Not Waiting For a Masterpiece (Anymore): Polish Literature After 1989
#language & literature
small, Not Waiting For a Masterpiece (Anymore): Polish Literature After 1989, Wisława Szymborska, photo: Jacek Bednarczyk, szymborska wislawa fot jacek bednarczyk 2_6250992.jpg
Polish literature after 1989 has shown itself to be free from ideological or political goals. But has that made it more universal? Here is a brief reminder of some important events that have occurred in Polish literature over the last quarter of the century.
Poetry from Szymborska to Kopyto
Polish poets and their poetry have long been held in high esteem by the nation. But does that remain unchanged as the great pass away and new poetry, despite its variety, seems less interested in making contact with the reader?
With the death of Wisława Szymborska in 2012, Poland lost one of its best known and most translated poets from the turn of the century. Her career illustrated some of the most significant changes experienced by Polish generations. From her grasp, the poetic scepter is undoubtedly transferred to Adam Zagajewski – who for some years, has been listed among the candidates to earn a Nobel Prize. A representative of classicisim, Zagajewski's poems are bright, Apollonian, and operate on the same fields as his predecessors.
What Font Would Szymborska Have Used?
Tadeusz Różewicz should be included in that generation, even though he has digressed from their forms of literature. Różewicz is a respected and popular minimalist master of words, with Mother Passes Away (originally: Matka Odchodzi) being one of his most well-known works. He is often described as a nihilist, whose uncompromising works struggle with the trauma of the Holocaust and war, as well as the dehumanization of 20th-century culture. Equally important in that generation for their intimate personal poetry are Julia Hartwig and Krystyna Miłobędzka.
The '90s saw the 'BruLion' generation set the trends for Polish poetry. When the group disintegrated, the landscape began to look somewhat chaotic, but nevertheless interesting. Three poets in particular should be mentioned for their influence on younger authors: Bohdan Zadura, credited with the loosening of poetic diction; Piotr Sommer, who successfully transplanted American poetry patterns (like the styles of the fruitful Frank O'Hara) to Poland; and Andrzej Sosnowski, the most avant-garde and hermetic poet while also paradoxically being the most influential and spectacular.
Polish Poetry for Passengers of the Sofia Metro
Also worth mentioning are Marcin Świetlicki and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki. Athough not involved themselves in a school or having followers, they remain remarkably consistent in their work. The latter is probably the greatest prodigy in Polish poetry in recent years, despite the public's late discovery of his writing. In 2009, his Song of Dependence and Addiction (originally: Piosenka o Zależnościach i Uzależnieniach) received the Nike and Gdynia awards, placing him in the public spotlight. In addition, while their poetry is difficult and not entirely popular, Ryszard Krynicki and Ewa Lipska remain masters of the intimate style and also deserve a mention.
Some of the most important young poets are undoubtedly Tomasz Różycki, Tadeusz Dąbrowski, Adam Wiedemann, Joanna Mueller, Marta Podgórnik and Roman Honet. Meanwhile, amongst the very youngest, we should also mention Konrad Góra, Szczepan Kopyto and Grzegorz Kwiatkowski.
We should add to this list a Polish publishing marvel – the Biuro Literackie publishing house from Wrocław. This 10-year-old institution specialises in books of poetry and successfully promotes the art form in the country.
Polish prose: not a country for a masterpiece
Polish prose has faced a problem which was first articulated by Czesław Miłosz. This is the notion that because Polish literature never created a realistic tradition, it could never produce masterpieces as successful as Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The idea has remained valid in the past quarter of the century, and so far, no authors have had any illusions about the creation of such a work. With this understanding in mind, we may examine other valuable positions.
The decade following the transformation was dominated by the theme of 'little fatherlands', supported by a style of traditional narration. Paweł Huelle, who wrote Weiser Dawidek in 1987, and Stefan Chwin, who wrote Hanemann in 1995, were authors who both ascribed to this format and were connected with Gdańsk. Another author belonging to this group is Wiesław Myśliwski, who wrote The Horizon (originally: Widnokrąg) in 1997. With a similar focus on the subject of locality and middle-European fatherlands, one could place Andrzej Stasiuk and Olga Tokarczuk. Tokarczuk's Polish version of magical realism is widely recognized, and both she and Stasiuk produce works that remain free from historically ideological contexts.
An important literary event in the decade following the transformation was a novel by Jerzy Pilch, The Mighty Angel (Pod Mocnym Aniołem). Published in the year 2000, it is the story of an alcoholic who experiences the redemptive power of love. The novel gained enormous popularity, it was made into a screenplay 13 years later. A movie titled Anioł (Angel), directed by Wojtek Smarzowski, is expected to be released to the cinemas at the beginning of 2014.
Book Lovers: The Novel as a Form of Art
In 2002, a great novel arrived in an unexpected form. Titled The Polish-Russian War under the Star-Spangled Banner (originally: Wojna Polsko-Ruska pod Flagą Biało-Czerwoną). Written by Dorota Masłowska, it was published when she was just 19 years old. The appearance of this book was the greatest event in Polish literature after 1989. Marcin Świetlicki was quoted in saying that 'it was worth it to live for forty years just to finally read something this interesting'. Advertised as the first Polish ‘chav’ novel, the book surprised many with its inventive language and humor. Attracting readers and critics alike, it quickly became a bestseller.
Masłowska's career continued to confirm her extraordinary talent and good ear for language, not only fulfilling expectations, but consistently surprising the public. After her 2002 publication, she released The Queen's Peacock (originally: Paw Królowej), which is a book written in hip-hop slang. It received the Nike award in 2006. Masłowska then transitioned into drama, creating two works worth mentioning: A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians (originally: Dwoje Biednych Rumunów Mówiących po Polsku) in 2006, and No Matter How Hard We Tried (originally: Między Nami Dobrze Jest) in 2008. Most recently, she has returned to novels, with her 2012 release Honey, I Killed Our Cats (originally: Kochanie, Zabiłam Nasze Koty).
By shifting the boundaries of language and setting the artistic standard at a completely different level, Masłowska's debut book effected an important caesura in Polish literature. The Polish-Russian War paved the way for many interesting debuts, allowing new voices to be heard, which in turn broadened the field of literary interest. There are five highly notable works from this period.
Wojciech Kuczok's shocking story of a boy brought up in a pathological family was written in 2003 and titled The Miscreant (originally: Gnój). Lovetown (originally: Lubiewo), written by Michał Witkowski in 2004, is a novel of adventure from the LGBTQ community. Jacek Dehnel wrote Lala in 2006, the story of a grandmother told by her grandson, accompanied by 20th century history. The Pocket Atlas of Women (Kieszonkowy Atlas Kobiet) was written in 2008 by Sylwia Chutnik, a story about women excluded from the prosperity of the big city. And last, but not least, is Radio Armageddon by Jakub Żulczyk (2008). This marks his attempt to describe a younger generation as of yet underrepresented in literature.
Sylwia Chutnik Tours Germany With the Feminist Weibskram
Kapuściński, Krall, Tochman & others in non-fiction
Perhaps the lack of a realism genre in Polish fiction can be explained by the high sophistication and position of reportage literature. In recent years, this type of literature has proven itself to be an exportable good, but its tradition reaches back to works published in the late '70s by the iconic Ryszard Kapuściński. His most notable works are that of The Emperor (originally: Cesarz, 1978), Shah of Shahs (originally: Szachinszach, 1982), The Empire (originally: Imperium, 1993), Ebony (originally: Heban, 1998) and Travels with Herodotus (originally: Podróże z Herodotem, 2004).
Kapuściński's status in the country was championed by his biography, Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life (originally: Kapuściński Non-Fiction), which was published a few years after his death and written by Artur Domosławski. The book caused a scandal, provoking questions about how far reporters could go with confabulation and what were a public personality’s rights to privacy. In comparison to Polish standards, the book sold in gigantic proportions internationally, numbering up to 130,000 copies.
Kapuściński might be considered the regional patron of foreign correspondents. Among those he influenced we should mention at least seven authors. For their works about Africa; Wojciech Tochman who wrote Today We Draw Death (originally: Dziś Narysujemy Śmierć) and Wojciech Jagielski for his The Night Walkers (originally: Nocni Wędrowcy). Jacek Hugo-Bader, whose focus on Russia created the novel White Fever (originally: Biała Gorączka). Mariusz Szczygieł’s book about the Czech Republic Gottland. Witold Szabłowski’s The Killer from Apricot City (originally: Zabójca z Miasta Moreli) about Turkey. With an interest in Asia and South America, we have Andrzej Muszyński’s South (originally: Południe) and most recently, Marcin Wasielewski’s novels about the Faroe and Pitcairn Islands 81:1 and The Queen Comes Tomorrow (originally: Jutro Przypłynie Królowa). The above-mentioned authors have been often translated.
While foreign readers remain less interested in reportage about Poland, these books remain popular in the country itself. Hanna Krall may be considered a star of the reportage genre, as the author of Shielding the Flame (originally: Zdążyć Przed Panem Bogiem) and There is no River There Anymore (originally: Tam Już Nie Ma Żadnej Rzeki). Among the greatest reportage books describing Polish modern realities is God Bless You (originally: Bóg Zapłać) by Wojciech Tochman; It Hurt Even More (originally: Bolało Jeszcze Bardziej) by Lidia Ostałowska; The Heart of the Nation at the Bus-Stop (originally: Serce Narodu, Koło Przystanku) by Włodzimierz Nowak, and The Sunday that Happened on Wednesday (originally: Niedziela, Która Zdarzyła się w Środę) by Mariusz Szczygieł. These titles, collections of reportages collected over years, are considered a treasure trove of knowledge about contemporary Poland.
8 of the Best Reportage Books from Poland
On a final note, it would be a mistake not to mention the book which, although not a reportage itself, caused the biggest national debate since the turn of the century. In Neighbors (originally: Sąsiedzi), written in 2000 by historian Jan Tomasz Gross, the details of a Polish homicide of Jewish citizens in Jedwabne is revealed. In the aftermath of this debate, Anna Bikont wrote The Crime and the Silence: Confronting the Massacre of the Jews in Wartime Jedwabne (originally: My z Jedwabnego), which became the basis for the play Our Class (originally: Nasza Klasa) by Tadeusz Słobodzianek.
polish literature since 1989
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 11 Jul 2013