Konstanty Jeleński was an essayist and critic, and an unofficial ambassador of Polish culture in Paris and around the world. He was born on 2nd January 1922 in Warsaw and died on 4th May 1987 in Paris.
Essayist and critic, unofficial ambassador of Polish culture in Paris and in the world.
He collaborated with the most important Polish emigrant journal – the Parisian Kultura – and also with many French, British, American, German and Italian magazines.
Since he was a child, he travelled through Europe with his father, a diplomat. He left Poland, occupied by the Germans, in December 1939, and never came back. He fought the Nazis to defend France in 1940, and after the defeat he came to Great Britain, where he combined military service with studies at Saint-Andrews and Oxford universities. He returned to France in June 1944 as a soldier of the Polish 1st Armoured Division led by General Maczek, which moved from Normandy to Belgium and Holland. He received many military honours.
After the war ended, he didn’t want to go back to communist Poland. He chose the emigrant fate, living in different European countries and cities. It’s in Paris that he stayed the longest – from 1952 until his death.
He moved to France from Rome with his partner, Italian painter Leonor Fini. He quickly found his place in the intellectual and artistic Parisian milieu, which was possible thanks to his great knowledge of French and the understanding of French culture which he'd gained at home.
I come from the last generation of Poles from the landed gentry intelligentsia, which remembers that people were taught in French. I spent my early childhood with my grandmother and other people who spoke French more often than Polish.
In Paris he started working at the general secretariat of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, where he chaired the Eastern European section, and as an editor in Preuves monthly. He also collaborated with the most important Polish emigrant journal, Kultura, which had its abode in Maisons-Laffitte near Paris. He published a series of essays and book reviews. This ‘avant la lettre’ European spoke many languages and understood many cultures of the old continent; apart from Preuves, he also wrote for Le Monde, La Quinzaine Littéraire, Les Lettres Nouvelles, and also for British magazines such as Encounter and Survey, for the American The New Republic and Partisan Review, for the German Der Monat and Merkur and for the Italian Tempo Presente. His political views were close to the anti-totalitarian left and he was fascinated with May’68 and youth contestation, but ideologies were never more important to him than human beings.
I knew too many leftist revolutionaries who were reactive husbands and lovers, thrifty hamsters in their private lives; too many Catholics only interested in themselves, and even some tolerant fascists, to believe than any ‘ideas’ have an impact on our behavior.
His Parisian apartement at Rue de La Vrillière 8 was often visited by writers and artists of the Polish emigre community, such as Czesław Miłosz, Józef Czapski, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, intellectuals coming from Poland, but also those from foreign countries who where connected to the anti-totalitarian, international organization Congress for Cultural Freedom. With input of many of them (Ignazio Silone, Daniel Bell, Pierre Emmanuel, François Bondy) Jeleński created a Commitee of Aid for Eastern European Artists, which was later named the European Foundation for Intellectual Aid, and helped independent minds from the Soviet bloc receive scholarships in Paris.
Between 1973 and 1976 Jeleński was the administrative director of Centre Royaumont pour une Science de l'Homme, directed by his friend Jacques Monod. Later on he started working as an advisor in the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel. He prepared a series of programmes about art Regards entendus for French television.
This diplomat’s son was a great – although unofficial – ambassador of Polish culture in Paris and all over Europe. His greatest achievement was discovering Witold Gombrowicz for the French and Western European audience. Thanks to his tireless work, books by this great Polish writer were published in French. He translated Trans-Atlantyk and dramas Iwona, Princess of Burgundia, Operetta and History into French. Gombrowicz said of him:
All international editions of my books should have a stamp ‘thanks to Jeleński’.
Writer and critic Wojciech Karpiński called Jeleński ‘Gombrowicz’s active alter ego’.
In 1963 he published the Anthologie de la poésie polonaise (Editions du Seuil), a first French critical publication about modern Polish poetry.
Author: Jan Skórzyński, October 2006, transl. NMR, January 2016.