12 Polish Books Worth Reading in 2020
#language & literature
default, 'Blinded by the Lights', photo: HBO, center, blinded-by-the-lights_0.jpg
For book lovers, there is pretty much nothing better than a good book recommendation. That’s why Culture.pl has prepared a list of twelve Polish books to read in 2020. The selection consists of 20th- and 21st-century titles, all of which are fabulous reads by esteemed writers like winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Olga Tokarczuk, creator of the Witcher stories Andrzej Sapkowski, or the Polish-born classic of English literature, Joseph Conrad.
2020 has been declared the Year of Leopold Tyrmand by the Polish parliament, so it seems fitting to start off our selection with a book by this eminent Polish writer. One of Tyrmand’s most cherished works is the 1955 crime novel Zły, known in English as The Man With the White Eyes.
Diary 1954 Published in English
Set in 1950s Warsaw, still bearing clear signs of the destruction brought about by World War II and swarming with hooligans and criminals, the story revolves around the titular man with with white eyes. This mysterious avenger fights Warsaw’s bad seeds. The arresting plot is interlaced with witty humour, vivid descriptions of the city, as well as elements of romance, all of which amounts to what is a classic of 20th century Polish literature.
February is one of the coldest months of the year, so it’s the perfect time to curl up with a good book. If you have not yet had the opportunity to read the writings of Poland’s newest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Olga Tokarczuk, then we suggest you start your year off with her novel Flights (Bieguni). The English translation came out in 2017 and was translated by Jennifer Croft. The Guardian’s review of the book read:
Olga Tokarczuk's Nobel Lecture: The Tender Narrator
It is a novel of intuitions as much as ideas, a cacophony of voices and stories seemingly unconnected across time and space, which meander between the profound and the facetious, the mysterious and the ordinary, and whose true register remains one of glorious ambiguity.
March is marked by the beginning of spring. Time to try a book that itself was a beginning – the debut of one of Poland’s most important contemporary writers, Dorota Masłowska. Her 2002 debut novel Wojna Polsko-Ruska pod Flagą Biało-Czerwoną (translated into English as White & Red) was a literary sensation and went on to become a bestseller.
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In a warped, grotesque manner the novel follows the adventures of a young, thug-like man who leads a confused and drug-infused life in a small Polish town. His chaotic behaviour, as well as the actions of his peers, make for a humorous and reflective portrayal of young Poles and their fascinations with various fads and pop-culture. You can be sure Masłowska knew what she was writing about in White & Red – she was only 19 years old when it came out.
For April, we propose a book that begins with a passage about the vegetation season:
The tree of the world, like every other tree, at the beginning of the season of vegetation puts out tiny delicate golden leaves which with time acquire a dark green hue and a silvery sheen.
The above quote was taken from the 1995 book Sny i Kamienie by Magdalena Tulli, which was translated into English as Dreams and Stones. Her intriguing prose evades simple genre classification and has been described as a kind of treatise about a fictitious city. Filled with philosophical reflections and oneiric ¬¬¬impressions, it has gained much critical acclaim, as well as comparisons with the writings of the esteemed Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz.
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With the sun in the sky and the days getting warmer, we recommend a classic Polish novel by renowned writer Witold Gombrowicz.
The 1938 novel Ferdydurke is a captivating story a grown man gets thrown back in time to yet again become a schoolboy at his former secondary school. The unusual plot provides plenty of grotesquely comical moments. But the novel isn’t just entertaining, it also addresses deep existential questions about one’s sense of self and identity. Thanks to this unique blend, Ferdydurke enjoys the status of one of the greatest Polish literary works of the 20th century.
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Cover of 'View with a Grain of Sand' and Wisława Szymborska, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum
Summer is almost here and dreams of spending time on the beach may soon become a reality. View With a Grain of Sand is a 1995 collection of poems by Nobel Prize laureate Wisława Szymborska. This extensive collection includes works that span from the 1950s to the 1990s, offering a rather comprehensive overview of the distinguished poet’s oeuvre.
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In these 100 poems Wislawa Szymborska portrays a world of astonishing diversity and richness, in which nature is wise and prodigal and fate unpredictable, if not mischievous. With acute irony tempered by a generous curiosity, she documents life's improbability as well as its transient beauty.
Publisher Harcourt Brace and Company
If you are in search of a riveting summer read, try the 1924 novella The Duel by Joseph Conrad, the exceptional Polish-born author.
In this astonishing and ironic tale based on true events, two French officers of Napoleon’s army fight a seemingly never-ending series of duels that take place over a dozen or so years. The whole affair begins with a mere tiff, and its development shows the potential for absurd consequences of the notion of defending one’s honour. The story of Napoleon’s rise and fall that plays out in the background adds an intriguing historical context.
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In August, one can look up into the night sky and observe incredible meteor showers. This amazing display of falling stars can draw one’s thoughts to the realm of celestial bodies and galaxies. When it comes to books with plots taking place in outer space, few can match the 1961 Stanisław Lem novel Solaris.
In this moving story, a psychologist visits the space station near the planet of Solaris to look into the mysterious illnesses befalling the crew.
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The idea of a private world spilling over unsettlingly into reality is (…) at the heart of [Lem’s] novel ‘Solaris,’ from 1961, about a sentient ocean with the power of ‘seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams to life,’ as the Lem fan Salman Rushdie once described it.
From the New Yorker article ‘The Beautiful Mind-Bending of Stanislaw Lem’
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Cover of 'Nine' and Andrzej Stasiuk, photo: Adam Golec / Agencja Gazeta
In the ninth month of the year, it seems fitting to pick up the book Nine. Titled Dziewięć in Polish, this 1999 crime novel by Andrzej Stasiuk is set in Warsaw soon after the fall of the communist regime in Poland and the resulting transition to democracy. A small-time businessman finds himself hopelessly in debt and turns to a drug dealer for help. The plot unfolds in a gloomy urban landscape traversed by various shady types.
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I caught a flavor of Hamsun, Sartre, Genet and Kafka in Stasiuk’s scalpel-like but evocative writing. ‘Nine’ feels like a major work of modern fiction, a portrait of an uprooted and restless generation of Eastern Europeans and of a city resigned to the fact that post-Communism is not quite as advertised.
From the New York Times’ review of ‘Nine’ by Irvine Welsh, titled ‘Warsaw Underground’
In October 2016 the novel The House with the Stained-Glass Window won the Conrad Award for best literary debut. Therefore October may be the right time to read this book, which was written in Polish by Żanna Słoniowska, a Ukranian writer with Polish roots living in Kraków.
The House with the Stained-Glass Window is a family saga set in the Ukranian city of Lviv, the author’s birthplace. The book focuses four generations of women, who are members of the same family and residents of the titular house. Through their stories, marked by complicated personal choices, the author tells the story the city as well as the history of Ukraine in the last century or so. The novel has been praised for its vivid portrayal of Lviv and engaging characters.
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According to the press, the second season of the Netflix series The Witcher is likely to be released in late 2020. Before that happens, you may want to read some of the original stories on which the series is based.
The famous Witcher, also known as Geralt of Rivia, is a character that first appeared in the fantasy writings of the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski created many short stories and books featuring this hero and picking out just one of them isn’t an easy task. However, it seems reasonable to start off with the 1994 novel Krew Elfów, which appeared in English under the title Blood of Elves. Not only will it familiarise you with Sapkowski’s rich fantasy world (and possibly help you understand the show) but it can also lead to further reading – Blood of Elves is the first instalment in the series of five Witcher books.
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December means Christmas is coming! The plot of this book takes place during the Christmas holiday period. But if you’re expecting a delightful little comedy about how wonderful Christmas can be… then you might be in for a bit of a surprise. The 2014 novel Ślepnąc od Świateł, translated into English as Blinded by the Lights, is a dark crime story about a drug dealer whose well-organised life starts to fall apart.
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The novel’s set in contemporary Warsaw and has recently been adapted into a warmly received TV series by HBO. Here’s how author Jakub Żulczyk commented on his book in an interview for Culture.pl:
I always wanted to write about the night and the dark side of the city. The specifics of Warsaw and some of the people who live in it. The idea was to create a book which was an ‘atrocity exhibition,’ to quote Joy Division (…) – a labyrinth my readers would get lost in.
contemporary polish literature
polish literature in english
Wisława Szymborska is credited with saying that ‘reading books is the most glorious pastime humankind has yet devised.’ There seems to be a lot of truth to that and hopefully this article will help you pursue this glorious pastime and satisfy your needs for Polish literature in 2020. Enjoy!
Author: Marek Kępa, Jan 2020