Writer, journalist, playwright, diarist. Born on the 10th of November 1884 in Warsaw. Died in Warsaw on the 17th of December 1954.
In the first stage of her artistic career Nałkowska would write psychological novels of manners which followed the poetics of the Young Poland movement highlighting the social situation and inner life of women. The protagonists of Nałkowska's novels do not agree on social conventions but long for freedom and want to live in accordance with their own rules. Such themes can be found in: Lodowe pola / Ice Fields, a debut novel from 1904 which later became the first volume of the trilogy entitled Kobiety / Women (1906). Her later books also address the issue of emancipation of women and explore the psychological aspects of human relations. In her early works, a tension between the acceptance of aesthetic and ideological assumptions of Modernism and an attempt at overcoming them is clearly noticeable. It can be observed at the language level: fondness for a wordy and elaborated phrase tussles with transparent narration and concise descriptions.
Born the daughter of Wacław Nałkowski, a geographer, journalist as well as a teacher and Anna (née Šafránek), a teacher and author of geography handbooks; a sister of Hanna Nałkowska, a sculptor. Nałkowska attended a boarding school in Warsaw, and continued her education at a clandestine "Flying" University. She made her debut in 1898 with a poem entitled Pamiętam / I Remember published in a "Przegląd Tygodniowy" weekly. Her first prose piece, a short story Orlica / The Eagless, appeared in print in 1903 in "Ogniwo" journal.
In 1904 Nałkowska married Leon Rygier, a poet, writer and teacher, and they settled first in Kielce, next Kraków, Warsaw and their family house near Wołomin. After Poland had regained independence, Nałkowska took up a post at the Office of the Foreign Propaganda at the Council of Ministers (1920-1922). She participated in the establishment of the Professional Association of Polish Writers (1920). In 1922 she got married again, this time to lieutenant colonel Jan Jur-Gorzechowski, a former activist of the Polish Socialist Party and promoter of the armed forces established by Józef Piłsudzki, the Polish Legions. With her husband, Nałkowska moved to a castle near Vilnius, and then to Grodno, where Gorzechowski served as the head of military police. The marriage ended in 1929.
Beginning with 1929 Nałkowska lived in Warsaw. She was appointed the Vice-Chairman of the Polish PEN Club, while in the subsequent years she also performed the function of its Chairman. Nałkowska developed her writing talent publishing short prose pieces as well as articles in the following newspapers and journals: Tygodnik Ilustrowany, Kobieta współczesna, Wiadomości Literackie and Głos Prawdy. She also ran a literary salon, vivid descriptions of which were preserved in the memoirs of Witold Gombrowicz, Jan Kott or Tadeusz Breza. Nałkowska participated in protests over repressions against leftist activists, national minorities as well as political opposition. In 1933, she was appointed the only female member of the Polish Academy of Literature. The writer also belonged to Przedmieście literary group consisting of left-wing writers of the interwar period.
After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Nałkowska left Warsaw again where she had returned from a month-long trip to the east. Under the German occupation of the capital city, the writer made ends meet running a tobacco shop and receiving advance payments from Zbigniew Mitzner, a representative of a publishing house "Wisła" which was planned to be established after the war was over (the advance payments allowed Nałkowska to start working on her novel Węzły życia / Bonds of Life). Nałkowska actively participated in a clandestine literary movement. From time to time, she would go to the countryside, to visit her friend Zofia Villaume-Zahrtowa in Adamowizna near Grodzisk Mazowiecki, where she had perfect conditions for writing. There, she also stayed during the Warsaw Uprising.
Following the liberation of Poland, Nałkowska would live in Kraków, Łódź, and beginning with 1950 in Warsaw. She was a member of the editorial board of "Kuźnica" weekly. The writer participated in the works of the Central Commission for the Investigation of the Nazi War Crimes, which provided an inspiration for her collection of short stories Medaliony / Medallions (1946). Excerpts from the collection were published in such magazines as: Przekrój, Nowa Kultura and Twórczość, among others. In 1947 Nałkowska was elected as MP to Legislative Sejm, and in 1952 to the Sejm of the People's Republic of Poland. She was actively involved in the works of the Sejm Culture and Art Commission, Committee for Saving Peace and the League for Combating Racism.
The writer received a large number of distinctions, including two national awards in 1936 and 1953, as well as the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature in 1936. She passed away on December 17, 1954 in Warsaw. In 1989, Zofia Nałkowska Museum was opened in Grodno, while in 1992 Zofia and Wacław Nałkowski Museum was established in Wołomin.
Gombrowicz, who as a young writer was a friend of Nałkowska and would often visit her literary salon, drew a reliable portrayal of the writer in Wspomnienia polskie/ Polish Memoirs:
Have I already mentioned the visits at Zofia Nałkowska's? Her home was at the very heart of the literary life in Warsaw. Soon after publishing my first book, I was introduced to her salon whose major attraction was a huge palm plant grown with a maternal care by Mrs. Zofia who admired peculiar forms of nature.
On a sofa, there would sit Mrs. Zofia, the only female member of the Academy of Literature, who led the conversation as if she were one of the distinguished matrons of the pre-war times. It reminded me of "the five o'clock" at my mother's, or the parties at the canonesses'. Still, there was no doubt that the intelligence and manners of this remarkable woman shaped the quality of the conversation and successfully dealt with quite a variety of characters who took part in the meetings. I was often amazed at the skilfulness with which this lady managed to rekindle even the most notorious savages, outsiders, stutterers or taciturn guests. Her social talent disappeared only in front of Witkiewicz – when this giant with a face of a canny schizophrenic appeared, Mrs. Zofia would desperately look at her trusted friends – since that moment on the conversation vanished into the thin air and Witkacy took the floor. (...)
Nałkowska established quite an extensive social network which encompassed the political scene, in particular the followers of the Piłsudzki movement as she maintained a close relationship with the Marshal – and Piłsudzki himself stayed a few days at her place, probably during the period of coup d'état. (...) Apart from the Piłsudzki followers, government and political circles, there were of course the representatives of the world of literature and art. For example, Karol Szymanowski (...), but mostly women with whom Nałkowska entered into quite complex and, I would add, perverse relationships: they weren't dear to her heart as she preferred the company of men, but on the other hand she felt the solidarity with women and took them under her ‘protective' wing as Breza viciously commented.
However, the greatest burden upon Mrs. Zofia's salon were some weird, most often dull and terribly inconspicuous characters made of neither flesh nor bone, rather by some unreal coincidence who hatched from nowhere. The distinguished host owned many of them, as I suspect, to Bogusław Kuczyński, a young, probably twenty-five year old man with whom she was befriended. Kuczyński was a writer at the beginning of his literary career who published a book under the title of "Kobiety na drodze / Women on the Way" so scarce and austere in expression that it was impossible for it to win him a broader audience. Still, these were exactly such odd, marginal and unconventional works that were of interest to Nałkowska's vivid mind. Perhaps, Kuczyński himself was of interest to her, a handsome but also a thoroughly taciturn young man, who soon go a nickname of "the dumbfounded one" (...).
This "dumbfounded" Bogusław (...) would bring various weirdoes to Mrs. Zofia's just in case something comes out of them. And this is what Nałkowska loved most: sniffing the talent, searching for some qualities even if it was impossible to notice them but with a zooming glass. She was handed in a script of an unknown poet, and three days later it was discussed over tea. And many times her sense for novelty did not fail her: she was the one to discover Schulz, clear the way for Rudnicki or Breza, support Piętak, and offer help and advice to me – no wonder that youngsters were so attracted to her.
With the end of World War I, social and political issues started to play an increasingly important role in Nałkowska's prose. It is true for Romans Teresy Hennert / Teresa Hennert's Love Affair (1923), a novel growing out of the experiences of recently gained independence. Her marriage to Jur-Gorzechowski allowed the writer to have a closer look at the establishment circles. She used her observations to draw a critical portrayal of the elites of the II Republic of Poland. In Teresa Hennert's Love Affair the attempt at social diagnosis intertwines with a romance enriching the novel with a touch of psychological and sociological realism .
Whereas in her autobiographical novel Dom nad łąkami / A House in the Meadows (1925), Nałkowska presented nature and local people of the Wołomin land with which she became familiar while living there in a family house.
Her other novel Choucas (1927) is an attack on the colonial system of the Western European countries and various forms of nationalism. Whereas in Niedobra miłość. Romans prowincjonalny / Bad Love. A Provincial Romance, a novel set at the Polish-Belarusian borderline, the writer analyses a difficult situation of national minorities and relations between various social classes: landed gentry, state officials, the army, proletariat and peasantry.
In the early 1930s she tried her hands at play writing. Her play Dom kobiet / The House of Women (1930) won great renown and appreciation of many critics, including the usually sarcastic Antoni Słonimski, who wrote in "Wiadomości Literackie" journal:
The play by Zofia Nałkowska is by all means a literary sensation. This remarkable Polish novelist and one of the most contemporary and intriguing European writers ventured at a new literary form, and, one has to admit it, has been quite successful.
Her subsequent drama entitled Dzień jego powrotu / The Day of His Return (1931) also impressed Słonimski:
It is a major step on the road to full development of Nałkowska's talent, which places her among the writing elites of Europe. The direction of Nałkowska's development is certainly impressive. It is not up to us to decide whether "The Day of His Return" would have been even more powerful and profound if written in the form of a novel. The bloom of Nałkowska's talent fell on the days of her romance with theatre. (quoted after: Jan Gebethner, "Autorka i jej wydawca / The Author and Her Publisher", in: "Wspomnienia o Zofii Nałkowskiej / Memoirs on Zofia Nałkowska", 1965)
Following that "romance with theatre", the writer returned to novel writing by publishing one of her most important books: Granica / The Frontier. The novel features a story of Zenon Ziembiewicz, a student, who as time passes by pursues his career as a city mayor. He gets involved in a love affair, and consequently is torn between his wife Elżbieta and his lover Justyna Bogutówna – a cook's daughter – who gets pregnant and in response to his persuasions decides on a late abortion. The termination of pregnancy leads the girl into a state of melancholy. As her mental condition deteriorates, everything is brought to a gloomy end – with a corrosive acid Justyna blinds Zenon who commits suicide.
The melodramatic plot does not exhaustedly convey all meanings of the novel whose vivid and realistic palette of secondary characters is as important as the relations between the three main protagonists. In this novel, Nałkowska focuses less on drawing a psychological portrayal of her protagonists, and more on setting them in a specific social context dense with tensions and contrasts. This evolution in her writing style was noticed by Ludwik Fryde, who in 1936 wrote:
As in any work written by Nałkowska, in "The Frontier" the issues of its protagonists are presented from an individual, not a social, perspective. (...) Still, it was exactly in this novel that the technique of crafting a character starts to undergo certain changes. The author sets off to present them externally through daily routines, which expose the one and only truth about the existence of: Walerian Ziembiewicz, Mrs. Żancia, the Posztraski family and others. Thus, a life of an individual shrinks considerably while the traditional, inexhaustible psychological issues nearly disappear. Actually, the only psychological issue left to explore is the process of an individual slowly turning into a cog in the machine of social conventions. (Ludwik Fryde, " 'Granica' Zofii Nałkowskiej / 'The Frontier' by Zofia Nałkowska", in: "Droga" 1936)
The discrepancy between a subjective and emotional vision of our life as we create it and the perspective of other people which brings to light the schematic nature and repetitiveness of our behaviour is the key issue addressed in The Frontier. However, Kazimierz Wyka claims that the writer failed to find an artistically convincing form for this problem. The writer's intentions become clear to readers not so much from the structure and content of the work itself but from the author's comments. In his comprehensive review of The Frontier ("Czas", 1935), Wyka notices:
In the novel's two decisive moments, Zenon broods over his entanglement. He realizes that he has fallen into a typical and familiar pattern (...) but does not want to acknowledge it. Why? – asks the writer later on: "Is it that each case, even the most common one, seems unique from the inside and every emotional pattern is each time anew? Is it that looking at oneself through the eyes of other people and judging oneself by their standards contain this disquiet that we cannot stand." Zenon soon thinks about himself in a similar manner: "Perhaps everything actually is as it appears. And who we are to people is more important than who we are through our own eyes." (...) We are stubborn egocentrics – the author claims – always drawing the circle of the world beginning with ourselves; we do not want to adjust to any standards or fit into any patterns designed by others. When looked at from the outside, however, we and our conflicts always fall into certain categories. "The protagonist of The Frontier attempted to break free from these rules, and that is exactly what brought his collapse."
It was supposed to be the idea behind "The Frontier". Yet, the descriptions of the behavioural patterns offered by Nałkowska are not comprehensive in terms of content. What kind of pattern is it anyway? Any behavioural pattern, or psychological simplification exists only from the perspective of the external world, the surroundings, never from the perspective of the people that fall into that pattern. Thus, in order for the play between internal interpretation and interpretation of facts and reality to take place, we must definitely know the other partner. And this is exactly what's missing in Nałkowska's novel. There are no persons, events or reactions to prove that Zenon's ménage à trois is analysed from the outside and fits into a pattern. (...) Except for Elżbieta, nobody from Zenon's surroundings knows about his entanglement, and it is never to become public. In spite of his efforts, Zenon does not succeed in examining his own case from the outside.
(...) The writer t e l l s u s about the schematic nature of Zenon's case, but fails to p r e s e n t i t. Since the novel is set in a provincial town, gossip would serve as a perfect example of how this pattern functions (...)
What would open up the possibilities lying behind ‘The Frontier' is the confrontation between Zenon's case and the mob law, and the potentially resulting gossip; that is what a conventional life would look like. In Nałkowska's case, the schematic nature of Zenon's case has remained dull.
Wyka recognised, however, the high value of The Frontier by pointing to the fact that a wide range of social issues, as if demanding to be put up for discussion after reading the book, illustrate the writer's excellence. Whereas in his text "Zofia Nałkowska na tle swojej nowej powieści" (Zofia Nałkowska against the backdrop of her new novel"), Bruno Schulz subtly analysed the language of her prose in Skamander journal (1939):
Nałkowska has complemented the Polish prose in terms of linguistic tones and registers, which rank her at the top of the European prose writing. Her contribution, however, has been based on tightening discipline and selectiveness as well as limiting an exuberant set of vocabulary in the sense of a certain puritanism and conventionalism rather than enriching the language. While Kaden-Bandrowski took the entire sensual, material and onomatopoeic power of words, vulgarisms and dialects from the remarkable heritage of Żeromski, Nałkowska took syntax purity and sophistication, precise vocabulary and refined sentence accuracy. She never turns to a high density of pleonasms or hurricane-like fluency; her prose is not filled with sudden strokes of indigenous word formation. Her writing shows more of a uniquely bitter restraint, certain noble humbleness and moderation, and purposefully small doses of words. There was a time when the icy and unworldly cleanness, or glassy virtuosity at an isolated height, posed a threat of cutting her prose off from the source of a living, spoken language. This threat has been lifted in her recent novels, where she abandons the rarefied air of the mountain tops in favour of a more nourishing, less meticulous and, above all, highly accurate prose. It helped her to achieve a certain classical and ideal comprehensiveness of expression and an absolute balance of means and intentions.
Right before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Niecierpliwi / The Impatient was released. In this psychological novel set in the circle of a provincial intelligentsia, the writer tells a story of dispirited people marked with the fatalism of a suicide. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Jerzy Zawieyski alike considered The Impatient as one of Nałkowska's most outstanding works.
The war interrupted the novelist's work for a few years. Following the September wandering, the writer of The Frontier returned to Warsaw where she survived the German occupation earning a living as a keeper of a tobacco shop. The struggle for survival in the war reality prevented her from pursuing her literary goals but did not discourage her from actively participating in a clandestine cultural life. Neither did it dissipate her energy, courage or charm in facing adversities. This is how Tadeusz Breza remembered the tobacco shop ran by the Nałkowski sisters:
The dense atmosphere of envy and anxiety that every queue radiates, in particular if it coils several times with its end in the crackling cold, would depress anyone. (...) Anyone but Mrs. Zofia who would get up at six in the morning in order to collect the rations from a warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of the city, bring it safely to the city centre and replace her sister in the afternoon. Her hands like that of a pianist somehow played what they desired using boxes with products, banknotes, or change, while her language as acute as ever would allow her to formulate, in complete peacefulness, a certain excellent comment or tasteful story accompanied by the meaningful expression of her eyes. And there wasn't a trace of self-admiration, tense eloquence or insensitivity but such a high class of physical brain substance comparable to an excellent engine operating in any conditions.” (Tadeusz Breza, "Wspomnienie o 'Węzłach życia' / Memoirs of 'Bonds of Life' ", in: "Wspomnienia o Zofii Nałkowskiej / Memoirs on Zofia Nałkowska").
Living in Warsaw under occupation did not foster writing novels, yet Nałkowska did not give up her literary activity – throughout the entire war she would keep a diary which many consider to be her greatest achievement. Nałkowska wrote a diary for nearly sixty years beginning with her early youth to her death. These journal entries collected into six volumes and published by "Czytelnik" publishing house have stood the test of time to a greater extent than her novels. And why? One of the possible answers to this question may be found in the diary of the young, not even eighteen-year-old, Zofia who as early as in 1902 perceived the role of her diary writing from a surprisingly mature perspective:
In as much as I lead a literary life, I write a real-life diary. There is no "fiction" here. While writing, I am always in a hurry to squeeze in as much as possible not to miss anything. I do not care about the form; I cram facts one after another leaving ponderings and effects aside. What I achieve in this way is a certain directness, certain freshness of life, which I highly appreciate.
Directness, freshness and passion for chronicling are striking features of Dzienniki / Diaries as read today. The spontaneous form of these entries written on-the-run combined with the writer's talent for observation and introspection as well as intellectual flourish and emotional depth account for the fact that Diaries have stood the test of time. They are not overburdened by the excess of "fiction" and "effects" – as such they are the literature in the exact sense of the word, still vivid and unsettling. Living in the occupied Warsaw of 1942 , Nałkowska again mentions the need to hurry in order to squeeze as much as possible in her journal entries, however this time, she is not driven by a young girl's hunger for experience but a despair of a person every day experiencing decay, death and collapse of the familiar world:
It seems to me that I experience the irreversible and irretrievable passage of time stronger than others. Perhaps, the reason for it is my poor memory, who knows, if it hasn't already started to weaken. The passage of my emotions and the passage of people who keep leaving and passing away, who leave nothing behind: this is the sole drive behind my writing. As always, I am not concerned with historical events, fate of entire nations, facts passing in the back motion – this is not what tempts me as others will deal with it in a much better way – but with the life as I have seen and experienced myself, that is totally doomed to failure. Not only am I someone in a boat drifting against the tide but as shores pass by, I am leaving myself behind. But the water itself, the essence of life motion, continues to pass out of my memory. Drifting, I keep leaving myself on those shores and at the same time I am sailing around myself. And I fail to achieve the goal of keeping records. I will never succeed, never be on time, never embrace, never accomplish, never remember everything. Pooh, it's gone, it has evaporated, it's lost for good. It sounds ridiculous that the most important of all my ‘worries' is that everything will perish and be wasted, and I am the one to blame. - April 1, 1942
Already her adolescent entries from Diaries show the writer's ability to combine introspection with distance, rational analysis and self-irony.
The eighteen-year-old Zofia would write with an aphoristic brevity: "my satisfaction is less boring to me than my despair". Or: "I like being popular with those people who have no idea that I write – they are the ones who appreciate me for my beauty, cheerfulness, conversational skills and not for the miserable ‘spiritual side'. It's the ultimate failure when one has to resort to it while flirting". The diary also documents everyday struggles of a young woman deprived of life comforts or affluence:
It is hard to believe to what extent happiness depends on money... Shortage surrounds me (...) There is something tasteless about poverty. It is such a sorrowful condition that one constantly wants to shake it off as if it was a sticky spider web. (...) I am writing at a table made of door laid on an old wooden washbasin and covered with a shabby time-worn bedspread. I writing by light of a candle burning out in a candlestick greened with age. I can smell a wonderful bouquet of flowers placed in a preserve jar. Browned basket with Hanka's stones, a very old dressing case from my aunt, a chewed penholder. (1900)
With time the diary becomes to a large degree a form of an intellectual conversation with oneself and the world. It is the space for reflection over the writer's readings and her own writing philosophy; a space where Nałkowska observes herself in relation to others, explores her femininity, writes openly about a fear of growing old. These entries are evidence of the writer as a mature, self-aware and disease-stricken but still young and vigorous woman: "I do not enjoy emotions, in particular the painful ones, when they do not make a topic worth pondering over" (1912) and
I went to a fancy-dress party and two other balls and, in a sense, I bought myself out of melancholy. For a long time now I have known that it is a hygienic thing to immerse into a bathtub of foolishness and primitiveness. Yet, it is difficult for me then to close my eyelids completely. Through my eyelashes I can still see my distance from this cheerfulness, distance or even dysfunction. (1913)
I enjoy living. I am certain that if I wasn't ill, I could say that I am happy. To observe the world from a hammock, balcony or various points in a forest. To think, think, think – beginning with early morning when I am so deathly exhausted and sleepy as if night did not exist at all, to the evening when looking in the mirror I can see that I am not young any more. The latter one is surly sad but not that important – as my curiosity about the world has remained unchanged; it's an insatiable, burning curiosity. (1914)
My acquaintanceships have turned significantly licentious. Every single day there are visitors, groups of visitors I should say. However, I have always enjoyed looking at people – and even more so since I derive less pleasure from looking at myself. (1915)
From the days of the Nazi occupation Nałkowska shows shocking images of everyday life in times of war overlapping with a personal drama of the illness and death of the writer's mother. The loss of the closest person does not, however, veil the prevailing misery but rather intensifies Nałkowska's moral sensitivity to even a greater extent. The writer's reaction to the tragedy of the Warsaw ghetto – filled with dread and pain – became the touchstone of her sensitivity. She would mention the extermination of the Jews on many occasions, most often through allusions but at times also directly:
Solemn marches of the resigned, jumps into the flames, leaps into the dark. (...) I have lived next to it, I can live! But finally I feel bad, finally I have been changing into someone else. How can I be forced to it, to be inside it, to accept it while staying alive! It is not only a torture but also a disgrace. It is a terrible shame, not only compassion. One feels guilty for making any efforts to survive, not to go insane, or somehow retain yourself in this terror. (April 29, 1943).
These famous statements on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising written by Nałkowska in her diary would later be included in Medallions:
Reality is unbearable, because it is not fully experienced; it is not fully visible. It reaches us in fractions of events, snatches of accounts, echoes of gunfire – horrifying and impenetrable – in the clouds of dust, in fires, which as history says "reduced everything to ashes" although nobody really understands these words. This reality, both distant and happening next door, is bearable. What you cannot bear are your thoughts. (April 28, 1943)
In her journal written in times of war Nałkowska faces the awareness of the ultimate threat and the thoughts regarding own death:
It has still continued, it has repeated over and over again – similar days go by: raids and then executions in the city streets. Or there – this I know. I think that I will be myself at that time, that I will never stop being myself. I think of it as if it was a discovery. When I walk where I don't want to, when I am forced to leave my makeshift bed, my books and my letter files behind, and to do what seems so difficult when one is still surrounded by them – till the very last moment, however, I will be left with myself, who will be with me. And in this sense, I will remain myself. Because what is really important in the final moments are the morale and the peace that I am so certain of, as well as a total restraint of despair – because there will be no fear. Fear will be turned around; frozen; fear will be exactly that: resilience and strength. I can achieve it all if I am still myself. – That's what I believe and that's how I settle my own matters. Yet, it does not settle the matters of the others: those young ones whose lives are unfulfilled. (December 14, 1943)
In the context of the excerpt quoted above, the words that Nałkowska noted down in the midst of war atrocities are most touching:
The desire to get out of this approaching hell would seem so compelling. Yet, I won't leave my fate, which is here and which is astonishing. (April 20, 1944)
The wide spectrum of the issues discussed in the diary also comprise the area of metaphysics, which Nałkowska approaches with her characteristic rationalism:
A religious experience is not different from what can be called an experience of existence or experience of the unity of being. It involves that same shocking admiration that one is part of the world and that one is tied with it through the identity of a being. One may experience this state as an ecstasy of joy and triumph that one is not alone in the huge vacuum of the universe. Still, one can also experience it in quite a common manner as an ecstasy and humbleness in view of the infinity of the matter. In both cases, it is the affirmation of the unity with the world. Paying tribute to the omnipotence of God in a great happiness of humbleness is just one of the texts conveying this state. Thus, also as a result of my dispute with Halinka, I tend to think now that the question whether "the soul is or isn't immortal" is unnecessary, it comes from the field of a wrong text. Immortality and infinity are "in this life" with all their suffering and the complete elation of experiencing them. Immortality is consumed throughout life, it is totally exploited, drained to the last drop. – I think that everything is contained and fulfilled within one's life. I feel a dislike for immortality as revival of an individual life. The entire scenario of immortality – resurrection, metempsychosis, eternal life – has always been the bad unnecessary fourth act of the excruciating life drama. A deadly sin against the unity of time and place.
On the pages of her post-war diary written in the writer's final days, excellent descriptions of Warsaw, destroyed but pulsating with a new energy, can be found. As there were no other means of public transport, Nałkowska would move around the capital in a crowded truck (imagine the elegant Mrs. Zofia wearing impeccable make-up and hairdo stuck among the crowd on the platform) observing the city growing out of ruins. Luxurious stores would mushroomed in between destroyed buildings. Nałkowska's favourite café, the sophisticated Kongo, was also located among the ruins. Such flash pictures are drawn by the writer with a great suggestiveness and a passion worth of a reporter.
The increasingly laconic notes from the writer's final years are filled with comments on old age, whose directness, gravity and lack of sentimentalism are unrivalled:
I look like an old woman that I am. And realizing that old age is a shame, a disability; that an old age disqualifies; and keeping up appearances, a hairdo, a face "made-up" in spite of anything, neat clothes make it worse, make it the more visible. That's it. (Polanica, September 1, 1946)
In the final period of the occupation, the advance payments received from Zbigniew Mitzner opened up the possibilities for Nałkowska of working on Bonds of Life, the novel she had started before the outbreak of war. On its pages, the writer expressed her leftist views and criticized the Polish pre-war reality. In the opinion of the writer herself, it is a novel about an epoch in which "the old departed from themselves, while the young ones rapidly lost their heads". Tadeusz Breza wrote that whereas Nałkowska's attitude towards the recently closed past of the pre-war period as well as the establishment and elites was already cool in Teresa Hennert and The Frontier, in Bonds of Life it was freezing cold. Breza was greatly impressed by the fist part of the novel:
There were many reasons for it. For example, it showed Nałkowska as deprived of any ornaments, peaceful, with her splendour purposefully turned down in order not to distract the readers. To my understanding of the choice of her writing style, it would have been particularly irritating to her to draw attention again to "how she is saying it" instead of "what she is saying". ("Wspomnienie o 'Węzłach życia' / Memoirs on ‘Bonds of Life' ")
The other part of Bonds of Life printed after the war in "Odrodzenie" weekly was unsatisfactory for the writer, who revised the text considerably. Eventually, the novel was published in two volumes: the first one in 1948, and the other one in 1954.
Nałkowska would write Bonds of Life in Adamowizna, in the house of Zofia Villaume-Zahrtowa, where she was able to rest from living in Warsaw under occupation. Her uncommon working method required absolute silence and concentration.
In 1946 Medallions were published, a collection of short stories on the Nazi crimes, a masterpiece of concise and staggering prose. The volume was a result of Nałkowska's work at the Central Commission for the Investigation of the Nazi War Crimes. In these short pieces, Nałkowska presents the fate of the victims and survivors through an aesthetic and objective narrative. In general, she gives voice to her characters rarely adding a comment to their accounts of events. In this fragmented and random manner, the readers get familiar with a story of a Jewish woman who escapes from a transport to a concentration camp, dies wounded with a shot at the railway line under the very eyes of the locals; a woman from a cemetery watching the extermination of the Warsaw ghetto; another woman who survived the terror of concentration camps and lost her two children; Michał P. who buried his closed ones gassed in Chełmno. At times, a few scarce incidental digressions of the writer are enough to sum up the nightmare of war. As in the testimony given by a boy, an assistant to Professor Spanner who produced soap of human fat. The boy recounts before the Committee:
Spanner left in January 1945. Before leaving, he told us to work on the fat gathered throughout the semester, produce the soap, finish the anatomy and clean up so that everything looked humanely.
The reportage-like, restrained writing style of Medallions is combined with Nałkowska's deep empathy for human suffering – an empathy which shows her sensitivity to every gesture of her protagonists, to how they speak and what they do not speak about. The writer's post-war choice of her standpoint and decision to support the new political system would require a separate case study.
It is worth noting, however, that even in the coarse reality of the People's Republic of Poland Nałkowska remained an exceptionally refined lady of the pre-war times, who, according to Gombrowicz, should have lived not in Poland but in Paris, or elsewhere in Western Europe. Jan Kott recalls Nałkowska in his volume Aloes:
Not only was she a writer but also a great literary figure; great and at the same time slightly comical. She agreed on the comical side, as if including it in advance to the total balance. In 1947 I went to Moscow with Nałkowska on a cultural visit. We would do a tour of, if my memory serves me right, a tractor or car factory. Nałkowska was wearing a hat with an enormous feather for this occasion and a dress embroidered with bugles. She stirred astonishment, and everyone would ask who this elderly exotic lady was. But in the evening of the same day, a young Russian writer who was taking care of us came up to me and said: She is the Empress, the first fine lady I have ever seen ("Rozmowy Zofii Nałkowskiej" / "The Conversations of Zofia Nałkowska").
Short stories and sketches:
Dzienniki / Diaries. Edition, foreword and commentary: Hanna Kirchner. Czytelnik, Warsaw:
Author: Krystyna Dąbrowska, May 2010.
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