Władysław Stanisław Reymont - novelist, short story writer, journalist. Born 7th May 1867 in the village of Kobiele Wielkie in Nowodworski County near Radom, he died 5 December 1925 in Warsaw.
His name at birth was Stanisław Władysław Rejment; he later changed the order of his first and middle names and the spelling of his surname.
He was one of seven children of a village organist, a man of relative wealth and ambition for his his children to do well in life. He was least successful in this regard with Wladyslaw Stanislaw, the future Nobel Prize winner refusing to get educated and learn to play the organ.
The family moved to Tuszyn when Reymont was one year old. Having spent his childhood there, he was sent by his father to a Warsaw tailor to learn the trade. In Warsaw he completed a Sunday Workers' School and, to qualify as a journeyman, he presented to the commission self-made tails that apparently were well-fitting. At the age of eighteen he joined a travelling acting company, but his family got him a job of a junior clerk at the Warsaw-Vienna Railway and he had to cope with boredom at the little stations in Rogow, Krosnowa and Lipce. He tried his hand in acting again, and in 1890 attached himself to a neophyte of mysterious knowledge, a fellow called Puszow, and left with him for Germany to spread spiritualism. He then tried being a novice at the Jasna Gora Monastery, but ended up again working at a railway station.
After his unexpected literary debut of 1894, he moved to Warsaw and decided to live by writing. After his finances improved, he travelled extensively, visiting London, Berlin, Italy and Paris in the 1890s. While in Paris he made some valuable literary friends, in particular with Stanisław Przybyszewski, Stefan Żeromski, Zenon Przesmycki, and met Frank-Luis Schoell, who would later produce an excellent translation of Chłopi / The Peasants.
In 1900 Reymont was badly injured in a train accident and was awarded high damages. While his injuries were treated in Cracow, he was looked after by an acquaintance, Aurelia Szabłowska, who ended up divorcing her husband, marrying Reymont, and introducing order into his turbulent life. They travelled a lot together and lived through the 1905 revolution and World War I in Warsaw.
Reymont was involved in a range of activities. He was chairman of the Union of Writers and Journalists and of the Warsaw Assistance Fund for Men of Letters and Journalists. He helped to set up the first filmmaking cooperative. After the war, in 1919-20, he travelled to the United States and sought economic assistance of the American Poles to help rebuild his destroyed country. In 1920 he bought the Kolaczkowo estate. Farming did not go well, especially that Reymont's poor health made him stay mostly at the Riviera. He was buried at the Powazki Cemetery, but his heart was deposited at the Holy Cross Church.
Right-wing political organizations tried to use Reymont's growing fame to their advantage. Reymont had been friends with, and benefited from the backing and financial assistance of key people of National Democracy, including Jan Poplawski, Roman Dmowski and Marian Kiniorski. In 1925 he was an honorary guest of a large peasant demonstration organized by the PSL Piast leader Wincenty Witos in Wierzchoslawice, his native village. While affiliations with the ideology of these organizations can be found in Reymont's works, they seem to have had little impact on him as a writer. For Reymont was a rare example of an outstanding, naturally talented reporter, who absorbed reality with all his senses and was able to present it in broad social panoramas. Neither the naturalism and realism of his works nor the elements of Young Poland's (Mloda Polska's) poetics resulted from some adopted literary doctrine - they were the effect of his way of observation and assimilation of the world. Naturally, the trends of the time had some impact, yet his works (with one exception) are about the reality which he himself experienced: the villages around Lowicz, big towns, provincial railway stations and travelling theatres, the world of spiritists and mediums, the life of the Polish American community. His books give a truly kaleidoscopic view of the Polish society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Reymont started to write in order to fill the void of the barren life of a railway clerk. He initially wrote poems and recorded daily events, later moving to short stories and novellas. People around him sneered at his literary aspirations. However, in 1892 he sent a novella Smierc / The Death and some correspondence to Ignacy Matuszewski of the Warsaw "Glos" and, to his surprise, they appeared in print. After this debut Cracow's "Mysl" accepted a few other novellas. This gave the penniless Reymont the courage to move to Warsaw and live solely by writing. He wrote a dozen more novellas and they appeared in the volumes Spotkanie / The Meeting (1897), Sprawiedliwie / In a Fair Manner (1899), W jesienną noc / An Autumn Night (1900), Krosnowa i swiat / Krosnowa and The World (1928).
A breakthrough in his literary career occurred with his reportage "The Pilgrimage to Jasna Gora". On the centenary of the Kosciuszko Insurrection, lots of praying pilgrims were on their way to Czestochowa. A correspondent of "Tygodnik Ilustrowany", Reymont melted into the crowd, travelled the whole way, and created a picture of an occasional community consisting of various, colourful individuals united by religious experience.
Over the following ten years Reymont wrote four large novels; all of them made it to history of literature. He wrote them in installments, week by week, and had them published in the press. He introduced few changes to later book versions. Then his talent distinctly waned, perhaps due to illness.
His first novel, Komediantka / The Comedienne, was printed in "Kurier Codzienny" in 1895 and got published as a book the following year. Its main character is Janka Orlowska, daughter of a small town railway station manager. Overwhelmed by monotony and meaninglessness of life, she runs away to Warsaw to be an actress. Reymont used his own experience to depict the actors' world; he showed the poor, mundane life of travelling companies, their pettiness and intrigues, their fleeting affairs. His beautiful protagonist does not have enough talent to stand out, gets bogged down in the reality which was to be her escape, and attempts suicide after artistic mishaps and a failed affair. Reymont's realistic portrayal of actors' lives addressed two issues which were important to the Young Poland period. The first one is the conflict between the artist and the philistine. It takes place between actors who have some ambition and the burgher public for which they perform; it also happens in the souls of artists whose aspirations get trampled by everyday life. The other theme is that of strong women striving for liberation from the fetters of family and social constraints, and for freedom and self-fulfillment.
Komediantka's sequel was the novel Fermenty / The Ferments, first printed in "Biblioteka Warszawska" in 1896 and then on its own in 1897. After her suicide attempt Janka Orlowska returns to her fatherls house to face the depressing boredom of provincial life. After a while she surrenders to financial pressures and gets married. She delays the consumption of her marriage, but eventually decides to fulfill her marital duties and to give birth. Reymont has created an interesting portrait of a woman who fails and yet refuses to lower herself to the standard of her environment, accepting her fate with dignity. Called by Reymont a "yoke", such a concept of life was a variant of the Young Poland's "doom", a category favoured by Stanisław Przybyszewski and other representatives of the movement. The Young Poland's fascination with pathological states is also reflected in the study of the development of Orłowska's father's mental illness.
In 1896 Reymont signed a contract for a new novel and left for Łódź. The novel was Ziemia obiecana / The Promised Land, a forceful, cruel and demonic vision of a young and growing capitalist metropolis. This story of three friends, Karol Borowiecki, Moryc Welt and Maks Baum, was printed in 1897-8 in "Kurier Warszawski" and published on its own in 1899. Reymont wanted the three nationalities of his protagonists to reflect the social composition of Lodz capitalists. He paints a broad, realistic picture of the town with its factories and shops, restaurants and railway stations, parks and streets, palaces of the rich and shanties of the workers. The capitalist town is shown as a monstrous, wild, vibrant and passionate metropolis dominated by greed, ruthlessness and cruelty. Anything goes in the fight for money: dishonesty, betrayal, theft, arson, mocked bankruptcy. Moral principles, loyalty and good intentions lose when confronted with such a world. Reymont contrasts this anti-utopia of an industrial town with the utopia of a pastoral village manor which respects tradition and established values. The use of a special language, abounding in metaphors, strong adjectives, lyrical and drastic descriptions, makes the novel graphically expressive. The contemporary reader will find it very modern and will be excited by its plot and its social observations.
In 1892-99 Reymont worked on his most famous novel, Chłopi / The Peasants. It was printed in installments in the magazine "Tygodnik Ilustrowany" in 1902-6 and got published on its own in 1904 (vols. 1-2), 1906 (vol. 3), 1909 (vol. 4). Reymont created a broad panorama of the people and nature of the Lowicz-area village. Whereas Ziemia obiecana had industrialists - a social group without internal ties - as the protagonist, Chlopi are about a community united by joint work and joint life. Characteristically for Reymont's novels, the community includes its typical representatives, such as a squire, priest, organist, miller, rich farmers, farm hands and beggars, all endowed with individual traits. The plot revolves around the Boryna family - Maciej, the wealthy farmer; Jagna, his young wife; and Antek, his son. A passionate love affair is going on between Maciej and his stepmother. The novel starts with a scene of Boryna's festive wedding and ends in his funeral, thus placing human lives within the perennial cycle of birth, the passage of time, and death. The rites of human lives are subordinated to the rhythm of nature, it defining the sequences of work and rest. The rhythm of nature is close to the order of liturgy, with church holidays and folk rituals, and human and natural life thus acquiring a cosmic and sacral dimension. Critics unanimously agreed that by painting a comprehensive picture of village life, work and customs, Reymont wrote a great realistic novel, a peasant epic and a timeless myth of human and natural life.
The novel has a unique language, for Reymont wrote its dialogues in a styled dialect which he himself created rather than imitated. Long and numerous descriptions of nature, however, are written predominantly in a lyrical language with clear Young Poland's influences.
Chłopi earned Reymont the Polish Academy of Competence Prize in 1917 and the Nobel Prize in 1924. He won in a worthy company, his rivals including Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorky and Thomas Hardy. Still, the Polish public was of the opinion that the Nobel should have gone to Stefan Zeromski. The fact that Zeromski did not get the prize may have been influenced by back-stage activities of the National Democracy, the party considering him a left-wing writer.
In 1913-18 Reymont worked on a large historical trilogy Rok 1794 / 1794. Its parts (Ostatni Sejm Rzeczpospolitej / The Last Sejm of the Commonwealth, Nil Desperandum, Insurekcja / Insurrection) were published respectively in 1913, 1916 and 1918. Reymont's only major source-based novel, it was a sort of an extensive fictional historical reportage from the Kosciuszko Insurrection period and an analysis of the causes of its failure.
Reymont wrote a number of other works; none of them, however, equalled his key novels in popularity or significance, or earned him the position in the history of literature achieved with Ziemia obiecana and Chlopi. They were about the 1905 revolution (Zabiłem / The Killing, Czekam / I Am Waiting, Na krawędzi / On the Edge, Z konstytucyjnych dni / The Days of The Constituion), his stay in Brittany (Burza / The Storm, Powrót / The Return, Tesknota / The longing), his fascination with occultism (Dziwna opowiesc / A Strange Story, Wampir / The Vampire), the defence of the Uniates against the Tsarist persecution (Z Ziemi Chelmskiej / From the Land of Chelm), the atrocities of World War I (Dola / The Fate, Za Frontem / Behind the Frontline), his stay in the Polish community in the United States.
Despite some affiliations - of a mostly linguistic nature - with the poetics of Young Poland, Reymont's writing was predominantly realistic. In an age of great philosophical problems and psychological studies it may be found lacking in profundity, but it is redeemed by scale, vividness and abundance of detail, the characteristics which make it perfect cinema stuff. Ziemia Obiecana was first filmed by Aleksander Hertz in 1927 (with Zbigniew Gniazdowski), then by Andrzej Wajda in 1974. Wajda's film, starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Daniel Olbrychski and Kalina Jędrusik in unforgettable roles, was Oscar-nominated and won the Grand Prix in Moscow. Chłopi was adapted for the screen by Eugeniusz Modzelewski in 1922, and in 1973 Jan Rybkowski turned it into a thirteen-episode TV series, which he then condensed into a feature. In 1986 Jerzy Sztwiertnia made a nine-episode series after Komediantka.
Reymont's work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. His former estate of Kołaczkowo now houses his museum.
Main editions of Reymont's works include "Pisma. Wydanie zbiorowe zupełne" / "Writings. A Complete Collective Edition", vols. 1-20, Warsaw 1921-25; "Pisma" / "Writings" vols. 1-20, Warsaw 1948-52; "Pisma" / "Writings" vols. 1-11, Warsaw 1968-80.
Author: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, March 2004
Władysław Stanisław Reymont