Originally published in 1970, Miron Białoszewski's Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising was in the making for quarter of a century. Now, for the first time, English-language readers can have a glimpse at the full uncensored version of a book that became the ultimate Polish testimony of the devastation wreaked by war .
The almost a quarter of a century that passed from the end of WW2 to the publication of the book in 1970 shouldn't suggest that Miron Białoszewski worked on it incessantly or laboriously throughout this time. His work-in-progress toward the memoir as we know it, lay much more in the fields of the conceptual and theoretical. All through these years Białoszewski, himself one of the most innovative poets of Polish language, repeatedly asked himself questions about the very possibility of fitting his Warsaw war experiences into literary form. For a long time he simply believed that the factual-empiric experience that became his burden was not translatable into the realm of language.
In contrast to many of his contemporaries Białoszewski, who was 22 years old when the Uprising broke out in August 1944, did not fight in the Uprising. The experience which he shared with the great majority of the people of Warsaw was that of collective hiding in the cellars of buildings, trying to find food, slipping back and forth from German fire, rescuing the wounded, and burying the dead. A situation that unfolded gradually over the 63 days of continuous combat action before it concluded in a hecatomb that left Poland's capital literally in ruins, with around 200 thousand civilians dead.
For the next 25 years Białoszewski would test the possibilities of representing this ultimate experience of war reality in the oral language of story-telling. As an author fascinated by all kinds of colloquial speech and a great narrator, he would tell the whole thing over and over again to his friends and acquaintances before eventually deciding to set the whole account down on paper.
When he did this, the story was plain and simple, steering away from the heroic, abstaining from the glorious depictions of war as an adventure, and full of captivating details. The language he used – drawing on the extreme registers of colloquial – has struck many as childish and in any case definitely unworthy of the greatest heroic event in the life of the nation. "I wanted everyone to know that not everyone was shooting guns, I wanted to write about the common nature of the Uprising", Białoszewski would explain.
For many readers and critics Białoszewski's vision of Polish biggest war effort was difficult to accept – focusing on the mundane details of everyday life of civilians in the besieged city and giving up on the pathos of the great national sacrifice felt like a betrayal of patriotic ideals.
For others, like Maria Janion, by describing the death of the city Białoszewski attained the grandeur of an artistic masterpiece:
He does not repeat anything after anyone – he gets straight to the heart of the wartime reality, phenomenologically delving into the essence of things, he finds for war a sovereign form – a one which is at the same time personal and civil.
The new English edition of Białoszewski's Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising comes as part of the prestigious New York Review of Books series. For the present edition the translator Madeline G. Levine has revised her 1977 translation, as well as restored passages that had been censored in Communist Poland (mostly referring to Polish-Jewish and Polish-Soviet relations).
- Miron Białoszewski
A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising
Translated by Madeleine G. Levine
Publication Date: October 27, 2015
- New York Review Books