Writer, one of the greates experimentators of post-war Polish literature
He was born in the village of Nakwasza, near Brody, on the border of Podolia and Volhynia. His father was a woodcarver, and his mother Anna (née Zając) was the daughter of a minstrel from Jarosław. Leopold had six siblings – one of his brothers, Marian Ruth Buczkowski, also became a renowned writer (he wrote The Tragic Generation, among others). In Nakwasza, he attended an Austrian folk school until, in 1914, his family moved to Podkamienie – a small town knows as the 'Częstochowa of the East'. After the war, he resumed his education in a secondary school in Brody.
In 1925, he went to Bystra and enrolled in a technical school in Bielsko-Biała. In 1928, he served in the military in Kraków and studied Polish as an auditor. In 1929, he studied painting under Lviv painter Stanisław Batkowski and in 1931, also as an auditor, he attended painting classes in Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts. Unable to find a job in Warsaw, he returned to Podkamienie in 1934, where he ran a woodcarving studio, worked with folk theatres, drew, painted, sculpted, and took photographs.
In 1936, he debuted as a poet by publishing his poems Summer and Heat in Gazeta Polska under the name Paweł Makutra. In 1938, he published a fragment of his novel Wertepy in the Lviv newspaper Sygnały (the entire novel would get published only after the war).
After the outbreak of World War 2, Buczkowski was mobilised and likely took part in the September Campaign. He was captured but managed to escape and hide in Podkamienie. After the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, he fought in the self-defence division. In March 1944, during the massacre of Poles in Podkemienie, the writer lost two of his younger brothers: Tadeusz and Zygmunt. Leopold made it through to Warsaw and married Maria Paprocka, who he had met in Podole in 1943. During the Warsaw Uprising, he lived in Warsaw together with his brother Marian – hiding, shooting photographs and writing a journal (published after the writer's death under the title Grząski Sad [editor's translation: Boggy Orchard]). After the Uprising's failure, he survived the work camp in Pruszków and settled in Kraków after the war. In 1950, he moved to Konstancin near Warsaw and lived there until his death in 1989.
As a writer, Buczkowski debuted quite late, only after he turned forty – his debut novel Wertepy was published in 1947 even though it was finished ten years earlier. Buczkowski himself dated his birth as a writer to the year 1935, when, in Podole, he was asked to serve as a recorder during the autopsy of a deceased cattle-rustler. As he said in a 1983 interview with M. Jarocka:
In one moment, the doctor said: 'Contents of stomach: three baked potatoes.' I confess that I became a writer at that moment. I was flooded by a lot of different questions in all possible undertones. When I was reading the report to the doctor, he said: 'Damn, this is great. Make a copy of this'. I made a copy and, with great resistance, began writing.
In Wertepy, which was written not long after that event, Buczkowski described a multi-cultural community living in his family area before the war. It consisted of Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Russians, Armenians, Czechs, and Germans among others. The novel was also exceptional because of the exceptional level of cruelty and violence present in the relations between the peasant community of Dolinoszczęsna. Critics have described it either as expressionism or naturalism but also noticed that Buczkowski's writing cannot be easily classified into one of the defined literary schools. What stood out was the lyrical spontaneity which often eradicated the construction. Kazimierz Wyka, a prominent critic, preferred to focus on some of the layers of this prose instead of the characters or a traditionally defined storyline. Such qualities became even more prominent in Buczkowski's later writing.
In Black Torrent, which was most probably written in 1947 (but only published in 1954), Buczkowski went a step further and created a novel with an amorphic, fragmentary construction. It is multidimensional, combines different themes and shows them from many simultaneous perspectives. The novel's theme was, partially, the reason for this kind of form – Black Torrent tells the story of a group of members of a self-defence force (Poles, Ukrainians, Jews) which meanders through Volhynia's forests at night. Critics tried to explain the chaos of the depicted world through psychological realism, dreamlike composition or nightmares. After reading Black Torrent, Jerzy Stempowski wrote:
It is evident that for the survivors meandering through the wintry forest, uncertain of the present time, plagued by hunger and typhus, the world of their past can only exist as a delusion. The form of Buczkowski's prose also approaches such quality.
Black Torrent, which is considered by many critics as the writer's most outstanding work, is also one of the most approachable.
In Dorycki Krużganek (editor's translation: Doric Cloister), published in 1957, Buczkowski pursued Black Torrent's themes (the novel's action is also set in Kresy during the war) and formal experiments. He entangled the narrative in a series of subsequent stories (with stories set within stories) connected by the themes of a film which was made by the Nazis in that area and the legendary kahal diamond, sought by everyone.
A Young Poet in a Castle
His next book, A Young Poet in a Castle (1959), was a breakthrough. It is essentially the only novella collection in the writer's oeuvre, even though it was described as a tome of anti-novellas and a rejection of the classical form of novellas and short stories. The critic Jan Tomkowski noticed that A Young Poet… introduces Buczkowski's characteristic tone of mockery, irony, jest (with sentences like 'This, however, will be discussed in a novel for young girls'). In terms of content, A Young Poet… also includes – for the first time – a drastic critique of the rules and capabilities of representation in literature. For example, as Jan Tomkowski wrote, in the novella with the deceitful title Romance 'we move between three levels of reality and encounter the work's actual protagonist only on the first level. On the second level, we meet the author, who is writing a novel about her. On the third level, the narrator ponders the author himself.'
In this work, also for the first time, Buczkowski used the method of combining documents with his own writing. We can see masked quotes and paraphrases of fragments of texts written by other authors, mainly of Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, which the Polish writer considered to be a masterpiece. There is an anecdote connected to this book: Buczkowski found a copy of Sartor in 1941, in the ruins of a library burned down by Germans. He considered the work as an absolute revelation and one of his most important intellectual adventures.
Is This Literature?
After the publishing of Pierwsza Świetność (editor's translation: First Excellence) in 1966, the number of Buczkowski's readers and followers began to drastically decline (sometime later, Stanisław Barańczak would compare the reception of Buczkowski's subsequent novels to an 'emptying out a tram'). Questions about the boundaries of literature start to appear together with doubts as to whether Buczkowski's writing can still be considered literature. Indeed, with Pierwsza Świetność it is difficult to speak of such obvious characteristics of literature as continuity or plot. It is also impossible to define the narrator, identify the characters and the story's time and place. Jan Błoński was convinced that the work should not be considered literature:
[…] when the author adds chaos of the very tool of storytelling to the chaos of the narrative, there no longer is a novel; when the one who speaks can be anyone, a German, Jew, a man from the year 1943 or 1966, a spy, journalist or a stone on the roadside.
Ultimately, Pierwsza Świetność can only be treated as a collection of all connotations which have surfaced at the time of writing the work (the notes?) about the annihilation of the Jewish town. Thus, it is not a piece of art but a documentary…
The questions on the limits of literature resurfaced with the premiere of Buczkowski's next book. A Fashionable Beauty (1970) most resembled a phrase book and depicted conversations being held in various places by unidentified people.
Readers were astonished by the book's language but interpreting the meanings brought great difficulty'. Years later, the writer himself called Beauty a 'pleasant gag.
Baths in Lucca – late novels-documentaries
In 1974, Buczkowski wrote Baths in Lucca – a treatise in a form of a novel, sometimes considered to be his opus magnum. The writer considered two of his next books – Oficer w Nieszporach (An Officer During the Evensong, 1975) and Kamień w Pieluszkach (A Stone Inside Nappies, 1978) as supplements to Baths. Sławomir Buryła wrote that they are all 'undoubtedly one of the most vivid examples of the process of the diffusion of absurd and nihilism onto the formal composition of a literary work in post-war Polish literature'.
In these novels-documentaries, often composed as collages made from very different elements, Buczkowski continued his critique of the traditional novel and, perhaps, his critique of literature as a whole. Thus, a Latin textbook of rhetoric (or a student's notebook containing notes in Latin) becomes a very important intertext in Baths…. It provides a guideline for how to write and as such it is a symbol of Western culture which has been completely compromised in the 20th Century.
As Sławomir Buryła accurately determined:
Ridiculing the traditional poetics of a novel, which were connected with the idea of Europe from the very beginning, is an extension of a theme which is fundamental for Buczkowski – the theme of ridiculing European culture.
It is worth noticing that while Black Torrent and Doric Cloister had World War II as their theme, Buczkowski's later novels consequently regress to World War I: the siege of Przemyśl in Baths, military operations at the Eastern Front in 1914 in The Officer or the first day of the Battle of Wizna in A Stone Inside Nappies.
Buczkowski's last works were a series of books published in the 1980s by Zygmunt Trziszka, based on audio recordings of his talks with the writer.
Leopold Buczkowski's books:
- Wertepy (Gebethner i Wolf, 1947 (Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1957; Wydawnictwo Literackie 1973)
- Black Torrent (novel; Pax 1954; Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy1959; Czytelnik 1965;Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy 1971; Pax 1974;Wydawnictwo Literackie 1979; KAW 1986)
- Dorycki Krużganek (editor's translation of the title: Doric Cloister, Pax 1957; Czytelnik 1969, Wydawnictwo Literackie 1977)
- Młody Poeta w Zamku (Young Poet in a Castle, novellas with illustrations by Buczkowski; Pax 1959)
- First Excellence (Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy 1966; Wydawnictwo Literackie 1978)
- Uroda na Czasie (A Fashionable Beauty, PIW 1970; Wydawnictwo Literackie 1981)
- Kąpiele w Lucca (Baths in Lucca, PIW 1974, 1979; Wydawnictwo Literackie 1984)
- Oficer na Nieszporach (An Officer During the Evensong, Wydawnictwo Literackie 1978)
- Kamień w Pieluszkach" (A Stone Inside Diapers, Wydawnicto Literackie 1978)
- Wszystko Jest Dialogiem (Eveyrhing is Dialogue, Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza 1984)
- Proza Żywa (Living Prose, Pomorze, 1989)
- Żywe Dialogi (Living Dialogues, with Zygmunt Trziszka; Pomorze, 1989)
- Dziennik Wojenny (War Diary, introduction and foreword by Sławomir Buryła, editing by Buryła and Radosław Sioma, Olsztyn 2001
Books on Buczkowski:
So far, there are no books which accurately reconstructs Buczkowki's biography. Much interesting information from his life can be found in the book Wspomnienia o Leopoldzie Buczkowski (editor's translation: Memories Of Leopold Buczkowski, published by dom na wsi, Ossa 2005).
The best source of biographical information on Buczkowski on the internet is the writer's profile written by Justyna Staroń and published on the Konstancin Virtual Museum website.
The 2008 book Zimą Bywa Się Pisarzem… (editor's translation: Sometimes One Becomes a Writer in Winter) is a collection of texts by literature researchers on the topic of Buczkowski's writing.
Buczkowki's painting and sculpture still remains little known. A preliminary study and a collection of selected object can be found in Justyna Staroń's article in Polish titled Sztu(cz)ki Leopola Buczkowskiego.
Originally written in Polish by Mikołaj Gliński, Apr 2014, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Nov 2018