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Teodor Parnicki

Novelist, born 1908 in Berlin, died 1988 in Warsaw.

Teodor Parnicki's biography abounds in extraordinary events and facts. He was born in Berlin on 5th March 1908 as the first son of engineer Bronislaw Parnicki and Augustyna nee Piekarska; they had met in Kiev, where Bronislaw, his family originating from the region of Wielkopolska, first studied at the Catholic seminary and then moved to the polytechnic. Having been expelled from Russia for political activity, he ended up in Berlin. From there the Parnickis returned to Russia in 1911 to settle in Moscow. As German subjects, they were transferred to Ufa when World War I broke out. Teodor lost his mother in 1918 and after his father married for the second time, he left the family home and joined the Cadet Corps in Omsk. The revolution having taking him as far as Vladivostok, he - aged not yet ten at that time - ran away from the Corps and managed to get to Kharbin in search for his relatives. There he got assistance from the local Poles and became a student of the Polish gymnasium. Seven years later, while he was taking his baccalaureate examinations, news of the death of his father reached him and he decided to go to Poland.

In 1928 Parnicki enrolls at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov to pursue Polish, English and Oriental studies. Among other activities, he listens to the lectures of the prominent historian and theoretician of literature, Juliusz Kleiner.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s Parnicki tries his hand in literary essay-writing and critique, and in literature itself. The daily "Lwowski Kurier Poranny" prints his detective novel in installments, Trzy minuty po trzeciej / Three Minutes Past Six; years later he will mention it will little enthusiasm. What therefore is considered his true debut is the essay "Henryk Sienkiewicz a Aleksander Dumas (ojciec) / Henryk Sienkiewicz versus Alexandre Dumas (father)" which appeared in the Kharbin-based "Tygodnik Polski" in 1928. Nine years later, in 1937, Parnicki's first major novel, Aecjusz ostatni Rzymianin / Aetius the Last Roman comes out, marking the start of his great oeuvre as a novelist who will strive not only to understand the logic of history but also to revive the genre of the historical novel.

The critics notice Aetius and put it forward for the Young Award of the Polish Academy of Literature. The Academy's grant which Parnicki ultimately gets takes him on a journey across Greece, Constantinople and Italy in 1939 to return to Poland just before the outbreak of the war. The Russians arrest him in Lvov in 1940 and he is taken deep into the Russian interior and subjected to repressions which he manages to survive. From 1941 he works at the Polish Embassy in Kuybyshev. Finally he gets out of the Soviet Russia with General Anders' army in 1943 and reaches the Middle East. In Jerusalem, where he arrives via Teheran, he writes Srebrne Orły / The Silver Eagles, certainly consulting the Polish references available at Hebrew University to trace the Polish state formation process at the time of Boleslaw Chrobry. The novel comes out in 1944.

Parnicki spent the last two war years in Mexico as a representative of Poland's London-based government in exile and settled there after the war.

He was at last free to focus on writing, yet missed contact with his readers. Cut off from Polish culture and live language, he nevertheless worked on Slowo i cialo / The Word and the Body and on Koniec "Zgody Narodów" / The End of the Concord of Nations, the novels which develop the Aetius theme of the nature and logic of history and reflect on the clash of different cultures and value systems, and languages which perpetuate the differences. He is fascinated by the opposition of civilizations and this drives him to focus on the end of Rome's heyday.

In addition to his efforts to understand the logic of historical events, Parnicki was keen to penetrate the minds of his characters, and did so successfully. He was always interested in how the outside world was received by those who came to live in it, and attached great importance to the intertwining of individual lives with chains of events. He combined the conventional historical novel with psychological narrative to achieve a brand new type of a story about the past. Indeed, the emphasis on internal life of the characters of Srebrne Orly and, later, Koniec "Zgody Narodów" will determine the nature of his later writing.

Parnicki gets married in 1955 and the same year his Koniec "Zgody Narodów" is published in Paris. He takes a keen interest in European transformations and monitors the events in Poland. 1956, the memorable year in the Polish history, is also significant for him as it marks the start of the revival of his relationship with his native country. After the Instytut Wydawniczy PAX publishes the second edition of Aecjusz ostatni Rzymianin, every subsequent novel of his will appear in Poland.

Parnicki's works increasingly acquire a fantastic, or fairy-tale, dimension, with unreal motifs becoming equivalent to real, historical components of the story. He challenges the descriptive narrative with its purely fact-based representation of history and immerses more deeply in a stream of multi-layered, overlapping and contradictory commentaries and pictures. His subsequent novels release the awareness of what the critics have dubbed the "novelness", whereby the protagonists are made conscious of being characters of stories. Using a step by step approach, Parnicki unveils the writing process to the reader, his books becoming accounts of laboratory-like experiments in which the characters and readers alike witness the formation of the text, the overcoming of difficulties of bringing all themes together, the solving of mysteries and the exploration of the essence of the historical process. This new, fairy-tale and myth-like poetics acquires a particular prominence in his works from the 1960s, the period when he publishes the first volume of the long-term cycle Nowa basn / The New Fable. This multi-themed story with references to Srebrne Orly and other books is reminiscent of the multi-level-structured, mythological narrative.

Parnicki uses European and non-European - Mexican, for instance - history, like in the novel Labirynt / The Labirynth, its title an apt reflection of his complicated writing. We, the readers, as well as the characters and the narrator, seem to be moving in corridors of unknown directions and unpredictable destinations.

Due to its limited size, a profile like this cannot possibly give full justice to Parnicki's enormous creative powers nor to his historical and literary erudition. While quoting, referring to literary heritage, using proverbs and bon mots, he exploited the stuff which in one form or another had always circulated and been present in the Polish culture, yet he made a creative selection, used veils, developed the mysterious threads and challenged the readers' erudition.

Once out, Slowo i cialo, Twarz ksiezyca / The Face of the Moon, the first volume of Nowa basn and Tylko Beatrycze / Only Beatrice earned Parnicki a following a readers. His popularity was rising despite the fact that every new book of his took a considerable effort of the intellect and imagination to comprehend. A direct contact with the writer was not possible until 1963, when Parnicki came to Poland at the invitation of the PAX publishing house. This half-year visit was extremely important and useful, allowing him to understand the situation of the Polish culture and to get to know the opinions and feedback on his writing. He was surprised to discover that not everybody called him a historical novelist - as if they did not understand the method of historical studies which he tried to consistently develop from early on. This prompted him to write in the preface to I u moznych dziwny / Strange Even Among the Mighty, the novel utilizing the theme of the mysterious youth of Zagloba, a Henryk Sienkiewicz character:

"I will defend a view that a historical novel is a novel whose basic concept was born after a historical event (or a series of such events) made known to the writer as a result of his becoming familiar with information contained in a scholarly historical work had fertilized his intellect and imagination. This is how all my historical novels have been conceived".

All in all, Parnicki always underlined his historical novelist's background.

After 1963 had brought him two awards - the Wlodzimierz Pietrzak Literary Award and the Paris Kultura Award - he returned to Poland in July 1967 to settle there permanently. The 1960s saw him write further, dynamic volumes of Nowa basn; together with other novels, they formed the skeleton of his grand literary and biographical construction, a meeting point of truth and imagination, of fact and fiction.

As well as acquainting the reader with the world of ancient events, Parnicki's prose reveals the workings of creation, his novels being stories of novel-writing and of developing plots that will conquer the presented world and the author himself. He intended to create a new style of historical novel, one that would be multi-voiced and different from the traditional narration of Sienkiewicz's - a never-ending and endless story capturing the events at birth and at subsequent phases, the retrospections and the transformations. He read a series of lectures that presented and analyzed his works at the Polish Studies Institute, Warsaw University, in the academic year 1972/73.

In 1983 Parnicki received an honorary doctorate from Jagiellonian University. His other distinctions included the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award and twice the National Award of 1st Degree.

Teodor Parnicki died in Warsaw on 5 December 1988.

Major works (with dates of first editions):

  • Trzy minuty po trzeciej / Three Minutes Past Six, detective story printed in installments in "Lwowski Kurier Poranny" in 1929 and 1930
  • Czan-Tso-Lin (story for young readers) 1932
  • Hrabia Julian i król Roderyk / Count Julian and King Roderyk (written 1934, published 1976)
  • Aecjusz, ostatni Rzymianin / Aetius, the Last Roman 1937
  • Srebrne orly / The Silver Eagles 1944
  • Koniec 'Zgody Narodów' / The End of the 'Concord of Nations' 1955
  • Słowo i ciało / Word and Flesh 1960
  • Twarz księżyca / The Face of the Moon, vols.1-2 1961, vol. 3 1967
  • Nowa baśń / The New Fable, six-volume series 1962-70
  • Tylko Beatrycze / Only Beatrice 1962
  • I u możnych dziwny / Strange even among the Mighty 1965
  • Kola na piasku / Wheels on the Sand 1966
  • Smierć Aecjusza / Aetius' Death 1966
  • Zabij Kleopatrę / Kill Cleopatra 1968
  • Inne życie Kleopatry / Cleopatra's Other Life 1969
  • Muza dalekich podróży / The Muse of Distant Journeys 1970
  • Tożsamość / Identity 1970
  • Przeobrażenie / Transformation 1973
  • Staliśmy jak dwa sny / There We Stood Like Two Dreams 1973
  • Sam wyjdę bezbronny / I Shall Leave Defenceless 1976
  • Dary Kordoby / The Gifts of Cordoba 1981
  • Rozdwojony w sobie / Split Inside 1983
  • Sekret trzeciego Izajasza / The Secret of the Third Isaiah 1984
  • Kordoba z darów / Cordoba of Gifts 1988

Published posthumously:

  • Opowieść o trzech Metysach / A Tale of Three Metises 1994
  • Ostatnia powieść / The Last Novel 2003

Other publications include:

  • Opowiadania / Short Stories 1958
  • Szkice literackie / Literary Essays 1978
  • Historia w literaturę przekuwana / History Turned Literature 1980, a series of academic lectures

Author: Wojciech Kaliszewski, December 2006's picture
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Teodor Parnicki


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