The Beatles in Polish Literature
#language & literature
default, A yellow submarine, photo: Government Liquidation, LLC / Getty Images, center, voyager-podwodna-gettyimages.jpg
The Beatles never performed in Poland, but the magic of their timeless music mesmerised several generations of Poles. Culture.pl’s Igor Belov tells us how the songs of the Fab Four resounded in the works of Polish writers and poets.
The Beatles in Polish
Many people translated Beatles’ songs in Poland (usually so they could sing their own version while playing guitar), but not always successfully – Slavic languages are inferior to English in laconicism and raw artless energy. But when real professionals, such as the talented Polish poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak, set to the task, the result was impressive. Barańczak translated Shakespeare and Dante, John Donne and Robert Burns, Frost and Dylan Thomas, Rilke and Venclova, Tsvetaeva and Brodsky… in this company of classics, The Beatles, with their subtle irony and typical English humour, fit in perfectly.
For example, take his translation of Lennon and McCartney’s classic song When I’m Sixty-Four, in which the singer asks his girl if she will still love him when he grows old. In order to preserve the rhythm of the original, Barańczak lowered the ‘retirement age’ of the singer – his translation was entitled Lat 63 (63 Year) – and translated this comical and simultaneously complex text masterfully, ingeniously even, and with a great sense of humour. His refrain was especially well done: ‘Gdy będę wracał nad ranem z knajp, / czy otworzysz drzwi / komuś, kto ma już skończone w maju / lat sześćdziesiąt trzy?’ It can be translated verbatim like so: ‘When I come home from the pub in the morning / will you open the door / to someone who already in May / turned sixty-three?’ Although the literal translation doesn’t convey some finer nuances: in particular, the rich inner rhyme of ‘ma już’ (‘already is’) and ‘w maju’ (‘in May’). Here Barańczak surpasses Paul McCartney’s rhyme of ‘need me’ with ‘feed me’.
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Oh, I believe in yesterday…
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The Beatles, from left: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, 1964, UK, photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
The song Yesterday, thought to be the most performed musical work in the world, has become a fixture in the soundtrack of modern life with its joys and sorrow, wins and losses. This famous composition imparts this symbolism in a key scene from Antoni Libera’s novel Madame (1998) – one of the best Polish novels about love. The story is set in socialist Poland in the second half of the 1960s. The book’s protagonist is a student in the graduating class of a Warsaw high school, a smarty-pants and poet, who falls in love with his French teacher. Their relationship resembles a multi-levelled intellectual duel and its culmination comes on graduation night. The main attraction is a concert by a specially invited vocal and instrumental ensemble called Screeching Panthers, whose repertoire consists of songs by the Liverpool foursome. The book’s protagonist is indifferent to the Beatles as he prefers jazz – but here the first chords of Yesterday are heard and ‘his French woman’ unexpectedly invites her admirer, slightly losing his courage, to a slow dance:
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‘Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play,’ the lead singer of the Screeching Panthers deduced.
‘Well doesn’t this add some kitsch?’ I added ironically.
‘Our sweet dance on the background of these sweet words.’
‘It might surprise you, but I don’t know English… and besides… sometimes… kitsch can be very pleasant. There’s no need to refuse to have anything to do with it. If not for kitsch, there would be no great art. If not for sin, there would be no life.’
In Libera’s novel nothing happens without a reason. Every detail has meaning. Every element, including the quotes from poetry that the characters continuously exchange, is incredibly significant. This dance is a kind of initiation for the protagonist, a parting from childhood, a transition to a new, grown-up state. The song Yesterday was something like that for its writer – in it, Paul McCartney sings about the onset of the maturity of feelings and a farewell to yesterday, when love was just a game. The protagonist of Madame knows that tomorrow the woman he has fallen in love with will leave Poland for France forever, and he’ll never have the chance to see her again. And as if confirming this, the Screeching Panthers follow it with John Lennon’s bitter and stinging song Ticket to Ride about a girl who has bought a train ticket to leave the lyrical protagonist forever.
Several other figures of Polish prose were nothing less than unnerved by the song Yesterday. In the home of 17-year-old Elka, the main character in Małgorzata Musierowicz’s novel Noelka (1992), from the popular Jeżycjada series of young adult books (named after Jeżyce, a district of Poznań), an electronic doorbell plays eight different melodies, one of which is Yesterday, much to Elka’s grandfather’s annoyance:
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Puffing, Grandad headed for the door. When he reached it, the doorbell was already playing ‘Yesterday’. Grandad, who accused The Beatles of spreading the fashion for drugs and effeminates, turned red from anger and tugged the doorknob forcefully. The door opened with such a swing that the air whistled.
In pursuit of the yellow submarine
Is it possible to attain familial happiness with the help of a vinyl record on which musicians from far-off Liverpool sing a silly song about a yellow submarine, blue sky and green sea? For the protagonist of Jerzy Stefan Stawiński’s 1990 novel Niekłamane Oblicze Jana Piszczyka (The Genuine Face of Jan Piszczyk), this partially succeeds. Stawiński, who wrote the screenplays for the famous Polish films Canal and Knights of the Teutonic Order, thought up his Jan Piszczyk character – the pathologically unlucky ‘little man’ of Polish literature – back in the late 1950s. The first novel about the adventures of this loveable loser, Sześć Wcieleń Jana Piszczyka (The Six Incarnations of Jan Piszczyk) from 1959, was the basis for the script of Andrzej Munk’s legendary film Bad Luck (1960) with the magnificent Bogumił Kobiela in the starring role. This was then followed in 1986 by the book Smutnych Losów Jana Piszczyka Ciąg Dalszy (The Sad Lot of Jan Piszczyk Continues), and four years later the final part of the trilogy was released. It is 1970, and the now-older Piszczyk is trying to build a relationship with his young daughter Tereska, who doesn’t suspect that he is her father. The girl’s mother, Piszczyk’s former love Renata, doesn’t want him to see her, but the protagonist, tired of his endless series of failures, is trying to change his life at least in this case, and win Tereska’s favour. More than anything else in the world, the girl loves The Beatles and sorely desires their record with the song Yellow Submarine:
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Tereska came in the room. Her eyes were swollen with tears.
‘I don’t want to live!’ she declared.
‘And why is that?’ Renata asked.
‘The Beatles broke up,’ sighed Tereska. A single tear flowed down her cheek. She wiped it away with her sleeve. […]
‘It’s truly a great loss for the entire world,’ I said […]. ‘But it’s sweet that you are so broken up about the Beatles. It’s a blow for me as well. I could try to get their record for you…’
Tereska looked at me with fresh eyes. Apparently she didn’t expect such an offer from such an ordinary person.
‘You can get the Beatles record for me? With Yellow Submarine?’
‘With Yellow Submarine. It will take a few days, I would need to bring it from abroad…’
Acquiring a Beatles record in Poland under the socialist regime wasn’t easy, but Piszczyk goes above and beyond, goes through his acquaintances, and in the end arranges for the vinyl to be brought to him from England for the occasion. It really helps him win Tereska’s approval, but aggravates tensions with her mother, who tells him heatedly: ‘To hell with you, Janek! The little idiot plays this damned record endlessly! I’ll soon sink this yellow submarine of hers!’
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Album cover of ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles, photo: press materials
The song Yellow Submarine that Tereska so loved first came out in 1966 on the Beatles’ seventh studio album, Revolver. The title and some of the themes of this record play out in the poem Revolver by Szymon Słomczyński, one of the most intriguing young literary figures in contemporary Poland. In 2014, Słomczyński’s debut book Nadjeżdża (this title can be both the present tense verb ‘drive up to’ and a distortion of the Russian name Nadezhda) was a finalist for the Nike Award, Poland’s most important literary prize, immediately launching its author into the first rank of Polish poetry. In the poem Revolver, published in the poet’s second book Dwupłat (2015), Słomczyński quotes the song For No One – probably the most beautiful and sorrowful composition on the album, made particularly charming by the sounds of the harpsicord and French horn, and the lyrics that tell of a love forever lost. Słomczyński’s poem is about the same thing, as well as the tragic inability to be heard:
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I would give all the colourful music
of any façade and street
for one revolver most small,
if she would only hear
in the speakers of her earphones,
how easily the bullet goes into
my rhyming noggin,
when Sir Paul starts singing ‘For No One’:
all the things she said
will fill your head.
The most beautiful dream of the year
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The Beatles concert at the Prince William Theatre in London, 1963, photo: Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Modern Polish poets already perceive the works of the Beatles as part of classical European culture, but of course this was not always the case. For authors who witnessed the typhoon of Beatlemania cover half the Earth in the mid-1960s, the Fab Four were a bit of a challenge to the era. And the first to notice this were representatives of popular genres – songwriter-poets and children’s writers. While working on the song lyrics for the television show Wojna Domowa (1965-66), Wojciech Młynarski – poet, satirist, singer, ‘the singing intellectual’ as he was called – wittily used ‘Beatle-esque’ motifs in relation to clothing. In the song Tylko Wróć (Just Come Back), the singer and his girl get caught in a terrible rainstorm, after which his ‘beatles boots’ (modernised Chelsea boots that came up just above the ankle with beveled heels, as worn by the Beatles) came unglued and his girlfriend’s ‘pończochy dwie typu “ye-ye”’ got wet (‘“yeah-yeah” style stockings’ – a reference to the well-known chorus of the Beatles’ She Loves You).
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Then in June 1965, in the heat of Beatlemania, the popular weekly Przekrój published a sweet poem by the famous Polish writer and poet Ludwik Jerzy Kern called Najpiękniejszy Sen Roku (The Most Beautiful Dream of the Year):
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This week Ela dreamt
The Beatles wanted to see her.
And they suddenly dropped by to visit
Not Kasia, not Basia,
But specifically Elka – no way!
Ela talked about it at school,
Ola and Jola burst with envy,
And Agnieszka too,
Magda and Toszka,
And the fool Małgoszka,
Iza and Kama,
And even Wanda’s mama,
Plus a few Ewas and Beatas,
Because this kind of dream is a real treasure.
Just like in a movie, all four of them appeared,
Windows thrown open:
Look! It’s the Beatles!
And everyone who was outside then
Saw their stylish mop-tops.
People ran over from all sides,
And Elka to the guys:
- Hello, Paul!
- Hello, George!
- Hello, Ringo!
- Hello, John!
As an answer they grabbed their guitars right there
(O tremble, surrounding sidewalks!)
And they played so,
And they sang so,
That Ela’s heart was about to jump out.
They finished playing – and they climbed, jostling sillily,
Through the window in Elka’s room.
Pouring tea service from the buffet,
Elka said: ‘Sit down please.’
And the Beatles, having drank up their tea, they begged:
‘With us! With us!’
That she would sing with them at least once.
And she sang, and they played,
The roar was like in a concert hall,
Big Ben danced on the guitar string…
In the morning at breakfast papa
with the mien of a satrap was curious:
- What are you doing Elka singing in your sleep like that?
The children of Sergeant Pepper
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Album cover for ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by The Beatles (1967), photo: press materials
In June 1967, the British newspaper The Times called the debut of The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a turning point in the history of Western civilisation. This statement is bold, but justly so – this groundbreaking record completely revolutionised popular music and culture as a whole. People who grew up in this new culture can rightfully be called ‘the children of Sgt. Pepper’. This was also the name Polish author Michał Szczepański gave his novel about the lives of those who identified themselves with characters from Beatles’ songs. The 2006 book Dzieci Sierżanta Pieprza (The Children of Sergeant Pepper) was called by critics ‘a motley collage of genres and themes […], held together by the history of an entire generation’. Before us are the lives of four friends – three guys and one girl – young Kraków hippies in the 1970s. They smoke marijuana, converse about free love and rock music and dream that their life will have nothing to do with the grey everyday of Poland under communism but will instead resemble the colourful psychedelic album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s. Only one of them is able to achieve this desire – but will they be happier for it?
Yet another ‘heir of Sgt. Pepper’ in Polish literature is the Warsaw poet Cezary Lipka, who came out with the book of poems The Lonely Hearts Club in 2010. The book has two dozen poems inspired by Beatles songs – each poem is associated with a specific tune. The choice of songs was not accidental: according to the author, it was important for him to connect songs with episodes in his life – both real and fictional. This resulted in a lyrical book about love and loneliness, tenderness and the absurdity of existence, where a romantic trip to Łódź ends in the couple kneeling in a church, and the speaker’s favourite cat embodies the features of both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here love almost always comes with a catch – like, for example, in the poem You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away alluding to Lennon’s song of the same name:
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I saw her by accident
At her own, the horror, wedding
The wedding guests got into their cars
The wind swept up the rose petals
The bride barely looked at me
Her thoughts with the wedding night
Love is blind and stupid
You will understand this when, lucky one
The due date comes
On your alimony payments
Now I look like a clown
But take it easy, gentlemen
The turn will come and it will be mine
A walk along Abbey Road
The famous cover of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, on which the fab four cross a London street in single file, gave rise to countless parodies, stylisations and comical references. You can find them in Polish literature as well.
Abbey Road inspired the cover of the wonderful comic Sprane Dżinsy i Sztama (2010), created by Jarosław and Paweł Płóciennik. The comic is about a gang of young Poles living in the Wola district of Warsaw, around Pańska Street and Rondo ONZ. It is the hot summer of 1980, the communist regime in Poland is going through yet another crisis, the ‘carnival of Solidarity’ is in full swing, and our young characters are sitting on a bench, drinking cheap wine and discussing the albums of Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, and, of course, The Beatles. On the cover of the book, the comic’s four main characters, like the Beatles, are crossing the road in single file on Isaac Peretz Street.
After the release of Abbey Road, conspiracy theory enthusiasts eagerly wrote that the album cover supposedly depicted a funeral procession – in front, all in white, the priest (Lennon), followed by a relative of the deceased in a stern black suit (Ringo Starr), then the barefoot deceased (McCartney), and finally, in shabby denim, the grave digger (Harrison). Rumors about Paul McCartney’s death, fortunately, were greatly exaggerated, but a plume of gloomy symbolism stretches across the album to this day. It was this that attracted the popular Polish detective author Mariusz Czubaj, who placed this iconic cover at the heart of his criminal intrigue 2014 novel Piąty Beatles (The Fifth Beatle). The photograph on the cover of Abbey Road is taken at the crime scene of a brutal murder, and police psychologist Rudolf Heinz, who is carrying out the investigation, realises that the photo is carrying a hidden message. In order to decipher it, Heinz will have to unravel a complex tangle of dramatic circumstances from a quarter of a century ago.
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Don’t shoot the Beatles
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Aleja George’a Harrisona (George Harrison Avenue) in Warsaw, 2011, photo: Piotr Rybarczyk
The Beatles phenomenon is difficult to rationalise – some Beatles fanatics truly consider their idols to be emissaries from extraterrestrial civilisations. This phenomenon half a century ago (not without a glance at the ideological mainstream of that time) was played upon by writer Andrzej Czechowski, who worked in the genre of science fiction. Czechowski’s debut 1967 book of short stories entitled Przybysze (Newcomers) contained a story titled ‘The Beatles’, where the Beatles were a band of robot musicians, and rock and roll was part of an elaborate extra-terrestrial plan to enslave humanity. Czechowski’s dour predictions have not yet come to pass. But there is one thing that is definitely certain – the music of the Beatles makes people kinder and more humane, like, for example, the protagonist of Zofia Chądzyńska’s 1987 young adult novel Dorosnąć (To Grow Up). The book was written in the form of a diary of a 40-year-old man who hopes that his teenage son will read it. He recalls how in his youth he styled his hair a la Lennon and copied Paul McCartney’s wardrobe, but his hero was always the humble drummer, Ringo.
The murder of John Lennon in December 1980 shocked millions of people and once again presented humanity with a difficult question: is the preaching of love and goodness capable of countering violence and cruelty? Attempting to find an answer, the poet and prosaist Aleksander Jurewicz, author of the books Lida and Popiół i Wiatr (Ash and Wind), wrote the poem Nie Strzelajcie do Beatlesów (Don’t Shoot the Beatles), which was contained in his poetry collection of the same name, published in 1983 after long disputes with censors:
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The era does'nt end when
a madman shoots you in the back.
That's why we haven't forgotten anything and
we don't want to forget anything.
After all, there's music today
not a funeral march.
And not a funeral song.
Crazy people wake up in our world
at dawn and make faces in the mirror,
practising what they will show tomorrow to
thousands of flashing flashes...
So this death is a fiction,
this death was not on the horizon.
Everything is still the same
as we start a new day
from this damn tally that
counts the last minutes
of our youth.
We're not ashamed, just as before,
to look into each other's eyes
don't be afraid to cry
I'm not afraid of madmen who are already
learning how to shoot us from behind...
Therefore, if it's possible
if only you can –
Don't shoot the Beatles.
ludwik jerzy kern
Decades have passed, but the music of the Fab Four lives on – destined for immortality. It contains a heavy dose of happiness and love, even when it is full of sadness – a feature that was caught very well by the Polish director Radosław Piwowarski, who in 1984 filmed the drama Yesterday. It’s a story about Polish high-schoolers from a small provincial town who, imitating the Beatles, form a rock band. But the film is not as much about music as it is about first love. At the very end of the movie, the heroine of Yesterday, Ania, composes a farewell letter to her beloved and writes:
Let’s agree: if at some time, anywhere, either you or I suddenly hear the Beatles, let’s remember each other. Their music will be played forever. What do you say?
Originally written in Russian, Jan 2019, translated by Katherine Alberti, June 2020