One of the most outstanding Polish essayists, epistolographer, Polish and French writer. Born on December 10, 1893 in Kraków, died on October 4, 1969 in Bern (Switzerland)
Stempowski wrote under many pseudonyms, among others: Paweł Hostowiec, Leon Furatyk, B. Serafin. He was the son of Stanisław, publicist and social and Masonic activist (life partner of Maria Dąbrowska). He spent his childhood in Szebutyniec estate (also called Szebutyńce) located in the Podole region and since 1897 in Warsaw where he attended the school of the Merchants' Association. In 1906, he returned to Podole and lived in Winikowiec estate where he was privately tutored. The school year of 1907/1908 Stempowski spent in Warsaw where he attended the private General Chrzanowski Lower Secondary School. However, following a conflict with his religion instructor, Stempowski left the school and returned to Podole. He passed his matriculation exams on extramural basis in Niemirów (1911). Stempowski studied philosophy and history at the Jagiellonian University (1911-1913), medicine in Munich, and philosophy and history of literature at Swiss universities (in Geneva, Zurich and between 1916-1919 in Bern). In 1915 in Zurich, he worked on a dissertation entitled "Antique and Christian philosophy of history between 1st and 4th century" (lost work). He had twin daughters born out-of-wedlock in 1919 (Danuta and Hanna Suchecka).
After the First World War, Stempowski worked as a diplomatic courier at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He participated in the Polish-Russian War of 1920 during which his younger brother died. Next, he became the Polish Telegraphic Agency correspondent first in Paris and Geneva, and then in Berlin. Simultaneously, he worked as a correspondent for "Nasz Przegląd" / "Our Review". Stempowski returned to Warsaw in 1926. He worked at the Prime Minister office and between 1929 and 1939 as an economic advisor to the State Agricultural Bank. In the '20s he became an active Masonic activist. In 1929, Stempowski started to cooperate with "Wiadomości Literackie" / "Literary News". In 1934, he established (jointly with Dmitry Filosofov as a host, Rafał Blüth, Józef Czapski and Leon Gomolicki, among others) the Warsaw Russian Literary Club "Domek w Kołomnie" / "Little House in Kolomna". He lectured at the Directing Department of the State Institute of Theatre Art between 1935 and 1939.
On September 18, 1939, Stempowski and Stanisław Vincenz crossed the Polish-Hungarian border. His illness forced him to stay in an abandoned cottage in the Carpathian Mountains (what he later described in one of his best-known essays "Księgozbiór przemytników" / "The Smugglers' Library"). In spring 1940, Stempowski managed to get to Switzerland through Yugoslavia and Italy. He first lived in Bern, between 1941 and 1952 in Muri near Bern, finally moved back to Bern where he lived until his death. At the very beginning of his stay in Switzerland he made friends and lived with a Swiss-Dutch couple (Henri and Dieneke Tzaut). In 1942, Stempowski illegally travelled to Savoy to visit his sick friend, an essayist Bolesław Miciński in Bouquéron near Grenoble. As a delegate of the Ministry of Interior of the Polish government on exile, he was engaged in obtaining and analysing information regarding the situation in Poland under occupation.
After the war, he travelled across Germany and Austria throughout November and December. His impressions were published as a travel journal. At the end of 1947 and the beginning of 1948, Stempowski made a trip to Italy and also kept a journal. In 1948, he started a long-lasting and intense cooperation with "Kultura" / "Culture", a monthly published by Jerzy Giedroyc near Paris (he published under the pseudonym of Paweł Hostowiec). Beginning with an April issue of 1954, Stempowski published regularly a series entitled "Notatnik niespiesznego przechodnia" / "Notes of a Leisurely Passer-by" which consisted of formally diverse notes (essays, memoirs, reviews, columns). Between 1951 and 1954, he worked as a translator for the Argentinean diplomatic mission in Bern. In 1954, he was awarded the Bern Canton Prize for a book on Bernese land written in French.
During the liberalization period (1955-1957) an idea to issue a politically unbiased magazine with Stempowski as an editor-in-chief originated. It was to publish both domestic writers and those on exile. The publication of a two-volume collection of Stempowski's works in Warsaw was also promised (Czytelnik / Reader - the contract was terminated in 1959). Throughout 1958, Stempowski travelled across Italy. He visited Venice and Padova. In Sulmona, he worked on a book on Ovidius which he never completed. In 1962, he made a journey across Holland, Austria and Germany and subsequently published his impressions on the trip in the series "Notes of a Leisurely Passer-by" in "Kultura".
Stempowski was honoured for an essay with Neyman Special Prize awarded by "Kultura" (1961), Anna Godlewska Prize (1963), Alfred Jurzykowski Prize (1964) and "Kultura" Prize (1967).
In 1965, Stempowski visited Yugoslavia to meet a dissident Mikhailo Mikhailov, and a year later he travelled to Genoa where he researched publications on the history of the Ligurians – barbarian people who lived in the northwest part of present-day Italy and were conquered by the Romans. Despite frequent calls made at the beginning of the Solidarity movement, Stempowski's book (Essays) was published for the first time after the war in Poland (in a censored version) as late as in 1984. Since 1988 Stempowski's essays and letters have been published on a regular basis in Poland confirming his position as "the father of the Polish school of essay writing".
Jerzy Stempowski is considered to be one of the most erudite persons among Polish writers of the 20th century thanks to his extensive knowledge and ear for languages. Stempowski combined a solid background in the humanities (outstanding knowledge of classical Greek and Roman literature) with a modern economic and sociological knowledge (during his international studies he attended the lectures of Guglielmo Ferrero and Vilfredo Pareto, among others). His pre-war essay entitled "Chimera jako zwierzę pociągowe" / "Chimera as a Beast of Burden" may serve as an example of a subtle disquisition on a relationship between literature (in this case futurism and surrealism) and economic changes.
Stempowski's essays are thematically diverse and filled with recurring plots and themes. One of the most important ones is a sense of landscape's historicity. Apart from his essays, which evoke childhood memories (such as the murmur of Eastern Carpathian rivers rediscovered later in Switzerland), his book on the Bernese land is an outstanding example of a profound reading of a landscape. It uncovers the history of the described places through highlighting the cultural meaning of their elements. The library arks another important theme for Stempowski. As a committed bibliophile himself, the author of "The Smugglers' Library" was interested in every aspect of book-making, in particular people taking part in book creation such as editors, publishers, printers, librarians, reviewers and readers (he was an exceptionally sensitive reader himself). Stempowski also belongs to a circle of people, diminishing throughout recent centuries, for whom the heritage of classical culture is still vivid, familiar, and, in part, known by heart.
A pessimistic attitude on the part of Stempowski can be seen in the subject and overall meaning of his essays. It is reflected in a sense of dusk of a certain era and in a catastrophic understanding of the 20th century history. "Esej dla Kassandry" / "Essay for Cassandra" presents Stempowski's awareness of pointlessness of admonitions and warnings - similarly to Priam's daughter he saw the catastrophe approaching, but he was not able to prevent it.
Stempowski fulfilled himself mainly as an essayist and a correspondent. He treated his letters as exercises in which he tried some of his thoughts, connotations and phrases on readers. His essays are reserved and balanced. They do not dazzle with erudition and yet they do not conceal it (since it is impossible to do so). The picture which arises from the essays is that of an authority of a wise, politically uncompromising and independent man. Stempowski's essay writing style distinguishes itself with short sentences followed by breaks, as if to take a breath, or acquire another portion of information or thoughts. Another characteristic feature of Stempowski's writing is a constant presence of historical analogy and wide cultural context. These two shed an unexpected light on the commented events, sociological phenomena or people's life stories to show them from a completely different angle.
After his death, Stempowski also uncovered his other unknown self - that of a prose writer. It was possible when his private journal was found, which he kept since the beginning of the '40s, the first period of his stay in Switzerland. This journal was written in the times of turmoil when the darkest scenarios, prophesised by Stempowski and other thinkers at the end of the '30s, were fulfilled in Europe. It follows the literary convention of a long letter composed of episodes and addressed to a beloved woman who then died (Ludwika Rettingerowa). The addressee of this letter-journal gains a different meaning. By means of its ephemeral status of a ghost wandering between the world of the living and the dead, she becomes the new Eurydice. In this way, Zapiski dla zjawy / Notes for a Ghost join the tradition of the Mediterranean elegiac literature.
Jan Kott wrote:
"Stempowski taught me to write, read and not to trust. Writing came immediately, reading took longer time, while I learned not to trust only when Mr. Jerzy's voice was so quiet that it was hardly possible to hear him"
("Listy Kassandry z ziemi berneńskiej" / "Cassandra's Letters from the Bernese Land", published in "Życie Literackie" 1981, No. 37, reprinted in the collection of "Kamienny Potok" / "Stoned Brook", London 1986).
This paradoxical confession of one of the most diligent students of this master of Polish essay reflects the dimension of an intellectual adventure to which Jerzy Stempowski invites his readers through his leisurely writing.
First editions of books in Polish:
- Pielgrzym / Pilgrim, Warsaw 1924;
- Pan Jowialski i jego spadkobiercy / Mr. Jowialski and His Heirs, Warsaw 1931;
- Chimera jako zwierzę pociągowe / Chimera as a Beast of Burden, Kraków 1932;
- Literatura w okresie wielkiej przebudowy / Literature in the Period of Great Restructuring, Vilnius 1935;
- Nowe marzenia samotnego wędrowca / New Dreams of a Lonely Wanderer, Warsaw 1935;
- Pełnomocnictwa recenzenta / Reviewer's Powers, Warsaw 1938;
- Dziennik podróży do Austrii i Niemiec / Travel Journal to Austria and Germany, Rome 1946;
- Eseje dla Kassandry / Essays for Cassandra, Paris 1961, Instytut Literacki;
- Od Berdyczowa do Rzymu / From Berdichev to Rome, Paris 1971, Instytut Literacki;
- Listy z Ziemi Berneńskiej / Letters from the Bernese Land, ed. Lidia Ciołkoszowa, foreword by Wiktor Weintraub, London 1974, Oficyna Poetów i Malarzy [Letters to Krystyna Marek];
- Eseje / Essays, ed. and foreword by Wojciech Karpiński, Kraków 1984, SIW "Znak";
- Szkice literackie / Literary Sketches, ed. Jerzy Timoszewicz, Warsaw 1988, SW "Czytelnik" (Vol. 1: Chimera jako zwierzę pociągowe. 1929-1941 / Chimera as a Beast of Burden. 1929-1941, Vol. 2: Klimat życia i klimat literatury. 1948-1967 / Climate of Life and Climate of Literature. 1948-1967);
- Ziemia berneńska / The Bernese Land, translation and foreword by Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Warsaw 1990, SW "Czytelnik";
- Listy do Jerzego Giedroycia / Letters to Jerzy Giedroyc, ed. and afterword by Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Warsaw 1991, "LNB";
- W dolinie Dniestru i inne eseje ukraińskie / The Dniester Valley and other Ukrainian Essays, ed. and afterword by Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Warsaw 1993, "LNB";
- Felietony dla Radia Wolna Europa / Columns for the Radio Free Europe, ed. Jerzy Timoszewicz, Warsaw 1995, WK "Twój Styl";
- Bolesław Miciński, Jerzy Stempowski, Listy / Letters, ed. Anna Micińska, Jarosław Klejnocki, Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, foreword by Halina Micińska-Kenarowa, Konstanty Régamey, Warsaw 1995, "LNB";
- Jerzy Giedroyc, Jerzy Stempowski, Listy 1946-1969 / Letters 1946-1969, ed. and foreword by Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Warsaw 1998, SW "Czytelnik";
- Pamiętnik teatralny trzeciej klasy i inne szkice / Theatrical Memoir of the Third Class and Other Sketches, ed. Jerzy Timoszewicz, Kraków 1999, Wydawnictwo Literackie;
- Listy / Letters to different addressees: Maria and Józef Czapski, Jan Kott, Czesław Miłosz, Maria and Stanisław Stempowski, Wiktor Weintraub, Józef Wittlin. Ed. Barbara Toruńczyk, foreword by Jan Kott, Wojciech Karpiński, afterword by Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Warsaw 2000, Fundacja "Zeszytów Literackich";
- Od Berdyczowa do Lafitów / From Berdichev to Laffitte, ed. and foreword by Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Wołowiec 2001, Wydawnictwo "Czarne";
- Zapiski dla zjawy. Zapiski z podróży do Delfinatu / Notes for a Ghost. Notes from a Journey to Dauphinate, translation and afterword by Jan Zieliński, foreword by Wojciech Karpiński, Warsaw 2004, OL "Noir sur Blanc".
Books published in French:
- La terre bernoise, Geneva 1954, Eugénie Droz;
- Notes pour une ombre and Notes d'un voyage dans le Dauphiné, ed. and afterword by Jan Zieliński, foreword by Wojciech Karpiński, Montricher 2004, Noir sur Blanc.
- Il calvario continua... Diario di un viaggio in Austria e Germania, Rome 1947, Casa Editrice Le Lettere;
- Essais pour Cassandre, translated by Krystyna Bourneuf and Anna Ciesielska, Paris 1991, N. Blandin;
- Bibliothek der Schmuggler, ed. Basil Kerski, translated by Agnieszka Grzybkowska, foreword by Jan Kott, Hamburg 1998, Rospo;
- Esszék Kasszandrának, translated by Galambos Csaba and others, Budapest 1999, Orpheusz;
- Das Bernerland, translated by Hilde Fieguth, Bern 2001, H. Huber;
- Von Land zu Land. Essays eines Kosmopolen, translated and afterword by Basil Kerski, Berlin 2006, Friedenauer Presse.
- Boris Pasternak, Doktor Żywago / Doctor Zhivago, Paris 1959, Instytut Literacki;
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Zdarzenie na stacji Kreczetowka / An Incident at Krechetovka Station, Lublin 1981 .
- Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Kryzys świadomości europejskiej w eseistyce polskiej lat 1945-1977 (Vincenz - Stempowski - Miłosz) / Crisis of the European Consciousness in the Polish Essays of 1945-1977 (Vincenz - Stempowski - Miłosz), Warsaw 1990, Eterna;
- Jan Tomkowski, Jerzy Stempowski, Warsaw 1991, Interim;
- Józef Olejniczak, Arkadia i małe ojczyzny: Vincenz, Stempowski, Wittlin, Miłosz / Arcadia and Little Homelands: Vincenz, Stempowski, Wittlin, Miłosz, Kraków 1992, Oficyna Literacka;
- Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk, Nieśpieszny przechodzień i paradoksy. Rzecz o Jerzym Stempowskim / Leisurely Passer-by and Paradoxes. Piece on Jerzy Stempowski, Wrocław 1997, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Polonistyki Wrocławskiej;
- Mirosław Adam Supruniuk, Twarze emigracji: Wierzyński, Hłasko, Gombrowicz, Stempowski, Grydzewski / Faces of Emigration: Wierzyński, Hłasko, Gombrowicz, Stempowski, Grydzewski, Toruń 1997, Biblioteka Uniwersytecka;
- Sławomir Janowski, Świat wartości. Problematyka aksjologiczna w eseistyce Bolesława Micińskiego, Jerzego Stempowskiego i Czesława Miłosza / The World of Values. Problem of Axiology in the Essays by Bolesław Miciński, Jerzy Stempowski and Czesław Miłosz, Wrocław 2002, Erechtejon;
- Pan Jerzy. Śladami niespiesznego przechodnia. Wspomnienia i szkice o Jerzym Stempowskim / Mr. Jerzy. Following the Footsteps of Leisurely Passer-by. Memoirs and Sketches on Jerzy Stempowski, ed. Jerzy Timoszewicz, Warsaw 2005, Więź;
- Jerzy Timoszewicz, Jerzy Stempowski w wydawnictwach Instytutu Literackiego w Paryżu. Bibliografia / Jerzy Stempowski in the Publications of Instytut Literacki in Paris. Bibliography, Warsaw 2007, Instytut Dokumentacji i Studiów nad Literaturą Polską;
- Małgorzata Zemła, Der polnische Essay und seine kulturmodellierende Funktion (Jerzy Stempowski und Czesław Miłosz), Munich 2009, Kubon & Sagner.
- Jerzy Stempowski, ed. Roman Kałuża and Witold Zadrowski, Paris 1984, Paryskie Wydawnictwo Kasetowe "Kontakt", Cassette No. 17.
- Jerzy Stempowski, directed by Tomasz Kamiński, 1994, Telewizja Polska (Kraków).
Author: Jan Zieliński, October 2010. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska, October 2010.