Tadeusz Konwicki at 80 years old, Warsaw, photo Chris Niedenthal / Forum
Prose writer, screenwriter and film director. Founder of the 'cinema d'auteur' in Poland and author of 20 books. Born in 1926 in Nowa Wilejka, near Vilnius (today Naujoji Vilnia, Lithuania), died on January 7th in Warsaw at 88 years old.
Konwicki's literary and cinematic legacy serves as both the conscience of Polish society and the skewed mirror in which it is reflected. He is among those writers who have left the most lasting impression on post-war Polish literature and culture, regarded as a spokesman for the dreams, hopes and frustrations of several generations of Poles.
From the Besieged City (1956) inaugurated a Vilnius period that would include the novels A Hole in the Sky (1959), The Anthropos-spectre-beast (1969), A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents (1974) and Bohin (1987). These works, which are among Konwicki's most beautiful, evoke the region around Vilnius as a land of the coming-of-age and of an initiation into the meaning of life, of learning about love and death, a land where feelings are born and where a reconciliation with existence - a Faustian acceptance of duration - occurs. The portrait of contemporaneity, of a sterile region and acid-etched time, is most intense in Konwicki's series of novels that includes A Dreambook for Our Time (1963), Ascension Into Heaven (1967) and Nothing or Nothing (1971). They share an analysis of social memory that contains the evils of war and Stalinism, as well as the construction of a protagonist who is first unable to accept his own identity because it contains feelings of guilt, and then is unable to establish that identity because his way is blocked by the disconnect between himself and the present. That present is Konwicki's vision of a police state in which the population, under constant surveillance, slowly loses its contours and collapses into a shapeless mass. This image is further developed in his next literary period, which includes the best-known works of literature to be published outside the purview of state censorship: The Polish Complex (1977), A Minor Apocalypse (1979) and Underground River, Underground Birds (1984).
Konwicki's direct engagement with social issues grew steadily after the publication of Nothing or Nothing, but this engagement was counter-balanced by a series of "lying journals" that belonged neither to the realm of politics nor literature. They cannot be read either as pure fiction or non-fiction, and are very diverse in terms of genre and aesthetics. These works - The Calendar and the Hourglass (1976), Moonrise, Moonset (1982), Nowy Świat Street and Vicinity (1986), Northern Lights (1991) and Slander Against Myself (1995) - are collections of journal entries and essays, fragments of literary works and social indiscretions. Their freedom, charm, wit and wide-ranging humour make them, like Gombrowicz's Diaries, true literary gems that are often imitated. His books have also been translated into Czech, Dutch, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian and Russian.
I write above all for the reader, with the intention of giving pleasure, amusing, stunning or destroying. It is impossible to write without another person.
-Tadeusz Konwicki in Half a Century of Purgation
"I am the last man who remembers the beginning of the 19th century", maintains Tadeusz Konwicki. His memories of the Vilnius Region where he grew up paint a picture of a place that has not changed much since the time of Mickiewicz, at least in terms of civilization and culture. It was a place that shaped Konwicki's sensibilities and he would return to drink from its refreshing springs in the mature period of his work
Bitterly ironic beginnings
Konwicki's father died when Konwicki was three, and because of his mother's health problems he was raised by his extended family. From 1932 he went to live permanently with his great aunt and uncle Blinstrub in Kolonia Wileńska, a very religious, traditional household imbued with the atmosphere of the cult of the January 1863 Uprising.
Just before the war, Konwicki began to attend the King Zygmunt August secondary school in Vilnius, where he studied for a year. After the war broke out he continued his studies through underground courses, passing his matriculation exams in 1944. He escaped from forced labour clearing a forest and went to work in a German army hospital for "volunteers". When the Vilnius Uprising broke out in July, Konwicki joined the Eighth "Oszmianan" Brigade of the Home Army. In the autumn, after a period of hiding at a farm near Vilnius, he returned once more to the partisans, which were already anti-Bolshevik. The group hid in the woods until the end of April.
In May, 1945, Konwicki and a few friends used falsified documents to cross the new Polish border in order to make contact with local partisan groups, but it became impossible to keep fighting. Konwicki started to work on former German properties in Gliwice, and after a few months he went to Cracow where he started to study Polish literature at Jagiellonian University.
Konwicki got a job as a proofreader for the Odrodzenie monthly and he soon started working as a reporter and graphic artist for Dziennik Polski, publishing "Sketches from the Coast". He was promoted at Odrodzenie and began writing reviews of new books and films, as well as drawing and technical editing. When the monthly moved to the ruined city of Warsaw, Konwicki moved with it. In the summer of 1947 he made his debut as a poet, and then, encouraged by Tadeusz Borowski and Roman Bratny, he wrote his first short story (Corporal Koziołek and Me).
Konwicki's first novel, Rojsty, which was similar to his first partisan stories in its bitterly ironic tone, would not be published in 1948 because of censorship (the book would appear only in 1956, and then it included many changes by the censors). Despite the fact that the book does not mythologize the anti-Soviet partisans in the Vilnius region, and despite the fact that it settles scores with imperial patriotic ideology and has obvious links with the romantic tradition, the novel was stopped because of the very fact that it talks about the Vilnius Uprising. The same happened to Konwicki's second novel, New Days. Like all his works, it contains many autobiographical sections and follows the hero (who not long ago fought the Red Army) as he matures into an acceptance of the idea of socialism.
- Time of "the pimpled"
Konwicki's first book was a socialist-realist story called, At the Building Site, written after his experience of working at Nowa Huta (October 1949 - March 1950). Over the next few years Konwicki worked as a committed writer and journalist, belonging to a group known as "the pimpled". He published ideological investigations and articles in Nowa Kultura (New Culture) and Sztandar Młodych (The Young Standard), among others. In 1953, he joined the Communist Party. By that time he was already working on proof-copies of The Power, a political, existential and multi-layered novel about the difficulties of establishing a new system in a country, and about young people from different political camps who have to make complicated ideological choices. The novel reveals the so-called right-wing deviation, argues for the communist cause and urges belief in the slogans disseminated by the founders of the new system. Nevertheless, the novel wasn't published until the beginning of 1954, by which time Konwicki, although still faithful to socialist ideas, was beginning to be sceptical of dogmatic restrictions and pro-regime propaganda.
This skepticism is noticeable in two of Konwicki's books: The Hour of Sadness, which deals mainly with the problem of love and marital infidelity (a subject almost unimaginable at that time), and From the Besieged City, about an intelligent man who flees abroad because he cannot stand the constant ideological intrusion into his private life. In both books Konwicki clearly defends the right to self-determination, to intimacy and to the mere possibility of ideological doubt. The first book was published during the second half of 1954, although the following January it was severely criticized at a meeting of the Basic Party Organization at the Polish Writers' Union (as described by Leopold Tyrmand in his Diary 1954). Konwicki's second novel was published only during the thaw in 1956, under quite different circumstances.
- Sucker's scowl
October of 1956 opened a new chapter in Konwicki's work. Many years later (in The Calendar and the Hourglass and in an extensive interview with Stanisław Bereś titled Half Century of Purgatory), the writer would admit that this period of time was very painful for him, mainly because of the reversals in the attitudes of his ideological mentors.
Those who ideologically moulded me in some way, who instructed me, who were teaching me [...] - all those people suddenly said one day: and you, you sucker, you believed that? Were you so naive?
- in "The Shadow of the Foreign Army", reprinted in the volume The Wind and the Dust
Konwicki explores his own situation and mental state in the book The Hole in the Sky (1959). What seems to be a charming book for young people about children from the pre-war Vilnius Region is, in truth, a story about disillusionment and shattered ideals. The world of Polek Krywko, the main character, is destroyed when his friends make fun of him because of his naive belief in mysterious people for whom everybody is waiting. He also shares his feelings in the diary of a strange man who hangs himself when he loses his grasp on the meaning of life.
This "diary of a hanged man" is a surprising break from the fluent traditional narration of The Hole in the Sky, and it cannot be logically explained. This part of the book signals the beginning of Konwicki's artistic drift towards surrealism. What is more, in the "diary" we can see something that was recognized and defined by Tadeusz Lubelski, the most eminent scholar of Konwicki's work: the motive of the road, a symbol of creativity and a prominent motif in his later books.
After those first sketches of dreamy and self-reflective writing in The Hole in the Sky came A Dreambook for Our Time (1963). This is one of the masterpieces of post-war Polish literature, suggestive psychological prose with differentiated narration and a "story within a story" that illustrates the generational experiences of wartime and difficult post-war choices. A Dreambook for Our Times acquired a cult following, not only among Polish readers but also in Russia.
The novel has several parts. One is a contemporary story that takes place on the Soła river where a water tank is being built, and the other is a series of retrospectives that show the childhood and youth of the main character, Paweł. The retrospectives cover crucial moments of his life, mainly those related to anti-German and later anti-Soviet partisans. But they also show the betrayal of friends from the partisan group after the war, when Paweł joins the Communist Party. The past literally invades Paweł's present, which is also evident in the diversity of time and place in the contemporary storyline. This was discovered by Jan Walc, the author of the first Ph.D. thesis about Tadeusz Konwicki, who points out the fact that the action takes place simultaneously in the 1960s on the Soła river in Galicia, and before the war in the Vilnius Region (i.e. in Galicia there was no January Uprising, the history of which defines the valley; the real Soła does not flow south, the direction in which many eastern rivers flow).
Nevertheless Walc warns against disregarding the book's contemporary story. The novel is not only an analysis of past and historical experience but also a portrait of a modern man lost in a world without axioms, of a man besieged by ideologies and forced to constantly choose.
- Only love
Konwicki himself participated in a discussion with critics who did not see (or did not want to see) that A Dreambook is actually about the present time. He did so through his next novel, entitled Ascension (1967), which was ostentatiously contemporary.
In it, the main character wakes up one evening and cannot remember who he is. He goes for an all-night journey through 1960s Warsaw (during the Gomułka period), not realizing that it is an after-death journey into the afterlife. Incidentally, many aspects of the "afterlife" that emerges from the reality of Warsaw bears a striking resemblance to the Vilnius Region.
The hero-narrator, known among his friends as Charon, tries to overcome his amnesia by constructing the supposed story of his life. The story is yet another panorama of the experiences of Konwicki's generation, a feature that is often present in his work. Through his "memory exercises" the hero recalls the things he thinks are the most important or timeless, the things he wants to save. He has philosophical thoughts about a river, a forest and the sky. The enduring value that emerges from his murky adventures, which end at the top of Warsaw's Palace of Culture, is love.
Ascension is a legendary book, not least because it is a novel with a political double meaning. Konwicki shows Polish reality as a totalitarian world (the writer would soon be crossed off the list of Party members). The legend of the book was made even more powerful by the story of its publication - the authorities considered it scandalous, and it was only allowed a few reviews and limited distribution.
Many literary critics and historians consider this novel to be Konwicki's most outstanding work of prose.
- Anti-fables for adults and children
This focus on contemporary times is also visible in Konwicki's next novels, The Anthropos-Spectre-Beast (1969) and Nothing or Nothing (1971). These are extremely gloomy books, showing the hopelessness of everyday life after March 1968, the anti-intellectual witch-hunts and the disgraceful anti-Semitic propaganda that resulted in the mass emigration of Jewish Poles.
The first book is actually about March 1968, although it was supposedly written for young children and is illustrated with Danuta Konwicka's pictures along with many jokes and adventures. The Anthropos-Spectre-Beast is a story of a boy from Warsaw who, together with his dog Sebastian, travels to the pre-war Vilnius Region. But in among the colourful adventures, the reader discovers hints that the hero is actually a little boy dying in a hospital. The theme of death in a book for children makes Konwicki one of the precursors of the anti-fable trend in literature for young people.
Nothing or Nothing, the book that closes the "existential triptych" (the first two parts are A Dreambook for Our Time and Ascension), is a story exclusively for adults. Like Ascension, its main plot is based on real-life sensational events, namely, a series of murders committed by a "vampire". The main character, who suffers from "consciousness epilepsy", is not aware that it is he who kills the women during his attacks. Suspected by the police, he escapes and travels around Poland. This motive allows Konwicki to illustrate, through allusion, the entrapment of people in the Polish People's Republic.
Lithuanian partisan groups show up in another part of the book, and, towards the end, there is a vision of the end of the world. At the beginning of the book, boys talking in the Lithuanian and Belarusian forest about the beautiful and just future ahead of them are confronted with the reality of contemporary life, a collision that leads to the collapse of any hope for a better life after the war. This is the idea expressed in the title: a choice between two hopeless alternatives. Helena Zaworska, in her review of Nothing or Nothing, wrote: "Does the title therefore present total, desperate, nihilist negation? Perhaps not negation, but rather a conviction of the total helplessness of a man against the chaos and absurdity that destroy him."
A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents (1974), written within the convention of an almost kitsch affair between young people in the beautiful times before the war, in the Vilnius Region, is also, on one level, a story about the times after March 1968. Witold is a mysterious stranger who, under peculiar circumstances, visits enamoured Witek, and who wakes up near the end of the book in his flat in contemporary Warsaw. It's no coincidence that he commits suicide not far from the Gdańsk Railway Station (from which Polish Jews were leaving the country). But still, the book remains yet another expression of hope in Konwicki's work, hope that lies in art. The author constructs a plot based on the form of popular literature, additionally accompanied by sensational excerpts from pre-war newspapers. He stresses the hopeful potential inherent in artistic creativity, as well as pointing to the existential strength of even the most banal literary voyages back to the "childhood country".
The novel was made into a film in the mid-1980s by Andrzej Wajda, with Konwicki himself playing the Stranger.
- On "transparent captivity"
With A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents, Konwicki closed his second prose triptych of books both for children and adults. He opened another with a new book, a combination of a diary and memoirs. The Calendar and the Hourglass (1976) is his first silva rerum type of book - a work that combines different literary genres. The book, written in the form of a quasi-diary, is a collection of observations, anecdotes, memoirs and confessions on a variety of topics. These include the writer's participation in building the socialist system in Poland, descriptions of journeys, as well as portraits of friends - both those who died recently (heart-breaking reminiscences about the writer Wilhelm Mach and the painter Aleksander Kobzdej) - as well as those still living (including writers Antoni Słonimski and Stanisław Dygat, and actors Gustaw Holoubek and Andrzej Łapicki). The book became famous just for the last group of artists' portraits, which were often scandalous – bordering on gossip – while also casting the individuals in a universal light. The Calendar was also widely read for the picture it drew of a society vegetating in mock autonomy. The Calendar - funny, perverse, provocative and moving - is actually a treatise on the necessity of freedom.
The Polish Complex (1977) contains more such reflections, although is does so less through allusions and more through clearly-formulated critique. Konwicki openly describes the conditions of Polish society in the 1970s, striving for synthesis, although only through literary means. The proverbial queue of people waiting to buy Russian gold (part of the primary storyline of Christmas) is ironically contrasted with a solemn letter from a patriot who loves Poland - or rather the idea of Poland, very different from the reality. Scenes from the January Uprising are also incorporated, including the tragic history of one of its leaders, Zygmunt Mineyko, and a moving scene from the life of Romuald Traugutt who meets his wife as he is leaving to take up his post as leader of the Uprising.
Such a book could not be published officially and was printed in the third issue of the independent underground magazine Zapis.
- Eschatology plus a prescription for dandruff
The Polish Complex, in its bitter synthesis of social questions, was the first sign of Konwicki's next period, in which he began writing political books. Despite its dark subject matter, this book does not directly attack the reader, and Poland's dangerous eastern neighbour is referred to only through circumlocution and allusion. But Konwicki's second book is drastic, and provokes the strongest emotions. A Minor Apocalypse (1979) is the most famous of the author's novels, both in Poland and internationally, and it is one of the best-known Polish underground books.
The main character and narrator is a writer, Tadeusz K. The character is very close to the author, something characteristic of Konwicki's books and films, in which the heroes are always "close" to him - they live in places similar to Konwicki's Warsaw flat, and they have similar fears, complexes and pasts. A Minor Apocalypse opens with two members of the opposition coming to Tadeusz K.'s flat. They want him to burn himself to death in protest against plans to incorporate Poland into the Soviet Union as another republic. The hero, caught in the forceps of moral blackmail, walks the streets of Warsaw until the final evening at the Palace of Culture. On the way he meets people with many different political options, talks with them, meets a Russian girl Nadieżda (Hope) and falls in love. At one point he goes through an underground passage leading to a ball room awaiting prominent guests, and is forced to tolerate the presence of his alter ego, Tadzio Skórka, who quotes Tadeusz K.'s earliest novels (actually fragments of Konwicki's books) five times and who, while an admirer of the writer, is also working for the secret service. This dark plot is interwoven with essay-like intermedia full of black humour, erotic and medical advice (such as a prescription for skin problems), and quotations from the bleak poems of his friends.
The Poland of A Minor Apocalypse is a country in its death throes. Everything breaks down; the most important bridge collapses and nobody bothers to remove the rubble from the town centre. The Soviet influence is strong, people are asked to show their identity cards all the time, nobody knows what day it is and the only calendar that shows the proper date is locked up and well guarded. But the book is not only a portrait of the economic, political and moral disintegration of Poland at the end of the Gierek years. It is also a very bitter and unprecedented settling of accounts with the opposition, which is, in fact, similar to the regime it is fighting.
"You are the secretion of this system, a rib from the body of this tyranny. You are from Dostoevsky's 'The Possessed' and from the stories of Żeromski and Strug", says Tadeusz K. He mentions the names of two writers, both extremely important for Polish intellectuals and for Konwicki himself, who, with their uncompromising work, shaped the moral conscience of the intelligentsia. A Minor Apocalypse has been widely recognised in Poland and abroad, and provokes extreme reactions. There have been reviews voicing everything from admiration to sharp polemics. Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in his Journal Written at Night, published regularly in "Kultura" (Paris), wrote:
Blubber and a satirical puppet show are [...] mechanically mixed without nuance or balance, and they are mixed with such a love of 'antics' and 'kicks' that the mixture becomes almost without exception [...] a parade of national hysterics.
-Kultura", 1979, No 10
Jan Kott (Wiadomości, London, 1980 No 1) disagreed with the opinion that the novel's vision was hysterical. He compared its authenticity with "Gogol's Petersburg nightmares" and other works, including the third part of Mickiewicz's Dziady and Kafka's The Trial (with its motif of the "sentence"). These, for Kott, were the appropriate context in which to read the novel. Herling-Grudziński, in his answer to Kott (Kultura, 1980 No 4) labelled the notion of hysterics as the "demonization of Russians that enlarges and deepens the sick savouring of weakness; while most of what in Poland today is 'corpse-like and ghostly' - and what can be opposed - is a product of the Soviets". Konwicki, in a long interview entitled Half Century of Purgatory, would maintain that Russification and Sovietization were one and the same, although he stressed that he was still fascinated by the great works of Russian literature.
For A Minor Apocalypse, Konwicki was awarded the Mieczysław Grydzewski Prize (for the best book published in exile in 1979) and the Italian Premio Letterario Internationale "Mondello" (1981). In the 1990s the well-known director, Costa Gavras, made a film based on the novel.
- "Back to the yoke"
Strong anti-Soviet themes also appear in Moonrise, Moonset (1982). It is enough to say that in this book, Konwicki suggests that KGB [the Soviet Committee for State Security] was responsible for the attack on Pope John Paul II - a theory widely disseminated only twenty years later.
But it is not only a political book. The second of Konwicki's silva rerums, it is full of anecdotes and memoirs (such as the heart-breaking portrait of Dygat, or the beautiful epitaph for the unjustly-forgotten artist and writer Mieczysław Piotrowski). There are also portraits of friends - one funny chapter is devoted to Stanisław Lem. The book is a kind of a notebook describing problems related to the film adaptation of Miłosz's The Issa Valley, and it includes the beginning of an unfinished novel. It also includes - horror of horrors! - fragments of New Days, a novel from the 1940s and '50s about the post-war years, full of belief in the socialist system, which was unpublished due to censorship. Moonrise, Moonset is one of Konwicki's least-known books, though it is, in fact, one of his best.
After martial law was proclaimed in 1981, Konwicki closed his political triptych with Underground River, Underground Birds (1984). The plot is about a character who wanders about, afraid of being imprisoned. The Seventh (the only symbolic name in Konwicki's work, standing for the seventh post-war uprising after 1944, 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976 and 1980), hears knocking on the door, escapes by the balcony and starts wandering through Warsaw with stencils of illegal poems in his bag. In the prologue, epilogue and the intermedia strewn among the thirteen chapters, Konwicki scatters visionary images of his past in Vilnius and the afterlife. The poetry, carefully carried in the bag, turns out to be worthless, and the chase only imagined. Thus the book is very ironic (as well as being self-ironic), and serves as a polemic against the underground literature which, in Konwicki's opinion, had lost its power.
The consequence of this conviction was New World Avenue and Vicinity (1986) – a "return to the yoke" (a phrase from the book) - which marked Konwicki's return to official publishing. This silva rerum is written with a censor in mind, a censor whom Konwicki openly mentions in the book, writing, for example, directly to him and constantly arguing with him. The book closes another triptych. It is similar in form to The Calendar and the Hourglass and Moonrise, Moonset, but more like a series of articles with whole chapters full of anecdotes, portraits, memoirs, travel descriptions (like a quasi-guide to Warsaw and walks on New World Avenue), and self-commentary. These appear to have been stimulated by talks with Stanisław Bereś, recorded simultaneously, which would be compiled into the long interview Half Century of Purgatory, published at the same time but only underground and abroad.
- A Jew in a manor house affair
A year later Konwicki published at a state publishing house Bohin Manor (1987), one of his most beautiful and most widely read novels. Bohin Manor is an example of popular literature, in this case of a manor house love affair, a genre that played an important role in Polish literature in the 19th century (in books like On the Niemen River by Eliza Orzeszkowa) but was later trivialized through popular imitators (like Maria Rodziewiczówna) and trashy novels (such as the infamously immortal Helena Mniszkówna).
Through the story of a love-affair that takes place in a manor house after the January Uprising, Konwicki comments on the conditions of society under martial law while at the same time changing the conventions of the love story. He does it first to create his own autotematic realization ("I come back with great difficulty through the dunes of past time, through swamps of days and forests of hours to my grandmother Helena Konwicka [...]. And maybe I am chasing her through areas of premonitions, through lakes of longing, through thick fogs of uncertainty"). Secondly, he mounts a kind of social provocation (which was stressed by Stanisław Bereś in an extensive review published under a pseudonym in the magazine Aneks, No 48/1988, and reprinted in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 3/1994, devoted partly to Konwicki). The lover in this manor house love-affair is a Jew and Bohin Manor is a book meant as an attack on Polish anti-Semitism, reminding us of our common Polish-Jewish past.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Konwicki returned to the subject of Jews in Northern Lights (1991). The book was again in silva rerum-style - a number of loosely connected thoughts of the writer, travel logs (including from Japan and Australia), impressions of three Polish Jews (Leopold Tyrmand, Adam Michnik and the editor Zofia Łuczek), a portrait of the Konwicki family and a short story, in the central part of the book, about a Jewish fugitive: A Few Days of War Which Maybe Was Not. In it, in accordance with the title, the war does not really exist. Only love counts, with the unusual transformation of a hero whose fear evaporates when he falls in love. Love annuls the evil around us and gives new meaning to life.
- "I am stepping out of the ring"
Page-Turner (1992), published soon after Northern Lights, speaks about love in a similar way. It turns out to be the only value that is worth saving in a world full of chaos - but in this case it is the contemporary world, contemporary Poland. The novel, written with biting sarcasm, is a very unpleasant diagnosis of the condition of society after 1989; with this book Konwicki does what is, by then, expected of him: once again, he takes on the role of a writer painting a picture of the Polish community. By inserting such a mirror into his treatises about repetition and about the fall of the world of culture, the world of language and his own world, the author uses up all his fictional devices and shuts the door to fiction behind him.
And with Slander Against Myself (1995), Konwicki shuts behind him the door to all of literature.Slander is a farewell silva rerum, teasing but not scathing, written for pleasure - both the readers' and his own. Przemysław Czapliński ("Gazeta Wyborcza", December 6th, 1995) remarked on it in his review, underlining the fact that it is a noncommittal sort of writing. The meeting with the author has to be selfless, "with a good friend", with somebody well liked. In a televised interview with Stanisław Bereś, Konwicki says about his (self-declared) last book:
I would call it the kind of scenario that I write to meet with my readers. It is a form that encourages the reader to nod or to disagree, or to finish the thought that I started. Anyway, to participate in the creative process, which was always my ambition from the very beginning of my writing. I wanted to find a literary formula that would take the reader, together with me, into the plan of action, would encourage him to collaborate, participate, to create with me a psychological event, or - to put it modestly - an intellectual event.
Konwicki emphatically announced his disappearance from literature in a number of public declarations, including in the television interview with Bereś ("I am stepping out of the ring and leaving a place for future generations", he said.) But the first time was in "Kwartalnik Artystyczny" No 2/1996, in the questionnaire "Why I write". He said, "Suddenly I got old. I am bored and disheartened. How can I answer such a question? That I should not have written at all and that I put my pen away with a sigh of relief (probably for ever)".
And unfortunately, he really did put away his literary pen. So far, he has not published a new book since Slander. Later, he wrote several articles (the series "Horizon of events"), and gave only a few interviews, one quite long (about his films, I Remember It Was Hot, in a talk with Katarzyna Bielas and Jacek Szczerba, 2001). In 2008 he allowed the publication of his short prose pieces in a volume titled, The Wind and the Dust.
This last book contains (in chronological order): short stories, introductions to books and albums, reminiscences of friends, answers to questionnaires, satires, the unfinished story "A Bit of Apogee", essays, articles and drawings from the forties and fifties. It is a panorama of Konwicki's activities as a writer and director, and in a way it sums up more than half a century of unusual, manifold artistic creativity.
Author: Przemysław Kaniecki, November 2009; translated by Alicja Skarbińska-Zielińska
Konwicki's adolescence coincided with World War II, and his education, like that of many of his peers, took place through clandestine courses. Taken to Germany as a forced labourer in 1941, Konwicki managed to escape, passed the secret baccalaureate exams in 1944 and joined the Home Army underground forces. After the war he enrolled in a Polish literature and language course at Krakow's Jagiellonian University and, from 1947, continued his studies at Warsaw University. Never graduating, Konwicki took up journalistic and literary work, contributing to a number of magazines and completing a script-writing course for young writers organised by Bolesław Lewicki at the Łódź Film School.
Konwicki worked for both Odrodzenie and Nowa Kultura, chiefly as a film critic, and acted as literary manager for three film-making groups: Kadr from 1956-58, Kraj from 1970-72 and Pryzmat from 1972-77. He made his screenwriting debut in 1954, followed by his debut as a film director four years later.
In 1966, Konwicki was dismissed from the Polish United Workers' Party, an organisation of which he had been a member since 1952, for signing a letter of protest following the expulsion of Leszek Kolakowski from the Party ranks. In the 1970s Konwicki sided with the opposition, a choice that was to have grave consequences for his work. Indeed, most of the books he wrote in the 1970s and '80s were published by underground publishers. A collection of scripts called The Last Day of Summer, which came out officially in 1971, was an exception, but the publication of "An Apogee", a story that appeared in instalments in "Literatura", was stalled by the censors a year later. Konwicki stopped directing until 1981, when he directed The Issa Valley.
In 1982 Konwicki was a signatory of the Polish intellectuals' appeal against the imposition of martial law, and in 1984 he took part in the European Cultural Unity Congress in Venice.
Konwicki won the Grand Prix for The Last Day of Summer, awarded at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Feature Films in Venice in 1958. He also won the Special Award for the script of How Far, How Close to Here at the San Remo Film Festival, and the "Eagle" Polish Film Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001.
If Konwicki's name looms large in the history of Polish film-making, it is not only due to his own films. He has also been behind a number of other directors' major projects. He is particularly credited as the literary manager of the "Kadr" film-making group, headed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. He was also instrumental in (or provided inspiration for) the making of many important films of the Polish school movement, including those by directors like Andrzej Munk, Andrzej Wajda and Kazimierz Kutz. It was Konwicki who recommended Jerzy Stefan Stawiński's short story Canal / Kanał to Wajda when it was still a manuscript.
Konwicki's prose and essays written before the political thaw of 1956 bear all the typical marks of an author toeing the ideological line of the authorities, and they are, indeed, ideologically committed. But his film-making, which dates mostly from his later years, is nearly completely free of that fault. He got a rather unfortunate start as co-writer of the politically oriented script of Career, a movie directed by Jan Koecher. But as early as 1958 Konwicki got the chance to direct his first film, The Last Day of Summer, an important movie for several reasons. For one thing, it turned Konwicki from a man of letters flirting with the cinema into a full-fledged film-maker who, to quote Tadeusz Lubelski's later phrase, "was leaving behind the era of socialist realism" (Kino 6/2001) and its impact on his literary works. Secondly, to quote Lubelski again, "Konwicki's film debut took our film-making right into the very heart of European pursuits". Indeed, Konwicki was a forerunner of European trends; The Last Day of Summer, which is often compared to the French New Wave, was already being screened while the French film-makers were only just working out the principles of the New Wave breakthrough. This formally ascetic film, made by a group of friends with an extremely low budget and in a semi-amateurish style, was an unprecedented success. The protagonists, whose vivid memories of the war make them unable to enjoy true intimacy, are iconic characters for Konwicki. When interviewed by Konrad Eberhardt (Film 51/1960), he confessed that he consciously avoided direct representations of the calamities of war, choosing instead to focus on their psychological impact. This is where the value of The Last Day of Summer lies. It is in this approach to the war that Boleslaw Michałek ("Film" 28/1964) saw the beginnings of another, non-heroic trend in the Polish school, which would later produce such films as Konwicki's All Souls' Day, Jerzy Passendorfer's Return, Kazimierz Kutz's Nobody is Calling and Wojciech Has's How to be Loved.
War-damaged protagonists would come to populate Konwicki's films and books. The past dwelling in the present - a recurring theme for Konwicki - would be approached through increasingly complex formal means and in a variety of tones, balanced between the solemn, the ironic and the grotesque, mixing realism with dreams.
Konwicki belongs to a generation for whom the experience of war was all the more shattering because it occurred in their youth, along with their first joys, fascinations and loves. This is why (as Jacek Fuksiewicz notes in "Tadeusz Konwicki", a biography written in 1967) Konwicki creates protagonists who hate their past but are also fascinated by it. This is true of All Souls' Day, Salto and How Far, How Close to Here, as well as of Konwicki's prose. His stories grow out of his own past, but they are more than simply autobiographical.
I write books and make films about myself", said Konwicki in his interview with Eberhard. "In other words, I describe myself in the conditional mode, past imperfect or future tense. I create situations in which I behaved or could have behaved or wish I had behaved in a certain way."
This mixture of tenses and modes is what produced Konwicki's own particular style, a blend of the living and the dead, of the true, the likely and the untrue. He uses it to vivisect individuals as well as national myths and stereotypes; this style is especially visible in Salto and How Far, How Close to Here.
Most of Konwicki's films were based on scenarios he wrote himself. His two literary adaptations - The Issa Valley, from the novel by Czesław Miłosz and Lava, from Dziady / The Forefathers' Eve by Adam Mickiewicz - both used Konwicki's own scripts. In The Issa Valley the director and the writer share a sense of nostalgia for the lost Arcadia of childhood. Mickiewicz's Dziady was to Konwicki the very essence of the Polish national myth, myth playing a prominent role in Konwicki's own works. After all, his entire output is, in a way, a performance of the spirit-evoking rite much like the one in Mickiewicz's "forefathers' eve".
The public did not respond to Konwicki's Dziady (1989) as favourably as could have been expected. The screening coincided with a radical and difficult transformation of the system, and the public was still in a shock over the changes.
In 1969 our elite was ready to give their lives for each performance of 'Dziady'. Twenty years later, 'Lava' did not have much of an audience.
-Konwicki in an interview with Andrzej Werner (Kino 1/1991).
Since then, Konwicki has not made a single film. Instead, in 1994 he discovered a new experience in staging Maxim Gorky's Yegor Bulychov and Others at Warsaw's Ateneum Theatre.
As a script-writer, Konwicki has successfully adapted several literary works for other directors. The Pharaoh, Mother Joan of Angels and Austeria are the best examples. Of particular note is A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents, directed by Andrzej Wajda, for which Konwicki adapted his own novel.
Author: Ewa Nawój, November 2003; updated: November 2009.
Books and Films by Tadeusz Konwicki:
- Rojsty, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1956
- Z oblężonego miasta / From the Besieged City, Warsaw: Iskry, 1956
- Dziura w niebie / A Hole in the Sky, Warsaw: Iskry, 1959
- Sennik współczesny / A Dreambook for Our Time, Warsaw: Iskry, 1963
- Wniebowstąpienie / Ascension Into Heaven, Warsaw: Iskry, 1967
- Zwierzoczłekoupiór / The Anthropos-spectre-beast, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1969
- Nic albo nic / Nothing or Nothing, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1969
- Kronika wypadków miłosnych / Chronicle of Amorous Incidents, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1974
- Kalendarz i Klepsydra / The Calendar and the Hourglass, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1976
- Kompleks polski / The Polish Complex, Warsaw: Alfa, 1989
- Mała apokalipsa / A Minor Apocalypse, Warsaw: Alfa, 1988
- Wschody i zachody księżyca / Moonrise, Moonset, Warsaw: Krag, 1982
- Rzeka podziemna, podziemne ptaki / Underground River, Underground Birds, Warsaw: Alfa, 1984
- Nowy Świat i okolice / Nowy Świat Street and Vicinity, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1986
- Bohiń, Warsaw, 1991
- Zorze wieczorne / Northern Lights, Warsaw: Alfa, 1991
- Czytadło / Page-Turner, Warsaw: Niezalezna Oficyna Wydawnicza, 1992
- Pamflet na siebie / Slander Against Myself, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1995
- Pamietam, że było gorąco / I remember it was hot, Krakow: Znak, 2001
- Kalendarz i klepsydra (uncensored original version), Czytelnik 2005
- Wiatr i pył ["The Wind and the Dust"], Czytelnik 2008.
A Dreambook for Our Time / Sennik współczesny, The MIT Press, 1970
The Anthropos-spectre-beast / Zwierzoczłekoupiór, New York: S. Phillips, 1977
The Polish Complex / Kompleks polski, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982
A Minor Apocalypse / Mała apokalipsa, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983
Moonrise, Moonset / Wschody i zachody księżyca, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987
Bohin Manor / Bohiń, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990
New World Avenue and Vicinity / Nowy Świat i okolice, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991
L'Ascension, Paris: Gallimard, 1971;
Béthofantôme, Paris: Ed. Rupture 1978;
La petite apocalypse, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1981;
La Clé des songes contemporains, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1983;
Bohini, un manoir en Lituanie, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1984;
Fleuve souterrain, oiseaux de nuit, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1986;
Chronique des événements amoureux, Paris: Laffont-P.O.F., 1987;
Le complexe polonais, Paris: Laffont-P.O.F., 1988;
Le Nouveau Monde, Paris: Laffont-P.O.F., 1989;
Le Trou dans le ciel, Paris: Critérion, 1992;
Roman de gare contemporain, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994
Kronik der Liebesunfälle, Berlin-Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1978;
Die polnische Apokalypse, Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1982;
Angst hat grosse Augen, Wien: Europe-Verlag, 1973;
Die neue Strecke, Berlin: Dietz, 1951;
Modernes Tagebuch, München: Biederstein, 1964;
Auf der Spitze des Kulturpalastes, Hamburg: Claassen, 1973
Den lille apokalypse, Kopenhagen: Brundum, 1984
Isoäitin tarina, Hämeenlinna: Tammi, 1997
Pieni ilmestyskirja, Helsinki: Tammi, 1983
Nochebuena polaca, Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1984;
Un pequeño apocalipsis, Barcelona: Mario Muchnik, 1987
Director and script-writer:
- 1958 - The Last Day of Summer / Ostatni dzień lata (co-directed with Jan Laskowski)
Two lonely people meet on a deserted beach, trying vainly to get closer to each other, prevented by memories of the past dramas. The woman is particularly haunted by the war memories, the noise of aeroplanes reminding her of the death of the pilot she loved.
Turning limitations into strengths, Konwicki made a film whose power lies in the acting of just two actors set in the wilderness. Meticulously shot, the film is profoundly symbolic and, despite the seeming inaction, quite dynamic owing to the studied close-ups of the actors' faces and the use of the American plan. Of note is Jan Laskowski's camera work.
Awards: 1958 - Grand Prix at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Feature Film in Venice; Main Prize for an experimental film at EXPO 58 in Brussels; 1st Prize at the International Film Festival in London; 1974 - Cinema Lovers' Award for the Best Film of the 30 years of the Polish People's Republic, Świebodzin).
- 1961 - All Souls' Day / Zaduszki
Tragic memories of the war past stand in the way of getting truly close by two feeling-hungry, handicapped people. Both lost their beloved and the woman is additionally plagued by the sense of guilt for her boyfriend's death. A weekend spent together in a small town bringing back the painful memories nearly destroys the relationship which both of them need so badly.
Awards: 1962 - Special Jury Award at the International Film Festival in Mannheim; mention of the Folk Universities Association
- 1965 - Abitur, a story in Augenblick Des Friedens (Baccalaureate /Peace Time), a Hamburg television film of three parts, the other parts directed by France's Georges Franju and Germany's Egon Monk.
The plot is set during World War II. A young Pole is about to take his baccalaureate exams at underground courses, but his mind is preoccupied with the desire to join the partisans. His story is intertwined with those of a German and a Russian. The serious content is offset by the jocular tone.
- 1965 - Salto
A Mr Kowalski-Malinowski (Smith-Brown) comes to a small town, telling a number of versions of his life story, all apparently related to the locality. The visitor attracts attention, builds a strange, self-contradictory legend and undermines the sleepy quietness of the semi-surrealist town. A mocking picture of a war veteran, with equally mocking representations of national attitudes, deriving from the national mythology and represented by the locals. Stefan Morawski wrote these words about Salto in Film 31/1965: "Now the dramatic war veteran reveals the face of a buffoon, the drama turns into a tragic farce, the rituals and incantations ingrained in the national consciousness are parodied, and war suffering is shown in a grotesque light".
Awards: 1967 - Honorary Diploma at the International Film Festival in Edinburgh
- 1972 - How Far from Here, How Close / Jak daleko stąd, jak blisko
A portrait of a man who analyses his life on his 44th birthday. The past and the present, the actual and potential developments blend in a dreamy vision. "The protagonist seems to assume that travelling in time is possible, and things happen in an imaginary, invented time which he fittingly adjusts and changes", said Konwicki in the Film Press News 1/1972. The film is a formally complex analysis of what is commonly referred to as the Polish fate.
Awards: 1972 - The Warsaw Mermaid of the Film Critics' Club at the Polish Journalists' Association in the feature film category; Special Jury Award at the Lubuskie Film Summer in Łagów; 1973 - Special Award for Screenplay at the San Remo Film Festival.
- 1982 - The Issa Valley / Dolina Issy (based on a novel by Czesław Miłosz)
Like its literary basis, the film is a nostalgic return to the country of childhood, lost not only because of passing time but also literally, for in the aftermath of World War II the Vilnius region where both Konwicki and Milosz grew up turned to be beyond the borders of Poland. A contemplative story of growing up, the inevitable passage of time, and destiny.
- 1989 - Lava. The Story of Adam Mickiewicz's 'Dziady' / Opowieść o 'Dziadach' Adama Mickiewicza. Lawa
An avant garde adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady /The Forefathers' Eve, supplemented with a reflection on the historic role of the drama and its presence in the Polish national identity.
Awards: 1989 - Award of the Lodz Museum of Cinematography at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia; 1990 - Golden Tape 1998 Award of the Film Writers Group of the Polish Film-Making Association; The Warsaw Mermaid of the Film Critics' Club at the Polish Journalists' Association in the 1989 feature film category; The Don Quixote Award of the Polish Federation of Film Debating Societies; Award of the Chairman of the Cinematography Committee; Special Jury Award for a creative interpretation of a literary work at the Gdynia Polish Feature Film Festival.
- 1954 - Career / Kariera (directed by Jan Koecher).
Konwicki, who co-wrote the script with Kazimierz Sumerski, confided in an interview given to Katarzyna Bielas and Jacek Szczerba and published as "Tadeusz Konwicki. I remember it was hot" in Krakow in 2000 that the idea was Wiktor Woroszylski's and that he was involved in an initial stage of the scrip-writing process. A propaganda story of a spy from the West attempting to recruit collaborators in Poland. Published as "The Iron Curtain" (Warsaw 1955).
- 1956 - Winter Dusk / Zimowy zmierzch (directed by Stanisław Lenartowicz)
A psychological drama set in a provincial town. A conflict between the father and his son. The son, who returns from the army, has let down the girlfriend who had been waiting for him. Stylistically close to the German expressionism, the film was artistically innovative following the age of social realism.
- 1960 - Mother Joan of Angels / Matka Joanna od Aniołów (directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz).
Konwicki co-wrote the script with Kawalerowicz after a novel by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz.
- 1965 - Pharaoh / Faraon (directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz).
Konwicki co-wrote the script with Kawalerowicz after a novel by Bolesław Prus
- 1967 - Jowita (directed by Janusz Morgenstern).
The script was based on Disneyland by Stanisław Dygat.
- 1982 - Austeria (directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz).
Konwicki co-wrote the script with Kawalerowicz and Julian Stryjkowski after a novel by Stryjkowski.
- 1985 - Chronicle of Amorous Incidents / Kronika wypadków miłosnych (directed by Andrzej Wajda). Konwicki based the script on his own novel. A subtly delineated picture of a the budding, first love of Witek and Alina and a nostalgic vision of Vilnius in the pre-war days. Konwicki played the ambiguous Stranger, both a guardian of memory, an aged Wiktor re-visiting his lost adolescence, and a writer as such.
Adaptation of novels by Tadeusz Konwicki:
- 1972 - Wings / Skrzydła directed by Krzysztof Wojciechowski after Konwicki's novel The Anthropos-Spectre-Beast
- 1993 - La petite apocalypse, a loose interpretation of Konwicki's novel by Costa-Gavras.
Documentaries starring Tadeusz Konwicki:
- Passerby / Przechodzień by Andrzej Titkow, 1989;
- Tadeusz Konwicki. An Attempt at the Artist's Portrait. Warsaw 1989 by Mieczysław B. Vogt, 1990;
- Kowalski-Malinowski. About Konwicki's 'Salto' by Grzegorz Jankowski and Jacek Szczerba, 1998;
- Quite a Major Apocalypse by Andrzej Titkow, 2002;
- The Sun and the Shadow / Słońce i cień by Jan Holoubek, 2007.