Discover 8 Classics from Poland’s Required Reading Curriculum
#language & literature
default, Wojciech Pszoniak in ‘The Wedding’, directed by Andrzej Wajda; 1972; photo: Zebra Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl, center, Wojciech Pszoniak in the film The Marriage directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1972, photo: Zebra Film Studio / Filmoteka Narodowa/www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Reading literature is an important part of education, providing a gateway to language, culture and history. In Poland, there’s an official list of works recommended for high-school students, which includes about 150 varied titles. Culture.pl has hand-picked eight classic Polish texts from this list in order to see what they’re about – and what they say about Poland.
‘I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.’ With these funny words, the famous comedian Groucho Marx pointed to the educational value of reading. That books facilitate learning is, of course, a well-known fact – that’s why when you go to school, you’re told to read.
Serious reading usually starts in high school, when children’s books are set aside and more mature titles start to appear. These are carefully selected to represent high literary values. But each country has a different canon. In Russia, high-school students read, for example, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In Italy, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is an important fixture, whereas in the United States, the author of this article was asked to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when attending a Connecticut high school.
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In Poland, the Ministry of National Education recommends roughly 150 books for all high-school students. Students who are told to read a particular book are later tested on their knowledge of it, for example by having to write a paper on it. The matriculation exam in Polish Language also usually revolves around titles from the required reading curriculum. Here’s how the Ministry describes its selection:
The list of books for secondary-school students consists of mandatory and optional titles (chosen by the teacher), and its core is made up of selected Polish and international classics, as well as works of contemporary literature.
www.archiwum.men.gov.pl, trans. MK
From these books, Culture.pl has hand-picked eight classic Polish titles (all available in English translation) in order to see what they’re about – and what they say about Poland.
1. ‘The Deluge’ by Henryk Sienkiewicz
In the years 1884 to 1888, Henryk Sienkiewicz, the first Pole to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, created his famous series of historical novels, The Trilogy (originally: Trylogia). Its second part is The Deluge (originally: Potop), written in 1886, which tells about the Swedish invasion of Poland that took place in the mid-17th century.
The plot follows a young, hot-headed nobleman by the name of Kmicic – who first sides with a Polish aristocrat supporting the invaders, but later decides to fight for his own country. Wanting to redeem his initial choice, which is considered nothing short of betrayal, Kmicic performs many valiant deeds. For example, he protects the Polish King Jan Kazimierz from Swedish troops in a dramatic skirmish and helps defend the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa.
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The Deluge, although not entirely faithful to real-life events, shows an important part of Polish history. The Swedish invasion was an episode that shook Poland to the core, causing severe human and material losses. The desperate fight to reclaim the country, which eventually ended in success, was portrayed by Sienkiewicz, as it is often said, ‘to uplift the hearts.’
At the time of the novel’s publication, Poland was in another dire situation – it had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, and there was little hope of regaining independence. The victorious struggle for freedom presented in The Deluge was intended to inspire the Polish people not to abandon their aspirations for a free state.
2. ‘The Doll’ by Bolesław Prus
A fascinating portrait of the late 19th-century Polish society addressed by Sienkiewicz can be found in The Doll (originally: Lalka) by Bolesław Prus.
In this novel of manners, written in the years 1887 to 1889, the shop owner and businessman Stanisław Wokulski strives to win the affections of the beautiful, but aloof aristocrat Izabela Łęcka. He puts much effort into boosting his social status through obtaining wealth, but his industriousness doesn’t impress the decadent lady. Eventually, after finding out how little Izabela respects him, he tries to commit suicide. An extensive gallery of other characters makes for a complex panorama of Warsaw.
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The author himself saw his book as a pessimistic assessment of the realities of his time. Prus wrote that he wanted to:
[…] show Polish idealists on a background of social decay. The decay lies in that good people waste their lives or run off, and that scoundrels do well for themselves. That good women aren’t happy, and that evil women are adored. That uncommon people encounter thousands of obstacles, that the honest have no energy, that man is worn down by widespread distrust and suspicion.
www.znak.com.pl, trans. MK
The Doll shows that under the partitions, Poles weren’t only preoccupied with reclaiming their independence. Day-to-day life went on with its social tensions and conflicting ideas, as masterfully portrayed by Prus.
3. ‘On the Niemen’ by Eliza Orzeszkowa
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Katarzyna Iwona Pawlak as Justyna Orzelska and Adam Marjański as Janek Bohatyrowicz in ‘On the Banks of the Niemen’ (originally: Nad Niemnem), directed by Zbigniew Kuźmiński; 1986; photo: Stanisław Bielejec, Filmoteka Narodowa / fototeka.fn.org.pl
Another extensive portrayal of Polish society in the late 19th century can be found in the Nobel Prize in Literature nominee Eliza Orzeszkowa’s 1888 novel On the Niemen (originally: Nad Niemnem). But in this case, rather than in a big city, the plot unfolds in the rural settings of today’s Belarus, in an area which was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In On the Niemen, a young, impoverished woman of noble birth, Justyna Orzelska, finds herself devoid of purpose in life after experiencing a romantic disappointment. Living with her relatives at a countryside manor, she eventually encounters Jan Bohatyrowicz, a nobleman also of scarce means, who is living off his family farm. He introduces her to a world of simple but positive values revolving around nature and labour. Eventually, the two get engaged, which leads to the reconciliation of their previously clashing families.
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Both The Doll and On the Niemen are regarded as works representative of the same intellectual trend – positivism. This way of thinking called for a patient cultural and economic development of Polish society, arguing that this would be a better path to a possible regaining of independence than romantic struggles such as armed uprisings. The two novels convey many of the positivistic ideas that proved important to the survival of Polish culture under the partitions, such as socially responsible work or women’s emancipation. But whereas The Doll ends tragically, On the Niemen concludes on an optimistic note, showing that social conflicts may be overcome.
4. ‘The Wedding’ by Stanisław Wyspiański
The 1901 drama The Wedding (originally: Wesele) by the playwright, designer and painter Stanisław Wyspiański is sometimes called Poland’s most important 20th-century play. It gained that reputation for its skilful treatment of key issues of the partition era through a poetic symbolism evocative of some of the fundamental myths of the so-called Polish identity.
The play is set at a post-wedding celebration, which takes place in a wooden hut in the countryside around the time of the text’s creation. The bride and groom are an unusual pair, considering the realities of the day, as the first is a peasant and the latter is a poet from the Kraków intelligentsia. Their celebration brings together their respective social circles. From the conversations between the various characters, it transpires that there is a divide between the commoners and the higher classes. In The Wedding, this split is portrayed as an obstacle on the road to sovereignty.
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A number of fantastic beings evoking national myths also appear in Wyspiański’s play. Among them is Wernyhora, a seer who entrusts one of the celebrators with a golden horn – a symbol of independence. The horn is eventually lost, and another enchanted being, a straw wrap (used for overwintering trees), comments on this with a phrase that went on to become a household one, used to communicate grave loss:
You oaf, you had a golden horn
Now you’re left with only a rope.
From ‘The Wedding’ by Stanisław Wyspiański, trans. MK
The Wedding shows the complex questions around reclaiming (the lost) independence as formative to the very notion of being Polish.
5. ‘The Peasants’ by Władysław Reymont
The life of the Polish peasantry at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was portrayed by the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Władysław Reymont in his acclaimed novel The Peasants (originally: Chłopi), written in the years 1902 to 1908. The plot unfolds in the course of a single year, and each of the book’s four volumes corresponds to one of the four seasons, highlighting the peasant’s bond with the rhythms of nature.
The action takes place in a village named Lipiec, and the community living there is the real protagonist of the novel. Among the characters, you find the well-off farmer Maciej Boryna, who weds the much younger Jagna Pacieszówna. Forced into the marriage by her mother, who’s impressed with Boryna’s wealth, Jagna is unhappy and seeks consolation in the arms of other men. Eventually, the villagers grow weary of her unfaithfulness and expel her from the community.
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Reymont’s novel includes plenty of descriptions of peasant work, such as harvesting potatoes or ploughing the fields. But it also shows the diversity of Polish folk culture, presenting the religious and secular rituals of the rural community. For example, on All Saints’ Day, the farmhand Kuba brings bread to the cemetery and crumbles it into little bits, which he throws upon the graves. This he does to ‘feed’ the souls of the dead. Reymont’s book is full of such curious details. It evokes, in an in-depth way, the historical and traditional landscape of the Polish countryside.
6. ‘Ferdydurke’ by Witold Gombrowicz
It’s somewhat funny that the next work on this list should be used as part of the high-school reading curriculum since it makes fun of… school. Still, Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 Ferdydurke is such a classic of Polish literature that it’s part of the canon.
In this highly original novel, a 30-year-old writer, Józio Kowalski, is surreally returned to his former secondary school, where he becomes a student again. There he finds that the school system is aimed at moulding the pupils’ characters into an infantile ‘form’, or a desired way of conduct. Later, he visits a bourgeois family who tries to impose on him the form of being modern. In the next location, a countryside estate, he conforms himself to the form of living practiced by the landed gentry. He leaves that place in the company of a girl named Zosia, only to find that he’s now confined to the form of a person in love.
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Gombrowicz’s comical and grotesque book curiously discusses the nature of self and is a prime example of Polish existentialist thought. It offers a unique perspective, showing that Polish literature can be deeply philosophical and highly entertaining at the same time:
Not only did Gombrowicz find that human life is an endless struggle between the desire to create your own Form and the need to fight against the aggressive and warping Forms of others, not only did he find that Form creates man as much as man creates Form, but he also meticulously analysed this process, […] its causes and effects, he poignantly described the mechanisms of thrusting man into a Form and gave advice how to protect yourself from that, and all of this in one work – ‘Ferdydurke’.
From ‘“Ferdydurke”, czyli Studium nad Formą’ by Agnieszka Urbańska, ‘Postscriptum Polonistyczne’, No. 2 (2014); trans. MK
7. ‘Shielding the Flame’ by Hanna Krall
Hanna Krall is one of Poland’s best-known journalists and reporters. Her celebrated 1976 book Shielding the Flame (originally: Zdążyć Przed Panem Bogiem) has a place among Poland’s required reading books as a powerful testimony to the country’s World War II fate and the Holocaust.
Shielding the Flame is a reportage based on an interview the author conducted with Marek Edelman, a leader and survivor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Uprising was a desperate struggle undertaken by Warsaw’s Jewish community against Nazi German oppression. It ended tragically – with mass Jewish casualties and the complete destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, a district of the city where the occupying Nazis established an isolated area for Jews.
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In the book, Edelman tells about the bitter realities of the Ghetto: the starvation, the mass transports to Nazi concentration camps, the suicides committed by Jews. He says the insurgents knew they didn’t stand a chance against the Nazis, but still chose to fight, preferring death in a struggle to dying without opposition. The dramatic memories of the uprising are interspersed with episodes from Edelman’s post-war life as a cardiologist.
Shielding the Flame is a haunting account of one of the most horrific episodes in Poland’s wartime history. It shows the extent of the damage that conflict brought to the country’s Jewish community and also attests to the unspeakably difficult choices people were faced with in the Warsaw Ghetto.
8. ‘Travels with Herodotus’ by Ryszard Kapuściński
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Ryszard Kapuściński in his Warsaw flat, map in the background with highlighted travel routes and destinations in the Soviet Union; April 1991; photo: Krzysztof Wójcik / Forum
Ryszard Kapuściński, fot. Forum
Here’s another book by a leading figure in Polish non-fiction writing – the eminent reporter Ryszard Kapuściński. He’s best remembered as an author of reportage books on the many countries he visited throughout his life, including Iran, Ethiopia or the Soviet Union.
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The 2004 Travels with Herodotus (originally: Podróże z Herodotem), one of his last books, is an autobiographical account of the author’s various travels, juxtaposed with his reflections on Herodotus’ Histories. The latter title has been described as ‘the earliest extant historical narrative’ (www.bl.uk) and ‘the first attempt at looking at the world and at people in a journalistic way’ (www.ksiegarnia.pwn.pl).
Part autobiography, part literary criticism and part meditation, ‘Travels with Herodotus’ tells the story of two intertwined journeys: the author's literal voyages across the globe, and his pursuit of Herodotus, the Greek historiographer who reported from foreign lands in the fifth century BC. The association was formed, as Kapuscinski tells it, when he left Warsaw on his first foreign assignment, to India in 1956, and his editor handed him a copy of Herodotus's ‘Histories’. True or not, it is a wonderful literary device.
‘Two for the Road’ by Sarah Wheeler, ‘The Guardian’, 30 Jun 2007
According to the Polish Radio, Ryszard Kapuściński is the second most translated Polish author, after the acclaimed sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem. Travels with Herodotus gives a synthetic insight into his numerous journeys and his thoughts on the work of a non-fiction writer, shedding light on one of Poland’s most influential authors.
polish authors in translation
Written by Marek Kępa, Aug 2019