The Danish Connection: Iwaszkiewicz’s Scandinavian Life
#language & literature
default, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, 1933, photo: National Library Polona, center, jaroslaw_iwaszkiewicz_portret_1933_polona.jpg
If you were to ask Culture.pl, we’d say that the highest point in the history of Polish-Danish relations is the publication of our ‘Where is Poland?’ This interactive story documents Georg Brandes’s journey to the then-non-existent country in the middle of Europe. But Poland and Denmark have much more in common – and the best way to learn about it is to follow Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s lead.
An international man of poetry
Without a doubt, Søren Kierkegaard should be counted among the world’s most fascinating philosophers, and readers of his masterfully written works are bound to find numerous surprises within them. But if surprises are what you’re after in life, perhaps there is no better way of getting to know the Danish philosopher than through his translations into Polish. On the first page of Bojaźń i Drżenie (which is the Polish title of Fear and Trembling), you will find a note: ‘Translated from Danish and prefaced by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’.
The Other Life of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz
Iwaszkiewicz, one of Poland’s greatest poets and short-story writers and a founder of the legendary Skamander group, was by no means a philosopher. But he had something else which made him perfect for the job: he knew Danish and was an expert on Danish culture, having spent numerous years in the country over multiple visits. This led him to translate not only Kierkegaard, but also Hans Christian Andersen and Herman Bang (whose novel Ved Vejen was one of the poet’s favourites), as well as to write numerous essays about Denmark. But what was the reason for his fascination with the country, which, as he put it, revolutionised beer-making by using thermometers – and not feet – to measure the temperature of the brew?
Gefion Fountain in Copenhagen, 1920-1930, photo: Jan Szwedo / www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The short and easy answer is: he was broke. Most poets find it difficult to earn a living through their work, and Iwaszkiewicz was no exception, especially since he must have spent a fortune on his many travels. In 1927, short on money and willing to gain some independence from his wealthy father-in-law, he reluctantly accepted a position at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was responsible for promoting Polish art and literature abroad. Although this was far from perfect for the writer, who hated working in an office, a much better opportunity came along soon enough. In 1932, he received a proposition to become a secretary at the Embassy of Poland in Copenhagen – even though he had hardly served long enough as a diplomat to assume this position.
A life of luxury
Despite his wife Anna’s reluctance to leave home and raise children abroad, Iwaszkiewicz gladly accepted the new job and moved, at first on his own, to a modern apartment at Gustav Adolfsgade 5. This was a nice change after the quite spartan conditions of the family’s countryside residence in Stawisko. The freshly-minted diplomat was eager to enjoy everything the city had to offer using his much increased salary. As a result, the stories about his new standard of living circulated not only in Warsaw literary circles, but also in Copenhagen, which was more used to seeing the local diplomats lead rather modest lives.
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Iwaszkiewicz quickly became famous for having brought elegant furniture with him from Poland, along with a driver (a rare sight in the Danish capital, where at the time, even ambassadors drove on their own) and a cook, whose culinary skills were much appreciated during parties Iwaszkiewicz organised for his friends, other diplomats and Danish public figures. The biographer Radosław Romaniuk listed the following food items to demonstrate the enviable diet enjoyed not only by the poet and his guests, but also by the servants:
Stuffed pike, ham, turkey salad, mushrooms, boeuf Stroganoff, sausages, sauces, cake, cookies, fruit and ice cream (menu from 29th April 1934); lobster salad, roasted turkey, Spanish-style trout, salad, boeuf Stroganoff, cake, compote (21st January 1935).
Podkowa Leśna, Museum of Anna and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz in Stawisko, photo: Tomasz Wierzejski / Fotonova / East News
As Anna Iwaszkiewicz, who soon joined her husband in Denmark, could not imagine serving compote without cookies, the cook would eagerly bake three varieties of cookies each time, while also taking care of the groceries and preparing dinner. And although Anna enjoyed spending time in the couple’s new home and tried to do her best as a hostess during parties, she hated living in Copenhagen, a city she found boring and provincial. This only contributed to her feeling of homesickness and to the deterioration of her mental health. As a result, she spent much of her time in Poland, taking the children back with her and visiting only sporadically.
Despite these family issues, Jarosław flourished in his work, both as a diplomat and a writer (he wrote the historical novel Czerwone Tarcze (Red Shields) there, as well as numerous letters to his children in the name of their cat, Bukasia). His social skills – in addition to the efforts of his cook – made it easy for him to establish numerous contacts in Copenhagen. According to some, he was a much better diplomat than his boss, Ambassador Michał Sokolnicki.
For example, during a tour of the singer Jan Kiepura in 1934, Iwaszkiewicz and his wife hosted a party for 150 people (although to his disappointment, he did not manage to create the same amount of interest for the music of his cousin Karol Szymanowski). As a result, the writer was not only well liked, but found many opportunities to practice his Danish and learn about the country’s culture. He worked at the embassy until 1935 and later made numerous other trips to Denmark.
Poles & Danes brothers be
Golden Horns of Gallehus, National Museum of Denmark, photo: Prisma / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A close reading of Iwaszkiewicz’s Danish essays, collected under the charming title Gniazdo Łabędzi (A Swan’s Nest), might suggest that the diplomat’s job was made quite easy by the many similarities between the culture of Denmark and that of his homeland.
For example, Iwaszkiewicz’s reading of Danish literature led him to ask the question: Did Stanisław Wyspiański read Adam Oehlenschläger? The latter’s work included not only the Danish national anthem, but also an interesting poem entitled Guldhornene (Golden Horns, 1802) which is a poetic rendition of a true story of two golden horns found in Jutland. Oehlenschläger depicted the findings as symbols for the former glory of Scandinavia, buried in the soil by the gods and miraculously recovered just as Denmark was bound to recover its greatness. Ironically, the horns were later stolen, never to be seen again. They were most likely smelted into golden bars by a thief – the exhibits in the Danish National Museum are replicas.
Stanisław Wyspiański's Theatre of Interiors
Wyspiański fans might notice some similarities to The Wedding. In this classic 1901 play, everyone is ready to fight for independence, awaiting only the sound of a golden horn – which, sadly, gets lost by the young Jaśko. Although Iwaszkiewicz did not really believe that Wyspiański was, in fact, inspired by Oehlenschläger, he speculated that this could be in the realm of possibility, as the Danish poet was read very widely in Germany and his translated work might have reached the Polish author.
Iwaszkiewicz also pointed to many formal similarities between the two writers, even arguing that Oehlenschläger could be considered an ‘almost’ Polish Romantic poet – ‘almost’ because, even though Iwaszkiewicz also found his countryman’s work to bear similarities to the writings of Adam Mickiewicz, he felt it was simply not as good. As Iwaszkiewicz put it, Oehlenschläger lived in too peaceful a time and place and thus ‘lacks the painful experiences of our Romanticism. And this might perhaps lessen the lustre of his beautiful muse.’
There are many more connections between Poland and Denmark observed by the Polish diplomat and author. Iwaszkiewicz noticed for example, that passages from Herman Bang are great material for comparative analysis with similar scenes in Władysław Reymont; in his opinion, the latter has a more diverse vocabulary and is more precise, but the former writes more beautifully. He also felt that Andersen’s emotiveness had a lot in common with that of Fryderyk Chopin. (The afterword to Iwaszkiewicz’s essays, however, written by the editor of the book and published in 1962, instructs us that the apparent similarities are not very true and that Denmark, as a capitalist country, faced class problems inconceivable on the ‘right’ side of the Iron Curtain.)
Iwaszkiewicz also recorded numerous conversations with Polish immigrants in Denmark. But the most fascinating story in the book deals with the Danish translation of the Polish national poem Pan Tadeusz.
Denmark, my country!
Years after he left his position in Copenhagen, Iwaszkiewicz returned to Denmark for a brief visit, only to find that the readers from this Scandinavian country had become fascinated with Mickiewicz. To Iwaszkiewicz’s surprise, they read the Polish national bard not because they found him compelling on his own, but because they were told by critics that it was the best way to understand the thriving Polish culture, which had become popular in Denmark even earlier. And what better way to get to know Poland through Mickiewicz than by reading the epic Pan Tadeusz?
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Valdemar Rördam was apparently of the same opinion. According to Iwaszkiewicz, who once met him, he was obsessed with Pan Tadeusz and spoke about nothing else. Adolf Stender-Peterson, a professor of Slavic studies whom Iwaszkiewicz quoted as someone who knew the Polish national epic by heart in both the original and in many other languages, said that ‘Rördam’s work is the best translation of Pan Tadeusz in existence’.
The only catch is that Rördam never learnt Polish. Instead, he relied on various other translations and countless flashcards in order to understand the meaning of the work as best he could. At the same time, he asked his Polish-speaking friends to read him the poem out loud and tried to capture the rhythm and the melody of the original. This process resulted in what Iwaszkiewicz called a text ‘full of poetic licence but devoid of poetic falsity’.
This peculiar way of working is not the only bizarre story surrounding the translation. Rördam never published the result of his efforts, and no one knew what happened to the manuscript following the translator’s death in 1946. It was found nine years later in Portugal, where it had been taken by Rördam’s friend, who was given the manuscript for safekeeping.
Pan Tadeusz did not officially appear in Danish until 1958, because it took a team of experts three further years to decipher the translator’s handwriting. It’s safe to say that judging from this track record, Danish readers impatient to read Poland’s best new books might be better off learning Polish themselves.
A Danish national hero
View of Copenhagen and the Astoria Hotel. Visible: passers-by and tram no. 15, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Although Iwaszkiewicz deserves great credit for his attempts to bring Poland and Denmark closer together, he also received recognition for another, most unexpected contributions. On 27th April 1935, the poet was awarded Denmark’s second highest distinction, the Order of the Dannebrog, from King Christian X. But the ceremony was kept in secret, and the news never reached Warsaw, where it would have made for some first-rate gossip in literary circles.
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The reason for this was unearthed by Andrzej Zawada, the poet’s monographer, in 1994. Studying the late writer’s personal library, he noticed an interesting detail in a 1974 book entitled Skandynawia w Oczach Polaków (Scandinavia in the Eyes of Poles). One of the book’s chapters contains the following sentences:
Before the Easter of 1933, a certain foreign diplomat relayed to Copenhagen the news that 250 Nazi troopers were set to cross the German-Danish border during the holidays and annex Schleswig. The disclosure of these plans and a reaction from the Danish side resulted in the coup’s failure.
where is poland
Few would have detected a connection with Iwaszkiewicz here, but the not-so-discreet Polish poet added a simple annotation to the above passage in his copy of the book: ‘Me’.
Today, we can only speculate how Iwaszkiewicz got hold of the information (most likely, everything was kept secret to protect the poet’s source), but one thing is certain. Even if you are little impressed by Iwaszkiewicz’s efforts in cultural diplomacy, there is no denying that, if not for a poet from a country that once disappeared from the map for more than a hundred years, the history of Denmark would never have been the same.
Written by Michał Wieczorek, Jun 2019
Sources: 'Gniazdo Łabędzi: Szkice z Danii' by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, 1962; 'Inne Życie: Biografia Jarosława Iwaszkiewicza' by Radosław Romaniuk, 2012; 'Rzeczy: Iwaszkiewicz Intymnie' by Anna Król, 2015; Preface to Søren Kierkegaard's 'Bojaźń i Drżenie; Choroba na Śmierć' by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, 1969