As the old saying goes, ‘Great minds think alike’. Well, if that’s true, it’s no surprise that in the most significant books ever written, we are bound to find similar themes, plots, or ideas, even if they were written in different countries or in different eras. Here, then, are six Polish masterpieces that may seem quite familiar if you know your English literature.
Rape of the Lock is a must-read for anyone interested in English poetry. This mock-heroic narrative poem, written in 1712 by Alexander Pope, is probably one of the most significant contributions to satire as it not only makes fun of the epic conventions but also takes on and parodies the strict and conservative British values of the time.
Some years later, the Enlightenment came to Poland, bringing about much needed changes and reforms, but also signalling the time of the partitions and political turmoil. Amid these difficulties, in 1778, Ignacy Krasicki wrote the signature Polish mock-heroic work – or as we call it – poemat heroikomiczny. Monachomachia, which is Latin for ‘War of the Monks’, is an extremely biting satire of the clergy in 18th-century Poland.
It’s the story of a feud between two religious orders – the Carmelites and the Dominican Order. At first, it seems that the two orders are going to engage in a polite, philosophical discussion in order to establish which of them is better suited as teachers. However, the discussion is quickly transformed into a regular brawl, complete with shoes, tankards, and belts used as weapons. In the end, the only thing able to reconcile the feuding monks is the thing they love most: alcohol.
It might be quite surprising, but Ignacy Krasicki was actually a bishop. He isn’t trying to ‘destroy’ the church – on the contrary, he is trying to show its flaws and hypocrisy, and try to get it back on the right track. He, as Alexander Pope did before, tries to bring about positive social change by creating this exaggerated version of the clergy. He also uses the poem as a kind of propaganda piece – by undermining the church’s qualifications to teach, Krasicki shows the importance of the newly-created Commission of National Education.
The Victorian era was the era of Realism in literature. Throughout these years, many a writer tried their best to represent the realities of the English people, be it from the perspective of the higher, middle, or even lower class. Names such as Charles Dickens and his Great Expectations or George Eliot and her enormous work Middlemarch instantly come to mind, with their insistence on representing society ‘as it really is’ and taking on themes that were previously ignored in literature.
At a time when England thrived, and the Sun never set on the British Empire, Poland did not even officially exist. In spite of that, in 1890 The Doll was published – a novel considered to be one of the best, if not the best, Polish books ever written. The main plot follows the life of Stanisław Wokulski – a successful merchant and trader who falls in love with the daughter of an impoverished noble – Izabela Łęcka.
It is really difficult to compare Bolesław Prus’ book to any other piece of writing, even the ones mentioned above, which he must’ve taken inspiration from, as it transgresses the boundaries set by the genre and combines the different traditions present within the novel. Realism and naturalism are very prominent in the book, with its careful representations of historical events, places, and figures – so careful in fact that you can tell exactly where Wokulski’s shop was situated, and you can visit the place even today. Readers can find many more subgenres carefully woven into the text. For example, the book also follows the path of Dickens’ Bildungsromans, showing the development of Wokulski’s character and ideas, and his struggle between love and pursuit of science. It also does what Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is famous for – it carefully explores society and social problems, with great attention to many different groups, such as the aristocracy, merchants, students, and Jews.
Overall, one might say that Prus, with Realism nearing its end, took the achievements of this literary movement and created a near-flawless synthesis of different subgenres, resulting in what might be considered the ‘definitive’ Realist novel.
Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding is the defining drama of the early Polish modernist movement, also called the Young Poland movement. The story comprises two main themes – the failure of the Polish fight for independence and the fascination the Polish intelligentsia had with the lower classes, which is grounded in the complete lack of understanding the former had of the latter, as well as the romanticisation of their lives.
While the first theme is, understandably, specific to Polish writing, the second theme is much less so. Wyspiański in his play criticises the bourgeoisie and their fashionable fraternising with ‘the people’. He shows that they still cannot comprehend why the lower classes are often antagonistic towards them, in spite of experiencing the Galician Slaughter and two failed uprisings. The author shows the bubble in which the higher classes live, and the artificiality of their attempts to get together with the people.
This theme of the aristocratic bubble is also very eminent in Henry James’ novella Daisy Miller. There, too, Winterbourne tries to forcibly impose on Daisy the strict, aristocratic morality. In both cases these attempts not only fail, they bring about disastrous consequences. Daisy Miller, as a punishment for her defiance, eventually dies. In The Wedding both the peasants and the bourgeoisie are punished. As a result of their inability to come together and transgress their divisions, yet another chance to bring about a national uprising and regain independence is lost.
Equally important, and also quite similar, are the endings of both stories. The play ends with people dancing with the strawman, symbolising their inability to decide for themselves and break away from destructive tradition. The novella’s last pages paint a similar picture – Winterbourne goes back to Geneva and returns to his traditional, upper-class way of life.
When talking about feminist literature, The Frontier (also known as Boundary), written by Zofia Nałkowska, probably holds one of the most important positions in the Polish canon, discussing issues as important as mental health, abortion, and the position of women in society. Because of this, it’s difficult not to see the resemblance to another classic of feminist literature – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman.
The woman in Gillman’s work, as well as Justyna in The Frontier are shown spiralling towards insanity. They are both being taken care of, but this care is extremely impersonal and superficial, it does not take into account their real needs and problems, instead opting to silence them – taking care of the symptoms, not the underlying issue. In the end, this lack of understanding leads to tragedies – be it insanity in Gillman’s character, or attempted murder in the case of Nałkowska’s. We are shown that the male-dominated society of the time, even if trying to help women, is ultimately antagonistic towards them, as it simply cannot recognise their problems for what they are, instead projecting on them their own interpretations.
Ferdydurke is probably one of the most elusive novels to categorise, which shouldn’t be all that surprising considering that was written by one of the most interesting and inventive Polish authors: Witold Gombrowicz.
It’s a genre-defying masterpiece, a Künstlerroman in a world without adequate norms, where the old morals are no longer relevant and new morals still haven’t appeared or are only superficial or simply fake. In this aspect it resembles a great modernist coming-of-age story – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Stephen and Józio have a lot in common. They are aspiring artists, trying to grow within society, a society whose norms they cannot fully accept, but at the same time they are being heavily shaped by them. They are on the road to becoming fully-grown, fully-aware artists in a world that does not want artists any more, in a world that is torn apart by contradictory ethical systems. Eventually, they both rebel, they choose the way of the individual, not the way of the masses.
The choices that Józio makes resemble another extremely important figure in English-language literature, the lowly copyist from Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener. The protagonists of the Polish classic and the American story are similar in the way of their rebellion. It is not a straightforward one, where new values to live by are created, it is rather a passive one, illustrated very nicely by Bartleby’s favourite utterance – ‘I would prefer not to’. Both characters see the impact that society and its norms have on them, but ultimately neither Józio nor Bartleby can do much about it. However, despite all that, they are adamant about not conforming to its broken, arbitrary rules.
Heart of Darkness
Sometimes canons of literature in different countries share not only some themes or ideas, sometimes they share something more – whole books in fact! That is the case with Joseph Conrad, the Polish-English writer whose best-known work is undoubtedly Heart of Darkness. While there are pretty convincing arguments for us Poles to claim him as ‘our’ writer, it’s no doubt everyone wants his works on their obligatory reading list.
Heart of Darkness is an unparalleled exploration of descent into madness, of colonialism, and of places where extremely different cultures meet. Although originally written in English, Poles can’t help but feel Conrad’s Polish roots throughout the book, Poland having been divided by three imperial powers at the time of its writing. Whatever country you might be from, it’s a work which should be read worldwide.
Have you been reminded of similarities between Polish and English literature when reading a good book? Let us know in the comments!
Written by Adrian Sobolewski, November 2017