Jacek Dehnel is a poet, writer and translator from English (Philip Larkin, George Szirtes, W.H. Auden) and Russian (Osip Mandelstam) into Polish. Dehnel has also translated songs written to music by Astor Piazzola. He was born on 1st May 1980 in Gdańsk.
A graduate of Polish Studies within the framework of Interfaculty Studies in the Humanities at the University of Warsaw, Dehnel's MA thesis examined the translations of Philip Larkin by Stanisław Barańczak. He was also the editor of the English-language anthology Six Polish Poets which was published by Arc Publications in London in 2008 and featured Agnieszka Kuciak, Anna Piwkowska, Tomasz Różycki, Dariusz Suska, Maciek Woźniak and Dehnel himself. Dehnel's first volume of poetry, Żywoty Równoległe, appeared with a laudatory blurb by Czesław Miłosz. He also won the 2005 Kościelski Foundation Award and one of the 2006 Polityka Passports.
Dehnel is also one of the administrators of www.nieszuflada.pl, a poetry website where he often comments on and discusses the poems which get posted. Besides literature, Dehnel pursues painting and 'the art of living', the latter involving copying the dress and behaviour of a dandy (one can see this while looking at his photographs on the web).
This styling for times bygone has also been central to Dehnel's core work, although over time other elements have appeared. His early poetry was sometimes ante-dated a century earlier (a trick which he now considers marginal and does not use in the volume Wiersze). The rhymes and rhythms of Dehnel's poetry are also steeped in the past – as is Kolekcja (Collection), his first book of short stories, which abounds in references to Bruno Schulz, and Lala (Doll) in its key theme. This should not, however, be seen as escapism, for Dehnel uses the archaic mode to speak, among other things, about the contemporary world. What is open to criticism, though, is his exaggerated tendency to beautify and embellish, and the too frequent references to his esteemed predecessors.
Dehnel's poetry likes to utilize a few favourite ideas of his, one of them being the turning of a poem into an apostrophe to an artist or a dialogue with him. Throughout the volume Żywoty Równoległe (Parallel Lives) Dehnel invents alternative, literature-free biographies for men of letters. Each of them seems to lack something, suggesting that writing is somehow a matter of predestination.
Dehnel's other principal trick is to write poems that describe objects, preferably artistically made trinkets, emotionally-charged mementoes or things falling on the border between visual and applied art, such as medical drawings, postcards or old, preferably posed photographs. His literary collector's passion also comes to play in Dehnel's short prose works from the series Fotoplastykon. They are printed on the Internet and magazines and usually have a description of an old photograph as the starting point. Critics have often written about Dehnel's love of trinkets, yet they have usually been oblivious of the aspect of wear and mediocrity of the objects he describes.
There is more about memory and passing in Dehnel's first novel, Lala, a reconstruction of the life of Dehnel's grandmother. The title of this family tale comes from the grandmother's nickname, Lala, attributed either to the heroine's extraordinary beauty or to her relatively late christening and the need to call her by some name before the event. The narrator is clearly fascinated by his protagonist and her own or other family members' stories she tells. The more contemporary parts of the novel bring, however, a disintegration of the word-rooted myth: Lala begins to suffer from memory lapses and the grandson's story becomes a reconstruction rather than a straightforward record. One feels as if the story were told by the narrator instead of the (incapacitated) protagonist, and this sensation lends the novel a somewhat melancholic feel despite its numerous and excellent anecdotes.
Soon after Lala Dehnel published another book, a collection of short stories entitled Rynek w Smyrnie (Marketplace in Smyrna). He had written it earlier than Lala, in 1999-2002, and it is an evident attempt to address the same subject-matter as the novel – the story Filc (Felt) clearly has the same realities. Rynek w Smyrnie provoked mixed critical opinions, the usual praise for the elegance and sophistication of Dehnel's prose appearing side by side with comments on excessive decorativeness which spoiled the genuinely interesting plot ideas.
While the critics have started to ask increasingly about the purpose and function of Dehnel's stylistic devices, the writer has not helped them when his next book, Balzakiana, was published, its title suggestive of another styling. Dehnel's has responded to the criticisms with a valid polemic strategy, that is by arguing that nowadays there seems to be a much bigger acceptance of avant-garde aesthetic provocations than of those which pay a tribute to our heritage. He has got a point there and, anyway, Balzakiana's references to the history of literature as suggested by the book's title seem vague. Although one may relate the human types shown in the four short stories (or 'mini-novels') to specific characters from Balzac's Human Comedy, the two works differ in size, Balzakiana being some 400 pages long compared to the collection of novels on which Balzac worked all his life, and in the setting, which is Polish in Dehnel's book. Last but not least, Balzakiana makes fun (sic!) of the French writer when one of its characters reads a Harlequin book whose paragraphs are substituted for with Balzac quotations.
His next novel, Saturn, was warmly received by critics, although Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało predicted in her review in Polityka that:
It will only strengthen the division between the admirers of his fervour, of his long and round sentences, of the professional writer's work – and the opponents of this style.
Saturn is a story about the difficult relationship between charismatic genius and greedy 'devourer of life' Francisco Goya and his delicate son, stifled by the vitality and abruptness of his father.
Makryna Mieczysławska, the main protagonist of Dehnel's next novel Mother Makryna, is also a historical figure. This famous 19th-century swindler who pretended to be the prioress of an Uniate monastery in Minsk and complained about the harassment of the Russian authorities, was widely listened to by Polish emigrants, led by the famous Adam Mickiewicz. In his review for Gazeta Wyborcza, Dariusz Nowacki praised – without any doubts, this time – the stylistic virtuosity of the author, who archaised the language in a way invisible to readers. The critic also points out that Dehnel, who, in his private life, fights for gay rights in Poland, sympathizes with his protagonist and:
...adds his voice to a wide discussion about exclusion, trying to empathize with the position of somebody, who describes herself as: "First, a widow. Second, a beggar. Third, a granny. Fourth, a hag. Fifth, a Jewish apostate. Sixth, an ugly woman. Scars on her face, some of them fresh, wrinkled, bent, swollen legs, gasping when climbing stairs".
In 2015, together with Piotr Tarczyński, Dehnel published a period crime story under the name Maryla Szymiczkowa, Tajemnica Domu Helclów (The Mystery of Helcel House). The main protagonist, Mrs Szczupaczyńska – Miss Marple meets Miss Dulska in her character – tries to solve the riddle of mysterious deaths of guests living in the titular nursing home. 'This is a charmingly camp book', wrote Juliusz Kurkiewicz in Gazeta Wyborcza. The duo returned to the character a year later in Rozdarta Zasłona (Torn Curtain). This time, the protagonist solves a servant’s mysterious disappearance. The plot again unfolds in 19th-century Kraków. The third tome of the series about Professor Szczupaczyńska is Seans w Domu Egipskim (A Séance in the Egyptian House) published by Dehnel and Tarczyński in 2018. Kraków is visited by Satan – Stanisław Przybyszewski, and the protagonist has to uncover the mystery of a death during a spiritual séance in the eponymous house on Retoryka Street in Kraków.
Dziennik Roku Chrystusowego (Diary of the Year of Christ), published the same year, was widely discussed, mostly because of a particular editorial coincidence: at the same time three important writers published their diaries – apart from Dehnel, Piotr Siemion and Szczepan Twardoch. A debate started in the media, concerning the role of the diaristic form in the times of blogs and social media as well as the literary value of semi-private notes and the line separating art from the greed of famous writers. Dariusz Nowacki stirred up a hornet's nest in an article, ironically entitled "Blogs in covers or how Dehnel and Twardoch published their diaries":
To sum up: there's not little impertinence in Twardoch and Dehnel's diaries. I don't want to say they are self-loving and shamelessly show their oversized egos. Who doesn't do it nowadays, especially writing a blog?
What I mean is the lack of writers' shame, using the easiest form possible. Is it really true that a year without a hardcover is wasted and basically means the end of the world? As a faithful and benevolent reader of these two great writers, I feel disappointed. Or even more – I feel hoaxed (Gazeta Wyborcza, 03.11.2015).
Łukasz Najder, in his review in Dwutygodnik, was not less critical:
Diary of the Year of Christ is a book with many weaknesses. Too long, filled with totally pointless descriptions of most trivial actions and experiences, infinite meetings, excursions, dinners, worries, gaffes, hoaxes, visits and return visits, soapy, indigestible and boring. It's half a thousand pages about being Jacek Dehnel, written by Jacek Dehnel ("Dwutygodnik", nr 171, 10/2015).
Dehnel's following novel, Krivoklat (2016), a pastiche of works by Thomas Bernhard, usually treated with devout respect, also turned out to be controversial. This monologue of a patient of an Austrian mental hospital was described by most critics as a display of the author's technical mastery, but they disagreed on whereas there's any meaning in this literary joke. Bartosz Sadulski wrote:
Bernhard rewritten by Dehnel is light, focused on the surface and the sound, as if the colour of spitted bile was important, and not its source. Lala's author gives up his style and creative engagement, to manifest his literary proficiency, erudition and aesthetic sensibility, that we've already seen in Saturn. Writing in Bernhard's style is not a gesture of creative emancipation, no matter the level of difficulty - in Krivoklat, it's more of a signal of capitulation, because if the story's and monologue's form is their driving force, and the form is borrowed, the author becomes nothing more than an actor ("Dwutygodnik", nr 186, 05/2016).
In "Gazeta Wyborcza", Dariusz Nowacki replied:
With all the due respect to the original, covered brilliantly by Dehnel, I don't particularly admire Bernhard's work. That is why I am not angried by Krivoklat, but only amused, since it is a great literary joke ("Gazeta Wyborcza", 21.06.2016).
The most laconic summary of Dehnel's writing has been offered by Maciej Robert, who said: 'Dehnel has never fitted the image of Polish contemporary literature'.
Published in 2018, Dysharmonia Czyli Pięćdziesiąt Apokryfów Muzycznych (Disharmony, or Fifty Musical Apocrypha) was a shift from literature into music studies. The book is a collection of texts written by Dehnel for the Muzyka w Mieście monthly over almost five years. The compilation is divided into three parts – forgotten and non-existent operas, crimes committed with the use of musical instruments, and forgotten and non-existent composers.
The strangeness of Dehnel's oeuvre referenced by Maciej Robert may represent both a strength and a weakness: a strength because it gives his works a unique flair, a weakness because this uniqueness may easily turn into a ritual repetition of his own gestures. So far Dehnel has avoided the risk by skilfully juggling his standard themes and motifs, every repetition slightly modified so as not to slide into a pattern which is already known to the reader. This makes one look forward with curiosity to his future books.
Author: Paweł Kozioł, December 2008. Updated by AP, February 2019.
- Żywoty równoległe / The Parallel Lives, Zielona Sowa, Kraków 2004;
- Wyprawa na południe / An Expedition Southwards, Teatr Mały, Tychy 2005;
- Wiersze, Lampa i Iskra Boża, Warszawa 2006;
- Brzytwa okamgnienia, Biuro Literackie, Wrocław 2007;
- Ekran kontrolny, Biuro Literackie, Wrocław 2009;
- Rubryki strat i zysków, (poems collected from the years 1999-2010 and from the new series "Jezyki obce"; Foreign Langauges), Biuro Literackie, Wrocław 2011;
- Języki obce, Wrocław, Biuro Literackie 2013;
- Seria w ciemność (a selection from earlier volumes), Wrocław, Biuro Literackie 2016;
- Serce Chopina (poem), Wrocław, Biuro Literackie 2018
- Kolekcja / The Collection, Marpress, Gdańsk 1999;
- Lala, W.A.B., Warszawa 2006;
- Rynek w Smyrnie, W.A.B., Warszawa 2007;
- Balzakiana / Balzaciennes, W.A.B., Warszawa 2008;
- Fotoplastikon, W.A.B., Warszawa 2009;
- Saturn, W.A.B., Warszawa 2011;
- Kosmografia, czyli trzydzieści apokryfów tułaczych, Biblioteka Narodowa, Warsaw 2012;
- Młodszy księgowy. O książkach, czytaniu i pisaniu, W.A.B., Warszawa 2013 – a collection of editorials published in "Polityka";
- Matka Makryna, W.A.B., Warszawa 2014;
- Tajemnica domu Helclów (with Piotr Tarczyński under pseudonym Maryla Szymiczkowa), Znak, Kraków 2014;
- Dziennik roku chrystusowego, W.A.B., Warszawa 2015;
- Krivoklat, Znak, Kraków 2016;
- Rozdarta zasłona (with Piotr Tarczyński under pseudonym Maryla Szymiczkowa), Znak Literanova, Kraków 2016;
- Dysharmonia, czyli pięćdziesiąt apokryfów muzycznych, Narodowe Forum Muzyki, 2018 (ilustracje Jakub Woynarowski);
- Seans w Domu Egipskim (with Piotr Tarczyński under pseudonym Maryla Szymiczkowa), Znak Literanova, Kraków 2018.
- Philip Larkin, Zebrane / Collected, Biuro Literackie, Wrocław 2008;
- Kārlis Vērdiņš, Niosłem ci kanapeczkę, Biuro Literackie, Wrocław 2009;
- Edmund White, Hotel de Dream, Wrocław, Biuro Literackie 2012 (with Piotr Tarczyński);
- Henry James, Dokręcanie śruby, W.A.B., Warszawa 2015;
- Philip Larkin, Zimowe królestwo, Biuro Literackie, 2017;
- Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, Zdobycz i wierność, W.A.B., Warszawa 2018.