So you’ve been told Polish literature is always about Poland… Here are some writers whose books certainly defy this stereotype and make for a great read.
The issue, which has been raised by many – Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz included – is that Polish literature is absorbed primarily with Polish life, Polish history or, even worse, Polish politics. This, in effect, supposedly renders it practically unreadable for foreigners and hardly fit to take up subjects of truly universal importance.
While it would be useless to argue the point (especially since we partially agree with the criticism), here are a couple of writers that, we feel, defy this stereotype, and prove that Polish literature can do brilliantly, even without its beloved subject.
1. Jan Potocki
Not only is Count Jan Potocki’s (1761-1815) magnum opus not about Poland (it’s set in 17th century Spain and deals with the centuries-old conspiracy of the Gomelez family), but it’s also hardly a ‘Polish’ book in the first place. Its author, the Polish aristocrat, eccentric and cosmopolite, was more fluent in French than Polish, while his scientific interests and erudite expertise somehow evaded Poland (though, admittedly, the writer did make an exception for Slavic archaeology and prehistory).
Potocki wrote about political matters, history, archaeology and is also the author of diaries from his numerous travels to the Orient. But it was The Manuscript Found in Saragossa that granted him literary immortality. Even today, it remains one of the most mysterious and fascinating books in history, defying easy interpretations: Was it a Picaresque novel, a gothic horror, or a fantastic frame story not unlike One Thousand and One Nights? Was it a post-modern classic way ahead of its time or maybe a secret Cabbalist treatise? Either way, the ultimate meaning of the Manuscript continues to elude scholars – so you’ll just have to decide for yourself!
Admirers: Alexander Pushkin, Roger Caillois, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Herbert Rosendorfer
2. Stefan Grabiński
Born in the late 19th century in Galicia, Stefan Grabiński (1887-1936) is the author of horror stories which earned him the moniker ‘The Polish P.H. Lovecraft' or 'Polish Edgar Allan Poe’ (that would be a Poe of the train era, and updated by Sigmund Freud, if you will).
Grabiński, who spent almost all of his life in Lviv, was interested in magic, parapsychology and demonology which percolated into his bizarre books. The most celebrated of them all, the collection of short stories The Motion Demon (1919), is connected by the shared motif of trains, speed and unexplained railway catastrophes. Grabiński’s stories bring uncanny tales of horror and metaphysical mystery into the era of (early) modern technology.
While most stories are set in a place which resembles Eastern Europe, or more precisely Galicia in the early 20th century, the names of the stations from Grabiński’s stories cannot be found on any real map. In fact, his trains know no spatial boundaries and travel to the edges of the continent – and even beyond (they can even disappear somewhere on dead-end-tracks of time or materialise decades later). Whatever you do, don’t read this book on a train!
Admirers: Stanisław Lem, China Miéville, Thomas Ligotti.
3. Stanisława Przybyszewska
Stanisława Przybyszewska (1901-1935) was the daughter of notorious Polish decadent writer (and possible Satanist) Stanisław Przybyszewski. The troubled relationship with her absent father seemed to have shaped her personality and influenced her work. However, her lifetime obsession and, as some claim, the love of her life was Robespierre. Yes, that Robespierre.
Przybyszewska was fascinated with the history of the French Revolution – its mechanisms and its capacity to devour its own children were at the core of her work. In her stories and dramas, like Thermidor or The Danton Case, she meticulously reconstructs the dramatic tensions between the main actors of the historical process. Przybyszewska, a recluse and a morphine addict, wrote these while living in a state of destitution in a rented room in Gdańsk, working tirelessly for hours and hours, day and night. She was so immersed in her work and the lives of her characters, that her letters from that period bear the dates of the French Revolution.
Still unconvinced? Ask Hilary Mantel. The double Man Booker Prize-winner and expert in getting into the mindsets of historical characters is a fan of Stanisława Przybyszewska. She was even considering writing a piece about her. Or just watch Andrzej Wajda’s Danton, based on the drama by Przybyszewska.
Admirers: Hilary Mantel
4. Bruno Schulz
The brilliant writer and illustrator Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is hardly in need of any literary recommendation (although, he got high praise from the likes of John Updike and I.B. Singer). His inimitable writing style and his two collections of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, have secured him a firm place in the canon of world literature.
In his work, Schulz depicted the small-town world of his hometown Drohobycz, or rather its mythical counterpart. His writing technique has been compared to magical realism, though he himself referred to it as ‘the mythicisation of reality’. It was the mythical elements of reality that Schulz found ‘inherent in the region of early childhood fantasies, intuitions, fears and anticipations characteristic of the dawn of life.’ Schulz’s stories are imbibed with the surreal which guarantees that they will make for only remote portrayals of the one-time reality of a Polish shtetl.
Admirers: Philip Roth, Danilo Kiš, John Updike, I. B. Singer, Salman Rushdie, Roberto Bolaño, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer
5. Leo Lipski
His whole literary output could be contained in a single volume, yet the quality of Lipski’s extremely dense, introspective prose far surpasses almost anything written in the Polish language in the 20th century. Born in 1917 in Zurich, Lipski studied in Kraków and survived World War II in a Soviet lager. After the war, he emigrated to Israel.
His short autobiographical novel Niespokojni (The Restless, 1952) – an intimate portrait of a boy and his romantic relationship with two girls – is set in an unidentified town by the sea, but it could take place just about anywhere in the world. While Lipski’s other pieces are located in more specific venues, such as a prison camp in Siberia or a semi-public toilet in Yaffa (occupied by the protagonist of the short novel Piotruś), his writing has little to do with the specifics of space and time.
Lipski’s worldview is erotic and deeply tragic – perhaps this is only fitting of an author who, after falling ill with typhoid during the war, spent most of the rest of his life bedridden. Partially paralysed and unable to speak clearly, he dictated or typed his works with one hand. His writings were cherished by the likes of Ingeborg Bachmann, but even today – some 30 years after his death – and even in his native country, he remains an obscure figure, a writer's’ writer, known only to a handful of admirers.
Admirers: Ingeborg Bachmann
6. Stanisław Lem
Stanisław Lem’s books are set in distant galaxies, or light years away, so, they seemingly have little to do with Poland. The most famous of his books earned him the position of a sci-fi classic and something of a prophet as well, while his expertise and range led even Philip K. Dick to suspect Lem of being a communist conspiracy.
Yet it is his interest in great philosophical and epistemological problems that make him an author of universal relevance (an interest verified by a streak of movie adaptations, from Andrei Tarkovsky to Steven Soderbergh and Ari Folman) while his tremendous sense of humour (The Star Diaries and The Cyberiad, in particular, which reportedly inspired the creators of Futurama) guarantees that his books will be read for ever and ever, in this universe and any other.
Admirers: David X. Cohen (the creator of 'Futurama'), Philip K. Dick, Steven Soderbergh
7. Magdalena Tulli
Born in 1955, Magdalena Tulli is one of Poland’s most interesting and testing authors. She is the author of several experimental novels which engage in a radical deconstruction of traditional devices of the realist novel, and her work has been labelled variously as post-modernist or even meta-fiction but is surely much more than this.
Her debut novel Dreams and Stones (2004), devoid of plot and characters, has been called a ‘prose poem’. In Moving Parts (2005), the narrator struggles to tell the story of his protagonists who – just as the sceneries – are constantly in danger of falling apart. In In Red (2011), the main characters die even before the reader takes an interest in their stories, while a single bullet can continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, before 'it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man's chest'.
But even if these books, with their cardboard decorations and fluid characters, don’t establish any solid reality (in this, they have drawn justified parallels with the work of such post-modernist authors as Italo Calvino), Tulli’s work also reveals a deeper layer of meaning – an approach which can ultimately be described as deeply political perspective on the world around us.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 13 March 2018