A writer and journalist, born 1968 in Warsaw.
Varga was born 1968 in Warsaw to a Polish mother and a Hungarian father, he holds a degree in Polish Studies from Warsaw University. He's a writer and journalist, the long-serving editor of the culture section of Gazeta Wyborcza. He used to work together with Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz and together they wrote a brilliant (and biased) independent dictionary of new literature Parnas bis: Literatura Polska Urodzona po 1960 r. (Polish Literature After 1960). First published in 1995, its later editions advertized it jocularly as 'Poland's first post-modernist novel'. A year later the same team, now including also Jarosław Klejnocki, published the anthology Macie Swoich Poetów (There Are Your Poets). The 1998 recipient of the Fundacja Kultury Award for 45 Pomysłów na Powieść (Forty-Five Ideas for a Novel), Varga was nominated for the Nike Literary Award in 2002 for Tequila and for the same award for Nagrobek z Lastryko (Terrazzo Tombstone) in 2008.
Although Varga's first publication was the collection of poetic prose Pijany Anioł na Skrzyżowaniu Ulic (The Drunken Angel at the Crossroads) (published by Staromiejski Dom Kultury in Warsaw, a cultural organization which has always promoted debutants), it is the novel Chłopaki Nie Płaczą (Boys Don't Cry) which is considered his proper debut – largely due to Varga consistently declaring so in authorized biographies. The book, advertised as a "cult thing about drinking, smoking and girls," is a mocking answer to the journalistic demand for a generation's novel. The narrator says: "I have just started writing a book, boys, I say dragging on a cigarette to gain time," and one of his drinking companions replies: "Very good ... after all, we are the young intelligentsia of the breakthrough period. We need to leave a mark" – yet the casual nature of the events provokes but an ironical response to such statements. The novel focuses on a series of social gatherings of well-off twenty-something, called yuppies at the time, and contains some very good culinary and alcoholic descriptions as well as presenting the first symptoms of the awareness of passing. It can be said to represent Varga's fully formed, melancholic style, even though critics who maintain that his later books testify to a creative development do have a point.
Chłopaki...'s characters – Dżaba, Kudłaty, Hipolit, Kaczor and Szaman, reportedly nicknamed after real Varga's friends – reappear on the pages of Śmiertelność (Mortality), the novel with somewhat different proportions of ingredients: less wit, more reflection about passing, diseases and the spoiling of the body; incidentally, Varga's preoccupation with illness has earned him the name of the top hypochondriac of Polish literature.
Garrulousness is the key trait of Varga's narrative, his novels offering long monologues of characters in their late twenties/early thirties and abounding in digressions and painstakingly accumulated details such as names of restaurants and rock groups, song titles, prices of consumer goods and afflictions from which the characters suffer. Michał Witkowski once observed that 'only Varga can talk about the transformation of 1989 by naming the ice-cream flavours'. Likewise, Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz (in a collection of critical essays Oko Smoka (Dragon's Eye) stresses Varga's realistic inclinations which set him apart from his peers and juniors.
Varga's later books use some impressive construction tricks. Tequila, for instance, is a monologue of a mourner carrying the coffin of a drummer called Gruby with friends from a rock group. An extra flavour is added by musicians' names and nicknames evocative of literary characters and titles of punk-rock songs (Slaughterhouse No. 5, The Sound and the Fury) which fit very well the book's music convention. Karolina, Varga's essentially plot-less novel whose narrator travels in search of the eponymous phantom woman, has been called "a post-modernist play on themes". In contrast, the narrator of Varga's Nagrobek z Lastryko, Dominik Fratnerski, lives in 2071 and tells about his grandparents' turbulent relationship (bringing to mind an analogy with Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island) and of the gloomy consequences for the future of the family. Varga's early book, 45 Pomysłów na Powieść, is, in turn, a show-off of his plot-sketching ability, its narration perfectly concise and condensed.
The brilliance of form is no cure against the depressing aura of Varga's books, though, death or, rather, the wear and tear of bodies being the most often revisited topic. It is sometimes addressed more openly, such as in the monologue from Nagrobek z Lastryko, which is delivered just before the suicide.
Criticism of consumption is Varga's another frequent theme. For example, many characters of Nagrobek z Lastryko suffer from peculiar manias, such as collecting Zara paper bags and supermarket newsletters or compulsive addiction to buying yoghurt.
Gulasz z Turula (Turul Goulash) is an essay of a book's dimensions in which Varga takes to grips with his Hungarian origin and describes his father's country in strikingly melancholic terms. The title's turul, a bird of prey which is often shown on Hungarian monuments (just like the eagle in Poland) implies that the writer will address Hungary's traumatic history in the wake of the Treaty of Trianon which divided the country. Gulash, in turn, obviously suggests a culinary focus, and both reflect Varga's aspiration to a holistic description of the Hungarian phenomenon.
Interestingly, Gulasz z Turula was not Varga's first 'Hungarian' book. It was preceded by Bildungsroman, whose main character, doing the summing up of his life, could be taken to be Varga's father. The book shows Budapest as a land of lost youth, and its descriptions are graphic and sensual – a quality which is more or less pronounced in all of Varga's publications, even though it is sometimes offset by the equally strong celebration of ugliness.
Despite his sizeable, significant and varied literary achievement, as well as – one is tempted to add half-jokingly – his work for mass media, Varga remains a relatively underestimated writer. This may be due to his embarking upon a literary career a few years before the short-lived "young literature" boom. Equally, such underrated position weakens the temptation to yield to literary fashions and, indeed, Varga should be respected primarily for having for years consistently pursued his own, a little idiosyncratic vision of prose.
Aleja Niepodległości (Independence Avenue, 2010) is another nostalgic story about the frustration of an unaccomplished artist, taking place – that's no surprise – in Warsaw (as Justyna Sobolewska wrote, when Varga doesn't write about Hungary, he writes about Mokotów district). The melancholic tale of a male friendship – where one is successful, the other – a loser – which started in the 1980s is the writer's account of the generation which grew up during the political breakthrough. It's filled with nostalgia, but not of the communist-regime era, but of time, when 'everybody' listened to the same music, watched the same movies and had similar problems with women and themselves. Of a time of alliance. Andrzej Stasiuk wrote:
It's a horrifying and at the same time a very funny book. Melancholic and pitiless. What remains is laughter and burnt soil. Fire burns Warsaw, youth, illusions, thirty, forty years, it burns everything and what's left is what really awaits us: loneliness forever and until the end. Varga matures as Hungarian wine. He gets better and better.
In Trociny (Sawdust, 2012) the main protagonist is a fifty-year-old hypochondriac (a feature typical in Varga's prose), who works as a salesman for a big corporation in Warsaw. For professional reasons, he travels around Poland in shabby trains that are always late to ugly, grey towns. Let's be frank: in the protagonist's eyes, Poland is nothing but a big potato field. But Piotr Augustyn's venom is directed not only towards small towns but also towards Warsaw's snobbish elites, that go "to every stupid exhibition to the Centre for Contemporary Art, to see every idiotic play in the Rozmaitości Theatre, to hear every lecture in Nowy Wspaniały Świat." Everyone gets their share, and this grotesque outlook on contemporary Poland in the protagonist's emotional monologue makes the reader think. Sociopathic, Houellebecquian Augustyn is most interesting when he gains our sympathy.
In 2012 a collection of columns written for Duży Format, entitled Polska Mistrzem Polski (Poland is Poland's Champion) was published. These brilliant, accurate observations about contemporary Polish culture and society only irritate when the author exaggerates with his characteristic style (his use of inversion is legendary).
The author returned to Hungarian themes in 2014 with Czardasz z Mangalicą (Csárdás with a Mangalica), a collection of columns and essays in the style of a road-movie. An anthropological ballad with many culinary anecdotes is an attempt to answer the question whether Poland and Hungary are truly brothers, what connects these nations and if it's only the sense of failure. Wojciech Nowicki gushed:
Varga devours the world – not only one world but two, since one is not enough. He devours the Hungarians and the Poles, he throws himself as a crazy person, he travels for hundrens of kilometers to eat Hungarian lard, to drink wine, to watch soup being cooked in the market and – sometimes – to shatter his car. But he's still hungry, so he goes on and on. In a state of ecstasy he rummages in the past, the melancholy, nostalgias and chimeras. I read about the Hungarians, but the more I read, the more I am certain, I laugh at myself. Take and eat what you are given: Varga at his best. It's a stew of this one and only animal.
Varga's Masakra (Massacre, 2015) is a story about yet another loser in the gallery of his characters. A former rock-star has only alcohol left in his life. Addiction-themed literature has a rich tradition in Poland – Marek Hłasko's Pętla and Jerzy Pilch's The Mighty Angel can be named among others – and Varga adds to it his erudition and courage in describing physiological effects of hangovers. But Masakra is also a cogitation on contemporary Poland and the "cultural war" that takes place. The main protagonist says:
The nation that I am a great disciple of, is divided into buzzkills and ironists, buzzkills and ironists fight a huge cultural war, obviously destroying culture and art in the process. In the name of their buzzkilling and their irony they are going to destroy everything, they are going to buzzkill and ironize everything.
In 2016 Varga published the last part of the "Hungarian trilogy" – Langosz w Jurcie (Lángos in a Yurt) – a description of a trip along the Hungarian border which resembles lángos, a traditional deep-fried flatbread. The author explores the country in search of trivia and curiosities.
Published in 2017, Egzorcyzmy Księdza Wojciecha (Father Wojciech’s Exorcisms) is a collection of short stories, in which Varga tackles the problems of urban dwellers – corporate employees, fortune-tellers, clergymen. He skilfully juggles linguistic registers of Warsaw’s streets. The stories depict not only the ailments of big city life but also different images of Poland.
Varga plunges back into Hungary with a new approach in his Sonnenberg published in 2018. This time, the author tells a story of a Budapestian András – a literary scholar who is having an affair with the “most beautiful woman in the world”. Varga places the sarcastic description of hedonistic intellectuals in the organically-described capital of Hungary and the symbolic language of its inhabitants – revolutions, water polo, the Habsburgs.
Author: Paweł Kozioł, December 2008, update: AP, February 2019.
- Pijany anioł na skrzyżowaniu ulic (The Drunken Angel at the Crossroads), Staromiejski Dom Kultury, Warsaw 1993;
- Chłopaki nie płaczą (Boys Don't Cry), Lampa i Iskra Boża, Warsaw 1996;
- Bildungsroman, Lampa i Iskra Boża, Warsaw 1997;
- Śmiertelność (Mortality), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 1998;
- 45 pomysłów na powieść. Strony B singli 1992-1996 (Forty-Five Ideas for a Novel. The B-Sides of the Singles, 1992-1996), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 1998;
- Tequila, Wydawnictwo Czarne and Lampa i Iskra Boża, Warszawa-Wołowiec 2001;
- Karolina, Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2002;
- Nagrobek z lastryko (Terazzo Tombstone), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2007;
- Gulasz z turula (Turul Goulash), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2008;
- Aleja Niepodległości (Independence Avenue), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2010;
- Trociny (Sawdust), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2012;
- Polska mistrzem Polski (Poland is Poland's Champion), Agora, Warszawa 2012;
- Czardasz z mangalicą (Csárdás with a Mangalica), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2014;
- Masakra (Massacre), Wydawnictwo Wielka Litera, Warszawa 2015
- Langosz w jurcie (Lángos in a Yurt), Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2016;
- Egzorcyzmy księdza Wojciecha (Father Wojciech’s Exorcisms), Wielka Litera, Warszawa 2017;
- Sonnenberg, Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2018.