4 Polish Writers Who Won the Nobel Prize in Literature
small, 4 Polish Writers Who Won the Nobel Prize in Literature, full_szymborska_wislawa_nobel_east_news_770.jpg, Wisława Szymborska receives the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm , 1996, photo: Rex Features / Forum
#language & literature
Poland has so far had four Nobel Prize winners in literature. Who were they and who could be next?
Since the Nobel Prize in Literature was established in 1901, Poland has had four winners. If the Nobel was a team competition, this would place Poland in eighth position, just behind Sweden, Italy, Spain and Russia – and in front of Ireland, Norway and Japan.
Should we decide to also include writers who were born in Poland (or in the territory that was once Poland), the list would be substantially longer and include names like Shmuel Yosef Agnon (born in Buczacz, wrote in Hebrew), Isaac Bashevis Singer (born in Leoncin, wrote in Yiddish) or Günter Grass (born in Gdańsk, wrote in German). But let's stick to the Polish language writers first.
1905: Henryk Sienkiewicz
Contrary to what is usually said in this context, Henryk Sienkiewicz didn't receive the Nobel Prize for his 1896 panorama of ancient Rome, Quo Vadis. The reason for this misattribution was the enormous popularity of the book. In fact, the jury awarded Sienkiewicz for his “outstanding merits as an epic writer", and when Carl David af Wirsén, secretary of the prize, presented the award, he repeatedly stressed the importance of a different book in Sienkiewicz's oeuvre: The Deluge (Potop). This historical trilogy set in 17th-century Poland in a time of great political turmoil became a eulogy for the Sarmatic tradition and a source of patriotic hope, as the book was written, as the popular phrase goes, “to cheer hearts”.
In his Banquet speech Sienkiewicz emphasized that the honour of receiving the Nobel Prize was especially valuable for a son of Poland, which at that point wasn't even on the map. He said:
It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph. Like Galileo, one is forced to think «E pur si muove» when before the eyes of the world homage has been rendered to the importance of Poland's achievements and her genius.
Find more: www.nobelprize.org
1924: Władysław Reymont
Interestingly, one of Władysław Reymont's main rivals running for the Nobel prize in the early 1920s was another Polish writer, Stefan Żeromski. In fact, it was Żeromski who was considered to have a better chance at first, but the heavy critique which landed on the writer after the publication of his allegedly anti-German 1922 novel Wiatr od morza, combined with the Germanophilia of the Swedish jury, resulted in tipping the scale in favour of Reymont. The winner beat also favourites such as Thomas Mann (he would have to wait 5 years for his Nobel Prize), Maxim Gorki, and Thomas Hardy.
The jury awarded The Peasants, a 4-volume “great national epic” depicting one year in the life of peasants living in a small village in the Łódź area. Originally written in 1901-08, the book was translated into Swedish only in 1921 (Reymont's other famous novel Promised Land was translated one year earlier). Reymont didn't go to Stockholm to receive the award, as at that time his health had deteriorated so much that he was convalescing in Nice, France. He died the following year in Poland. He was 58 years old. Not long before his death he wrote to a friend:
“What an irony, a Nobel Prize, money, universal fame, and a man who cannot get undressed without great fatigue. This is the quintessential irony of life.”
Presentation of Reymont in Stockholm: read more here
1980: Czesław Miłosz
The 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature for Czesław Miłosz has been always seen primarily in the political context. The jury's decision to award the prize to the Polish emigre poet (Miłosz defected to the West in 1951 and had lived in US since 1960) in the same year Polish trade union Solidarność was formed, has been interpreted as a sign of Western support for political changes taking place in the Soviet Bloc. This political overtone can be heard also in the justification of the verdict, according to which the award went to a poet "who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts". At this time Miłosz was known in the West primarily as the author of The Captive Mind.
But this perspective may be especially harming and unfair, as Miłosz – probably more than any other previous Polish Nobel laureate – deserved the award on the grounds of pure literary merit. In his Nobel Prize speech he avoided talking about politics, instead he made the key figure of his lecture Nils Holgersson – the hero of Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventure of Nils, Miłosz's favourite childhood book. According to Miłosz, this little boy travelling on the back of a goose, and looking at the world from a great distance but also seeing things in great detail, is the best symbol of the role of the poet. Developing this metaphor and drawing on some of his favourite writers, like Simone Weil and William Blake, Miłosz expressed what could be seen as his poetic credo:
Thus both – the Earth seen from above in an eternal now and the Earth that endures in a recovered time – may serve as material for poetry.
Find the entire speech of Czesław Miłosz here: www.nobelprize.org
1996: Wisława Szymborska
Only 16 years after the Nobel Prize for Miłosz the award went to another poet from Poland. Wisława Szymborska was awarded "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality". Compared to Miłosz, Szymborska may seem like a poet of smaller intellectual scope and ambition, hers is the realm of the everyday, the little raptures and despairs brought by daily life, all of it served with the warm irony that has become a key characteristic of her poetry.
The poet, notorious for her shyness and dislike for any public appearances, was at first overwhelmed by the media hype around the Nobel Prize. (Reportedly, her first reaction to the news were the words: Oh, God, why me...). Still she was able to survive the Nobel fuss (or the Nobel tragedy, as she called it), with her trademark charm and intelligence. She started her Nobel Lecture by saying:
"They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway."
Over the next 15 years until her death in 2012, Szymborska remained impressively distanced from her public image, shunning poetic homages and public recognition, she cherished her privacy and isolation.
For many years the list of Polish Nobel candidates included the names of Tadeusz Różewicz and Tadeusz Konwicki. With their recent departure (in 2014 and 2015) the probability of Polish Nobel laureate may seem smaller again. Poet Adam Zagajewski remains one of the Polish favourites, and recently the name of Olga Tokarczuk also appeared on the Nobel market.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, April 2015
nobel prize for literature