One of the best-known Polish novelists and columnists. He was born on 10th of August 1952 in Wisła, died on 29th May 2020.
A novelist and newspaper columnist; his wit and insights have been appreciated by many readers and his books have been translated into English and praised by international critics.
In the years 1989-1999, he was a member of the editorial office of the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. Later he collaborated with such periodicals as Dziennik and Polityka. In 2001 he received the NIKE literary prize for the book The Mighty Angel.
Jerzy Pilch was born on 10 August 1952 in Wisła, in a Protestant family. He was brought up in the faith of the Evangelical-Augsburg Church common in the Cieszyn Silesia. As he claimed: ‘My perspective is largely based on experience, and I was greatly influenced by my grandmother’. As an adult he lived ‘consciously 20 years in her company’, talking to her, listening to her each time that he was in the Vistula. He recalled:
And her experience was first and foremost the experience of political instability. Because she was born in 1906, she managed to survive Austria-Hungary, and twice the Czech Republic. These mobile borders sometimes passed almost through our courtyard – the Interwar period, the Germans, and the Bolsheviks, as she said. She lived to see a free Poland. (...) She didn’t even manage to leave the kitchen, not to mention her home, and the countries, systems and languages around her changed. And she, without going out of the kitchen, lived in Austria, in the Czech Republic, in Nazi Germany, in Poland. She was an orthodox Protestant from Cieszyn Silesia, and this is a minority with an extremely strong affiliation to Polishness, because they kept their religious identity thanks to Polish books. She always regretted never going to Warsaw in her life (...). She would certainly be in favour of travelling. And the world would be more normal if she, wanting to go to Germany, went to Berlin rather than if the Germans would come to her kitchen and say that they will be there now.
From 'Miłość Nie Jest Nam Dana, Prószyński i S-ka' by Krzysztof Masłoń, Warsaw 2005
Jerzy Pilch studied Polish philology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. After graduating he pursued an academic career for a period of ten years (1975-1985). At the same time, he consistently realized his passion for writing.
In 1975 Jerzy Pilch debuted as a literary critic. From 1978 he was a member of the editorial office of Student, and in the 1980s he co-organised and authored the independent Na Głos. Based on reciting articles, it was a magazine, which invited readers to its meetings with the Kraków Catholic Intelligentsia Club. The guests of these evenings were authors who were banned from printing, as well as those who avoided publication in official circulation under the Communist regime. They came from all over Poland. Jerzy Illg recalled:
They presented the issue of the ‘regular’ magazine together: Wisława Szymborska read a poem, Jan Józef Szczepański a short story, Jerzy Kwiatkowski or perhaps Jan Błoński an essay (...). It finished with the highlight of the evening, a column by Jerzy Pilch. Each time, he would grill one of the cronies who collaborated with the authorities. He talked about Roman Bratny, Władysław Machejek, and Jan Dobraczyński, while converting their literary ‘achievements’ into a bloody pulp. While analysing the military-erotic metaphors in the ‘sensual’, quasi-pornographic ‘lyrics’ by Colonel Janusz Przymanowski, which Pilch has quoted extensively (‘Don’t be afraid of the boar, / this cold is not the blade of a knife, / but the tip of the tongue’), people would fall laughing on the floor if there was at least a scrap of space in the crowded room.
From 'Mój Znak: O Noblistach, Kabaretach, Przyjaźniach, Książkach, Kobietach' by Jerzy Illg, Znak publishing house, Kraków 2009
Later he became well-known in the underground literary circles of Cracow for his feuilletons created for the spoken gazette Na Głos. The magazine had no printed edition and the authors read their articles out loud at regular meetings. In 1988 his literary debut, the novel Wyznania Twórcy Pokątnej Literatury Erotycznej (Confessions of an Author of Illicit Erotic Literature), was published. This idiosyncratic portrayal of the Cracow artistic scene of the eighties won him the prestigious Kościelski Award a year later. In 1989 he was also offered a job at the liberal Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. He quickly became one of the most celebrated authors of the newspaper, as his satirical essays were very popular with the readers.
His second novel entitled Spis Cudzołożnic: Proza Podróżna (List of Adulteresses: Travel Prose) was put out in 1993. The protagonist Gustaw, an unfulfilled writer and admirer of female beauty, takes a Swedish intellectual on a tour of Kraków. He tries to explain the national myths and absurdities of communism to his companion but spends equally as much time reminiscing about his affairs with women. The book is written in a refined style and the easiness of the plot and seeming triviality of events capture the readers’ attention in an unimposing manner. Jan Błoński wrote in a review: ‘reality is created by words coming as if from Schulz, an aura of parody known from Gombrowicz’s works is present and the sarcastic humour brings to mind Mrożek’s writing’. A film based on the story was made in 1995. The famous Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr directed it and played the main part.
In 1994 a collection of Pilch’s best essays from Tygodnik Powszechny was issued under the title Rozpacz z Powodu Utraty Furmanki (Despair at the Loss of a Wagon). It was the first of three such publications. Tezy o Głupocie, Piciu i Umieraniu (Theses about Stupidity, Drinking and Dying) appeared in 1997 and Bezpowrotnie Utracona Leworęczność (The Irreversible Loss of Left-Handedness) was printed in 1998. The style of Pilch’s feuilletons is defined by the mixing of genres. His texts have journalistic qualities as well as literary ones. Apart from being satirically humorous, which was the author’s trademark, they are often also based on his personal experiences. His prose-writing may also be considered autobiographical to a certain extent.
In Dziennik (Diary), which covers the years 2010-2011, Pilch shared his brilliant thoughts on the perverse nature of the world in which he lived. He did it with Protestant accuracy, intelligent defiance and polemical passion. He also often resorted to bitter irony and painful sarcasm, without which it is difficult to imagine his style, placing him at the forefront of writers who are fashionable, read, even sought-after.
The collection of dated texts by Jerzy Pilch refered to situations sometimes dictated by current events, which under his pen, become only a pretext for thinking of a more general nature. The writer's notes collected in Dziennik become something more than just an ad-hoc intervention or a live column. They are mini-essays, in which we find an affront of a wise man once again appealing to human reason and, at the same time, the author's amusement at the necessity of constantly nailing jelly to the wall.
The hefty volume also contains an equally hefty number of interestingly portrayed fellows from Wisła, his hometown. It aws a magical place for Jerzy Pilch – a safe fatherland and a silent abode for when he wass troubled by the overly-intensive or aggressive pace of life in Warsaw or Kraków. In any case, these were three permanent geographical points of reference for him, constantly present on the pages of Dziennik. His travels to them, or between them, are comparable only to wandering around the Gutenberg galaxy.
His Current Woman was the first book by Pilch to be published in English (2002) as well as in Polish (1995). In this story, we witness the problems a married veterinarian has with his intrusive mistress. He eventually installs his lover in the attic of his family’s slaughterhouse. Many a comic situation arises as the main character attempts to conceal the woman’s presence from his relatives and casual visitors. A gallery of eccentric types follows. The book was warmly received in Poland and abroad. The New York Times wrote:
Wildly entertaining.... ‘His Current Woman’ is a laugh-out-loud cautionary tale on the discomforts of marriage and the more painful consequences of pleasure.
In 1999 Pilch left his job at Tygodnik Powszechny and moved to Warsaw. There he took up a steady involvement with the weekly Polityka, where he acted as a columnist. About that time he commenced work on, what was to become his most successful novel, The Mighty Angel. In the book, the author described the alcohol addiction of a writer named Jerzy – a frequenter of rehabilitation centres and a hopeless case. Every time he is released from the treatment he stops at the closest shop to buy a bottle. Therefore he tries to build an ideology, which would justify his condition. He indulges in the stories told by other drunkards and on their basis he tries to formulate the universal tale of alcoholism. The Mighty Angel is written in a style that is spontaneous and unbridled. The author eagerly employed wordplay. The story itself is tragic and comic at the same time and is more than capable of touching the readers. The novel was published in 2000 and won the NIKE literary prize a year later. Professor Maria Janion, who was a member of the jury, which granted Pilch the award, said: ‘His novel is part of the national craze for spirits, it’s part of the Polish drinking literature. The author masterly plays with the tradition of drinking novels’. Considered Poland’s most famous story of alcoholism, it is compared to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki. It was translated into English by Bill Johnston and adapted for the screen by Wojciech Smarzowski under the title Angel.
Jerzy Pilch undertook the challenge of dissecting national myths in the theatrical play entitled Narty Ojca Świętego (The Holy Father’s Skis, 2004). The action is set in a small town located in the mountains, which John Paul II used to visit for skiing. A rumour spreads among the locals that the Pope might return to the settlement in order to retire from his duties. Commotion arises as the inhabitants try to assess the consequences of such a turn of events. A sly con man arrives, who tries to sell skis, which allegedly belonged to the Holy Father. The play is an ironic analysis of the Polish cult of John Paul II. To the characters, the Pope is more of a media personage than a spiritual leader. The author wrote in the introduction to the play:
I’m not saying that I’m addressing the topic of the Pope out of some artistic-civil sense of duty, although the absence of this subject in contemporary art, especially in high art is astonishing. I’m not under the slightest illusion that I’m filling this gap in, furthermore, I don’t want to fill it in. I’m not asking about the Pope. I’m asking about people. I’m not asking: what’s happening with the Pope? I’m asking: what’s happening with people? What goes on, when they start to think, less seriously, seriously or dead seriously, about the Pope, about his presence in their lives?
Jerzy Pilch also wrote movie scripts. Yellow Scarf was filmed in 2000 and was directed by the acclaimed Polish director Janusz Morgenstern. Janusz Gajos played the main part of a wealthy alcoholic struggling against his addiction. The film won the Golden Claqueur award at the 25th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia. Love In An Underground Passage (2006) is a slice of life comedy featuring such stars as Robert Więckiewicz, Małgorzata Socha and Wojciech Malajkat.
Pilch’s books have been translated into several languages including English, Spanish, French, Russian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Lithuanian and Estonian. Pilch’s other books translated into English include Tysiąc Spokojnych Miast (A Thousand Peaceful Cities) from 1997, Inne Rozkosze (His Current Woman) from 1995, and Moje Pierwsze Samobójstwo (My First Suicide) from 2006.
The American literary magazine Kirkus Review singled out Tysiąc Spokojnych Miast as The Best Fiction of 2010. Their starred review, written by Van Lanen, says, ‘If laughter actually is the best medicine, fortunate readers of this wonderful novel will surely enjoy perfect health for the rest of their days. Pilch’s writing, all of it, just jumps off of the page. It’s witty, it’s touching; his sentences have so much life, there’s a real joy in his writing…who doesn’t love a story about a drunken plot to assassinate a communist despot with a bow and arrow?’ Pilch, in response, said to the Polish Press Agency that ‘the language used in my novels is hard to translate, so this is definitely a success’. The book was also nominated for a Best Translated Book Award that same year by Three Percent, Three Percent – a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester.
In 2012 theatre director Jacek Głomb staged an adaptation of Plich's 2008 novel Marsz Polonia (March, Polonia), in which a confrontation of ‘two Polands’ threatens to end in a bloody slaughter. Reality mingles with a nightmarish fantasy of history, mythology, truth, lies, comedy and tragedy. Welcome to Jerzy Pilch's visionary satire on Poles – the nation that seems incapable of agreeing on a common history and common bond. Later that year Kirkus Review selected the English translation of Pilch's Moje Pierwsze Samobójstwo (My First Suicide) for their Best Fiction of 2012 list.
Living with an incurable illness and the consciousness of the destruction of body and mind were the main subjects in Pilch's Drugi Dziennik (Second Diary), written in 2012 and 2013, and published in Tygodnik Powszechny. After 2013 the column changed its character and, under the title Drugi Dziennik albo Autobiografia w Sensie Ścisłym (Second Diary or an Autobiography in the Literal Sense), focuses on stories from the writer's childhood in Wisła.
In 2015 Zuza albo Czas Oddalenia (Zuza or the Time of Separation])was published. It is a story of a romance between a sixty-year-old and a young, beautiful girl. ‘An old satyr and a young nymph – ancient peoples, stubbornly returning to this subject knew, what they were doing’ – writes the author. The book explores the borderland between truth and fiction – an autobiographical novel and a fictionalized essay. The narrator is a writer born in Wisła, suffering from the Parkinson disease, living in Warsaw on Hoża street. All of these particulars are true (there are others, like his age, which are not), but it's here that provocations start. Dariusz Nowacki wrote:
At one point he writes an apology of prostitution as the highest form of a love relationship, at another he praises fake breasts, always better than natural ones, finally, he states, black on white, that ‘whores don’t cheat’, because, philosophically speaking, they can't. If there's anything amusing in this novel, it's an ironic exploration of his former image of a sex maniac. Not everyone remembers, but there was a time when Jerzy Pilch was considered an expert in relationships, specializing in piquant interviews for colourful magazines. The protagonist of Zuza... takes on this role. In a biting way.
Gazeta Wyborcza, 02.06.2015
In 2016 a collection of interviews with Pilch, conducted by journalist Ewelina Pietrowiak, entitled Zawsze Nie Ma Nigdy (There Always is Never) was published.
In 2017, Pilch published Portret Młodej Wenecjanki (Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman), a novel also based on the game of autobiographical and fictional conventions. A would-be art historian of a certain age meets a young psychology student with the beauty of a woman from an Albrecht Durer painting. The story of their intense acquaintance is framed in reflections on loneliness. Their affair seems to be asymmetrical, hence its end pushes the protagonist to reflect on the very nature of relationships, but also death. Portret Młodej Wenecjanki provides a framework for erudite essay forms devoted to art history, literature and history. Dariusz Nowacki reviewed the novel, referring to the writer's previous work, Zuza albo Czas Oddalenia from 2015:
Again, we get two-in-one, that is an elegiac account of ‘the next-to-last days’ combined with an erotomaniac, self-ironic storytelling. Once again, the ‘loner from Hoża Street’ plays with his biography. And it is with so clearly marked cards that it allows removing the literary mask. As before, the writer tries to frighten and make us laugh and he provides jokes and despair, and above all – an immensity of melancholy.
Gazeta Wyborcza, 28 January 2017
In another conversation conducted by Ewelina Pietrowiak after Zawsze Nie Ma Nigdy: Jerzy Pilch w Rozmowach z Eweliną Pietrowiak (There Always is Never: Jerzy Pilch in Conversation with Ewelina Pietrowiak) in 2016, Pilch shared his reflections on various topics, such as doctors, chocolate bars and football. In an interview published in 2017, Inne Ochoty: Jerzy Pilch w Rozmowach z Eweliną Pietrowiak. Część 2 (Other Desires: Jerzy Pilch in Conversation with Ewelina Pietrowiak – Part 2). The journalist talked to Pilch in his famous apartment on Hoża Street in Warsaw. She asked him about the desk he worked at and the wallpaper set on his computer. When asked about his book collection, he also talked about the mania of binding countless books at the bookbinder. The writer also discussed his culinary tastes – from chocolate to scrambled eggs. Pilch shared his knowledge about Bach, Haydn, Bosch, Bruegel, among others, but also about literary theory. In an interview, he also talked about his more gloomy thoughts about death. The book has been enriched with photographs that further bring Pilch closer to his fans.
The novel Żywego Ducha (The Living Spirit), published in 2018, is sometimes referred to as another book that fits into the melancholic current of his work. Jerzy Andrzej Kubica, the main character, incomprehensibly and unexpectedly becomes the only man on Earth. The lonely writer wanders the streets of Warsaw, using the wealth of libraries he has at his disposal and the goods of deserted shops. The essence of Żywego Ducha is the essayistic reflections on loneliness, but also on the attachment of man to a set of principles established by society. In reality, in which the protagonist finds himself, such barriers, however, do not exist and he can freely violate them. The reflections, however, lead him to clash with the overwhelming nature of loneliness. The protagonist returns to the themes that captured him before the silent apocalypse.
Trzeci Dziennik (Third Diary), published in 2019, is another journalistic text in Pilch's output. His notes collected between 7 May 2017 and 15 July 2018 begin with a phrase imbued with hope:
I've never been so old, I've never been so sick, I've never started writing with a heart so heavy and my heart has never been so inspired with hope. I won’t even mention that the phrase ‘heart is filled with hope’ (and other phrases of this kind) has been completely alien to me so far. A man changes opinions – a writer changes style.
In spite of his statement, the writer remained true to his style and, in his characteristic ironic style, he talked about recurrent themes in his work: football, his hometown Wisła, walks around Warsaw, political events and literature. His reflections on the works of Salinger, Marquez and Gombrowicz, among others, occupy a large part of his diary entries.
In 2019, his prose book, Żółte Światło (Yellow Light), was published. Eight interlinked short stories have a common denominator in the form of autobiographical references to various characters and events in Pilch's life. Imagination intertwines with the writer's fictionalised biography and often breaks through in the form of references clear to his fans about his moving to Krakow, his grandfather and romantic life. Dariusz Nowacki reviewed the book:
The question of what the work is about can be considered redundant. More or less about what he always writes about. It is about Pilch, of course, who wouldn’t be himself if he hadn’t coquettishly pointed out that ‘the tribe that scavenges through his secrets will never die out’. To be precise: the pronoun ‘his’ refers to Ariel Poschukal, an inexperienced, bitter writer from the Sigła. It is, of course, another double-figure; it is difficult to count which one. It is possible, but not necessary, to dismantle this masquerade; this is probably what all of Pilch’s readers do, and the author himself encourages to do so in interviews.
Gazeta Wyborcza, 15 October 2019
The year 2019 saw the publishing of a collection of Pilch's columns, Widok z Mojego Boksu (View from My Cubicle) written in the years 1991-2007. The title is a reference to his place of work in the editorial office of Tygodnik Powszechny. A significant part of the collection consists of his texts written in the breakthrough era in Poland. The texts reveal an image of Kraków as seen through the eyes of Pilch, who brings closer the world of cafés, leading figures from the literary world and the environment around the newspaper. The writer pays great attention to Tygodnik Powszechny and the gallery of portraits of people associated with it. He writes about them with appreciation, sometimes with apt banter, but always with great sensitivity. Marian Stala writes in the introduction to the collection of columns:
The main themes of Widok z Mojego Boksu are revealed directly by the construction of this volume. The first one is ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’, seen both from the side of everyday life in the office and from the portraits of several figures important for this environment; the second one is Pilch's friends, among whom he also includes yours truly; the third theme is a loudly expressed admiration for a few great contemporaries; the fourth is literary life at the turn of the century. The themes are not separate; rather they draw and complement each other.
In April 2020, another collection of Pilch's columns was published, 60 Felietonów Najjadowitszych (60 Most Venomous Columns). It included columns previously published in the collections: Rozpacz z Powodu Utraty Furmanki (Despair at the Loss of a Wagon), Tezy o Głupocie, Piciu i Umieraniu (Theses about Stupidity, Drinking and Dying), Upadek Człowieka pod Dworcem Centralnym (The Fall of a Man at the Foot of Central Station) and Pociąg do Życia Wiecznego (The Train to Eternal Life). The oldest of the columns in the collection 60 Felietonów Najjadowitszych comes from 1990 and reflects Pilch's acumen. The book contains columns in which the writer accurately pointed out the absurdities of the surrounding reality, commented on well-known figures from public life and, above all, presented an excellent school of writing columns. Krzysztof Varga reviewed it:
I devoted myself to reading the 60 Felietonów Najjadowitszych, because when I read Pilch, I have a classic engineer Mamoń’s syndrome: I like reading Pilch's texts the most, and when I read them all, I feel that I like them even more.
From 'Gazeta Wyborcza', 27 April 2020
the mighty angel
Polish Contemporary Literature
- Wyznania Twórcy Pokątnej Literatury Erotycznej [Confessions of an Author of Illicit Erotic Literature], Puls, Londyn 1988,
- Spis Cudzołożnic: Proza Podróżna [List of Adulteresses: Travel Prose], Puls, Londyn 1993,
- Rozpacz z Powodu Utraty Furmanki [Despair at the Loss of a Wagon], Znak, Kraków 1994,
- Inne Rozkosze [His Current Woman], a5, Poznań 1995,
Monolog z Lisiej Jamy [A Monologue from a Fox’s Cave], Universitas, Kraków 1996,
- Tezy o Głupocie, Piciu i Umieraniu [Theses about Stupidity, Drinking and Dying], Puls, Londyn 1997,
- Tysiąc Spokojnych Miast [A Thousand Peaceful Cities], Puls, Londyn 1997,
- Bezpowrotnie Utracona Leworęczność [The Irreversible Loss of Left-Handedness], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1998,
- Pod Mocnym Aniołem [The Mighty Angel], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2000,
- Opowieści Wigilijne [Christmas Carol], (with Olga Tokarczuk and Andrzej Stasiuk), Czarna Ruta, 2000,
- Upadek Człowieka pod Dworcem Centralnym [The Fall of a Man at the Foot of Central Station], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2002,
- Miasto Utrapienia [A City of Torment], Świat Książki, Warszawa 2004,
- Narty Ojca Świętego [The Holy Father’s Skis], Świat Książki, Warszawa 2004,
- Moje Pierwsze Samobójstwo [My First Suicide], Świat Książki, Warszawa 2006,
- Pociąg do Życia Wiecznego [The Train to Eternal Life], Świat Książki, Warszawa 2007,
- Marsz Polonia [March, Polonia], Świat Książki, Warszawa 2008,
- Sobowtór Zięcia Tołstoja [A Doppelganger of Tolstoy’s Son-in-Law], Świat Książki, Warszawa 2010,
- Dziennik [Journal], Wielka Litera, Warszawa 2012,
- Wiele Demonów [Many Demons], Wielka Litera, Warszawa 2013,
- Drugi Dziennik: 21 Czerwca 2012-20 Czerwca 2013 [Second Journal: 21 June 2012-20 June 2013], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2013,
- Zuza albo Czas Oddalenia [Zuza or the Time of Separation], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2015,
- Zawsze Nie Ma Nigdy. Jerzy Pilch w Rozmowach z Eweliną Pietrowiak [There Always is Never: Jerzy Pilch in Conversation with Ewelina Pietrowiak], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2016,
- Portret Młodej Wenecjanki [Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2017,
- Inne Ochoty: Jerzy Pilch w Rozmowach z Eweliną Pietrowiak. Część 2 [Other Desires: Jerzy Pilch in Conversation with Ewelina Pietrowiak. Part 2], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2017,
- Żywego Ducha [The Living Spirit], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2018,
- Trzeci Dziennik [Third Diary], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2019,
- Żółte Światło [Yellow Light], Wielka Litera, Warszawa 2019,
- Widok z Mojego Boksu [View from My Cubicle], Znak, Kraków 2019,
- 60 Felietonów Najjadowitszych [60 Most Venomous Columns], Warszawa, Wielka Litera, 2020
- His Current Woman. Northwestern University Press, 2002, Evanston.
- Zum Starken Engel. Luchterland, 2003, Munich.
- Ortros placeres. Acantilado, 2005, Barcelona.
- Sous l'aile d'un ange. Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc, 2003, Montricher.
Author: Marek Kępa, May 2012, updated by AP, May 2020.