Aleksander Wat was a writer and a translator of Russian, French and German. His real last name was Chwat. He was born on 1st May 1900 in Warsaw, and died in 29th July 1967 in France.
Pisarz, tłumacz z języka rosyjskiego, francuskiego i niemieckiego.
His parents were Mendel Michał Chwat and Rozalia née Konrosilber. Wat’s sister, Seweryna Broniszówna, was a famous actress of the interwar period. In 1918, Wat passed his high school exams in Roch Kowalski High School in Warsaw and enrolled in philosophy at Warsaw University. He finished his studies in 1926.
In 1918, with Anatol Stern, Wat created a futurist group in Warsaw – he organised eccentric literary evenings and took part in avant-garde publishing. At that time, the young poet still appeared under the last name Chwat. Together with Anatol Stern, he edited literary dailies, such as Tak (Yes, 1919), To Są Niebieskie Pręty, Które Trzeba Pomalować (Those Are Blue Rods That Have to Be Painted, 1920) and Gga: Pierwszy Polski Almanac Poezji Futurystycznej (Gga: The First Polish Almanac of Futurist Poetry, 1920). In the autumn of 1919, he published (with the date of 1920) Ja z Jednej Strony i Ja z Drugiej Strony Mego Mopsożelaznego Piecyka (Me on the One Side and Me on the Other Side of My Pug-Iron Heater). It was a surprising and provocative poem in prose which Wat wrote – as he later explained – in four or five trances, in January 1919, with a 39-40-degree fever.
During his futurist period, Wat also wrote several poems which were published in journals. In the early 1920s, Wat was connected with Nowa Sztuka, Zwrotnica, Almanach Nowej Sztuki (the last journal of the poets of Nowa Sztuka, published in 1925 and edited by Stefan Kordian Gacki). In 1924, the poet joined the Polish Writers’ Union. Also in 1924, together with painter Henryk Berlewi and poet Stanisław Brucz, Wat formed an advertising agency named Reklamo-Mechano in which the artists tried to use poetry and avant-garde style in functional texts.
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In the mid-1920s, futurism lost its power as an artistic phenomenon and Wat redirected his attention to other things. First of all, he became a translator of Russian literature – he translated Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov among other works – as well as French and German literature. In 1927, he married Paulina Lew. At the same time, he began his cooperation with the Rój Publishing Association. In 1927, he also published a novel titled Lucifer Unemployed.
At that time, Wat was interested in social and political issues. He took part in meetings and gatherings of groups fascinated by Marxism. In 1929, he co-initiated the founding of Miesięcznik Literacki (Literary Monthly) – a magazine associated with the Communist Party of Poland. Two years later, the magazine was terminated and its editorial office, Wat included, was arrested.
In 1930, Wat joined the Polish PEN Club. In the years 1932-1939, the poet worked as the literary head for Gebethner and Wolff publishing houses. After the outbreak of World War II, he moved to Lviv. There, he worked for Czerwony Sztandar (Red Flag) magazine. In January 1940, together with a group of Polish writers, he was arrested by the Russians. He was incarcerated in Lviv, Kyiv and Moscow. Afterwards, he was deported deep into the USSR. In November 1941, he was released under an amnesty and he re-joined his wife and son. He arrived in Alma-Ata and was taken into the care of the Polish embassy. After General Anders’ army left, he remained in the USSR and became the Polish government-in-exile’s representative in Kazakhstan. In March 1943, he was arrested for rejecting a Soviet passport. He was released from prison after about three months but remained in Soviet Russia until 1946.
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After his return to Poland in 1948, Wat became the editor-in-chief of the PIW State Publishing Institute. In 1948 and 1949, he co-edited Odrodzenie Weekly. He was also a board member of Polish PEN Club in between 1947 and 1963, and published in Kuźnica and Twórczość.
Wat was actively involved in the Polish post-war literary life, but the gradual restriction of creative freedom and socialist-realist directives announced at the Szczecin Writer Congress caused the poet to become silent again.
In January 1953, Aleksander Wat contracted a serious illness – the so-called lateral medullary syndrome – which caused, among other things, severe headaches and made him unable to work. The writer undertook treatment abroad – in 1954 he went to Sweden, and from 1955 to 1957 he stayed in the south of France. Despite his illness, Wat tried to write. In 1957, after several decades of silence, Wat released a book titled simply Poems. Essentially, it was Wat’s second debut as a poet. Critics and readers were favourable towards the release and it brought the author the New Culture award.
Wat was still fascinated by the mystery and depth of the personal ‘I’ in the futuristic period. In Pug-Iron Heater, a surprising and ambiguous dialogue between different characters – the layers that make up the form of the person – develops. The mad world depicted in the piece focused on the borderline of imagination and the hyper-imagination of the self, on the borderline of mental norm and schizophrenia, is undoubtedly a futuristic sign of defiance against the cultural order. It took terrible experiences and many years of thought to change this sign of negation into fascination. After all, Wat’s late work focuses on the same problems again and again, but now seen in a completely different way.
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In Poems, and later in Mediterranean Poems published in 1962, readers would discover the poet’s new, dramatic view on himself and culture. With time, Wat’s work becomes a reportage from a great journey through time and areas of tradition, language and philosophical and political systems. However, Wat set himself a goal he would never achieve. This great erudite, consuming thousands of books, still could not start his greatest work – a synthesis in which he could depict the cultural, imaginative and psychological experiences of a man living in the century of totalitarianism and artistic revolutions. The writer suffered from intellectual insatiability, but he also suffered physically. He was still plagued by illness and terrible headaches which is why he decided to look for relief and help in France. The years 1961-63 were the period of Wats’ stay in Paris and, in winter, in the south of Provence in Cabris. Here, the poetic cycles, which were later included in the Mediterranean Poems, were created.
Wat, once a communist poet, then a Stalinist prisoner, now devoted more and more time to sketching a book in which he wanted to explain the essence of Stalinism. This work was never finished.
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In 1963, Wat finally chose the status of an immigrant and decided to remain in the West. He published in the Parisian Kultura magazine and was sometimes invited as a guest by the Polish Radio Free Europe radio station. In December of the same year, the Wat family left France and moved to Berkeley, California. Wat became a scholarship holder at the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. He began to feel better, but it was only a temporary improvement. By 1964 the writer was already seriously thinking about suicide. His illness progressed and Wat had difficulty writing. He did not feel good as a writer. That is why – partly for therapeutic reasons – he started recording his memories and conversations with Czesław Miłosz on a tape recorder. This is how the famous biographical story My Century was written and finally published in 1977.
In July 1965, Wat returned to France. Here, he continued to work and elaborate upon his memories. Among other things, he wrote Sheets in the Wind.
In 1966 and 1967, the Wat family went to Majorca. Here the poet felt much better and could prepare his final – as it turned out – volume of poems titled Dark Trinket.
Finally, what the writer had thought and talked about so many times happened: on July 29, 1967, Alexander Wat committed suicide.
Wat’s poems are difficult. The poet drew on the complicated symbolism of various traditions and periods, wrote in a language full of references and allusions, built complex metaphors and changed styles and poetics. His works are highly meaningful, but the semantics of Wat’s poems also depend on internal tensions and dissonances, which the poet uses constantly, looking for a form for his lyrical experience.
Wat’s biography and work are an example of the tragic fate of the 20th-century artist, who, entangled in the left-wing avant-garde, eventually becomes a victim of the system he built.
- Ja z Jednej Strony i Ja z Drugiej Strony Mego Mopsożelaznego Piecyka (Me on the One Side and Me on the Other Side of my Pug-iron Heater), 1920
- Lucifer Unemployed. Stories, 1927
- Loth’s Escape (novel), fragments, 1949
- Poems, 1957
- Mediterrenean Poems, 1962
- My Century. Spoken Diary, 1977
- Dark Trinkey (poems), 1968
- Świat Na Haku i Pod Kluczem: Eseje (World on the Hook and under Lock and Key), 1985
- Dziennik bez Samogłosek (Diary Without Vowels), 1986
- Ucieczka Lotha: Proza (Loth’s Escape: Prose), 1988
- Selected Poems, 1987
Originally written in Polish by Wojciech Kaliszewski, December 2006, translated by PG, July 2019
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