One of the most important writers of the Polish 20th-century emigration, author of ‘A World Apart: A Memoir of the Gulag’. Born in Kielce in 1919, he died on the 4th July 2000 in Italy.
Made his debut in the inter-war period as a literary critic. He was a co-founder in 1947 and one of the original editors of "Kultura", then published in Rome.
Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was born in a Jewish family. He studied in the Mikołaj Rej high school in Kielce. In an interview recorded by Zdzisław Kudelski in Naples in 1996, Herling-Grudziński said:
When I was born, my father owned a small property in Skrzelczyce near Busko, which later on was the main subject of many stories... about their amazing abundance. Apparently everything there was huge, incredible. Mushrooms that you had to jump over, fish that weighed a few kilos. It was an often recalled legend about this abundance of Skrzelczyce and an incredible wealth of this small property. But it was contradicted by the fact that not long after I was born, dad sold these wonderful Skrzelczyce and bought a mill in Suchedniów, where later on, right before the war, he also built a little lumbermill. This was the basis of our life.
For two years he studied Polish philology at the Warsaw University. He collaborated with magazines Ateneum, Pion and was an editor of Orka na Ugorze. In October 1939 together with his colleagues he established one of the first conspiracy organisations – Polska Ludowa Akcja Niepodległosciowa (PLAN). He went to Lviv and then to Grodno. In 1940 he was arrested by the NKVD while he attempted to go to Lithuania.
Sentenced to five years in a gulag, he was imprisoned in the far North and was liberated two years later. His dramatic experience was described in Herling-Grudziński’s most famous book, A World Apart. He left Russia together with Anders’s army and fought in the battle of Monte Cassino.
Since 1946 he has been a member of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which he abandoned in 1960. In 1947 he co-founded the Kultura magazine, which was then published in Rome. He moved to London for a few years and then, after his first wive’s death, he came back to Naples, where he married Benedetto Croce’s daughter Lidia, and where he stayed until his death. Between 1952 and 1955, he collaborated with Radio Free Europe, he was a member of the Polish Writers Association. Later on he collaborated with the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) and Polish Independence Agreement (PPN).
A World Apart
He was one of the outstanding Polish writers of the twentieth century. His subjects are his own writing as well as the human opposition to various forms of nothingness (totalitarianism, religious doubt, the feeling of existential solitude, and the instrumentalization of life).
Herling-Grudziński’s debut was a volume of sketches about Polish writers entitled Żywi i Umarli / The Dead and the Living (1946). But he was truly born as a writer when he published A World Apart (1951), which is a remaking of his experience from the lager. It is one of the first and one of the best works dedicated to this theme in world literature. The book is a credible documentary description of living conditions in the Soviet camps and at the same time a story about the essence of totalitarianism, the borders of humanity, the unfathomable depths to which man can fall, and the human strength through which dignity can overcome any fate. In his stories, Herling traces the “individual fate” that mark each person’s private road toward reconciliation with death. The title is a reference to Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, from where the book’s epigraph origins:
Here there is a world apart, unlike everything else, with laws of its own, its own manners and customs, and here in the house of the living dead — life as nowhere else and a people apart.
The book was first published in English, translated by Andrzej Ciołkosz with a foreword written by Bertrand Russell. The author spoke about the story of its publishing:
I published A World Apart at Heinemann after I wrote the third part in Polish, while I stayed at my friends’ house in Rugby and gave the chapters to Grydzewski and published them in Wiadomości. They were translated into English by my young friend Andrzej Ciołkosz and this translation was given by another friend, Witold Czerwiński to one of London’s most important publishers, Heinemann. A great journalist Malcolm Muggeridge worked there. He read the book and was deeply touched by it. He advised Heinemann to take the book and give me an advance which would allow me to write further. The director of Heinemann instantly agreed, I got the advance which allowed me to take a breather from other jobs and I started writing.
Two years later the book was published in Polish, also in London. The first official Polish edition came only in 1988, when A World Apart was already widely known and appreciated both by the readers and literature’s most influential personalities.
I made a few attempts with the French, for example Albert Camus got the book. He liked it a lot, he wrote me a letter saying it should be published in every country in the world, that it is very good and moving, but also that he could only advise and the publisher didn’t agree to take it, as Camus ironically said: ‘Pour raison économique, je crois’. We all know what these reasons were. The book was published in France only in 1985, which opened a new chapter in my foreign reception.
Sketches, novellas, diaries
His work includes literary criticism, prose, essays and original mixed forms. His critical works reflect his interest in Russian literature, the European classics, and painting. The erudition of his sketches on art shows that for Herling, culture is a metaphysical manifestation of human uncertainty, as well as the most capacious of the symbolic languages serving sensual perception.
Probably the most important genre for Herling was the novella: he wrote over fifty short stories, of which the first one was Książę Niezłomny / The Unshaken Prince (1957), dedicated to the Italian anti-fascist emigration. Stories such as Wieża / The Tower (published for the first time in 1960, together with Pieta dell’Isola) and Drugie Przyjście / The Second Coming (1963) belong to the metaphysical trend in his work. In his stories, Herling traces the ‘individual fate’ that mark each person’s private road toward reconciliation with death. The literary specifics of his works, which might be called metaphysical crime stories, are determined by his renewal of the forms of the nineteenth-century tale, as in Poe, Melville and James.
‘Original traditionalism’ also marks his Journal Written at Night, a work initiated in 1971 and continued down to his death, containing classical journal entries next to essays on art, political commentaries, and works of fiction. As Krzysztof Pomian wrote in the introduction:
Herling’s sensitivity is manichaeist. Manichaeism is not a cult of evil though. It assumes the existence of two distinct rules, which collide to form the history of the world: good and evil, the light and the dark.
A look from the distance
Herling-Grudziński, who spent almost all of his adult life outside of the influence of Polish language, using English, French and Italian, spoke about the experience of living among other cultures:
Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was honoured with multiple awards: Kultura Prize (1958), Jurzykowski Award (1964), Kościelscy Award (1966), Wiadomości Award (1981), the Italian Premio Viareggio, the international ‘Prix Gutenberg’ and the French Pen-Club.
- Żywi i umarli (The Quick and the Dead). Lublin: Fis, 1991.
- Wieża i inne opowiadania (The Tower and Other Stories). Poznań: W drodze, 1990.
- Opowiadania zebrane (Collected Stories). Poznań: W drodze, 1990.
- Godzina cieni (The Hour of the Shadow). Krakow: Znak, 1991.
- Sześć medalionów i srebrna szkatulka (Six Medallions and a Silver Jewelry Box). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1994.
- Dziennik pisany nocą 1973-79 (Journal Written at Night). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1995.
- Portret Wenecki (The Venetian Portrait). Lublin: UMCS, 1995.
- Błogosławiona święta (The Blessed World). Lublin: UMCS, 1996.
- Dziennik pisany nocą 1980-83 (Journal Written at Night). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1996.
- Dziennik pisany nocą 1984-88 (Journal Written at Night). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1996.
- Dziennik pisany noca 1989-92 (Journal Written at Night). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1997.
- Don Ildebrando. Warsaw: Presspublica, 1997.
- Gorący oddech pustyni (The Hot Breath of the Desert). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1997.
- Rozmowy w Dragonei (Conversations in Dragonea). Warsaw: Szpak, 1997 (together with Włodzimierz Bolecki).
- Dziennik pisany nocą 1993-96 (Journal Written at Night). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1998
- Podzwonne dla dzwonnika (The Bell-Ringer’s Toll), Warsaw: Czytelnik 1999 (more...).
- Biała noc miłości (The White Night of Love). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1999.
- Dziennik pisany nocą 1997-1999 (Journal Written at Night). Warsaw: Czytelnik, 2000.
- Najkrótszy przewodnik po sobie samym (The shortest guide ever to yourself). Krakow: WL, 2000.
- Biała noc miłości. Opowiadania (White Night of Love. Short Stories). Warsaw, Czytelnik 2002 (more...).
- German: Der Turm und die Insel (two stories). Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1966.Welt ohne Erbarmen. Köln: Politik und Wirtschaft, 1953.Die Insel (Wyspa). Münich: Hanser, 1994.
- French: Un monde a part (Inny swiat). Paris: Denoel, 1985; Gallimard, 1995.Journal Écrit la nuit (Dziennik pisany noca 1973-1979). Paris: Gallimard, 1989.L’Ile et autres rÉcits. (Wyspa i inne opowiadania). Paris: Gallimard, 1992.Le Portrait vÉnitien et autres rÉcits. (Portret wenecki i inne opowiadania). Paris: Gallimard, 1995.
Source: www.polska2000.pl; zwoje-scrolls.com; “Zeszyty Poetyckie”; edited by NMR, listopad 2016.