers, offering incredible insight into the life of this rebellious cultural icon from Poland. Read more about: Marek Hłasko Release in US

Marek Hłasko



Michał Zadara, one of the most original Polish theatre directors, will stage Marek Hłasko’s classic All Backs Were Turned. It will premiere at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Read more about: Zadara Stages Marek Hłasko Story

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