Tadeusz Konwicki
Tadeusz Konwicki; drawing by David Levine

Joseph Conrad once wrote to an English friend enquiring, rather querulously, “What is all this about Jane Austen?” Conrad could not see the point of Jane Austen, nor was his friend able to enlighten him: indeed, it sounds rather as if the skepticism of the great Polish-English novelist made the friend himself begin to wonder whether there could really be anything in Jane Austen’s novels after all. No other literary form is so instinctively and involuntarily national, perhaps because nationalism was a growing force when the novel entered its dominant period.

But the novel’s brand of nationalism is not a simple matter. It often seems to contradict or undermine the national archetype. John Bull and Jane Austen have nothing very obviously in common. Yet there is a certain logic in the fact that the novel in Poland should concern itself with philosophical and metaphysical questions, with the question, “What should we do, if?”—with extreme situations, hypothetical or actual. Poland’s very existence, historically, might seem to depend on such a query. Being Polish has often in the past been a state of mind and spirit rather than a matter of topographical belonging. Conrad remained haunted by the fact that he had “jumped”: that like his own Lord Jim he had abandoned ship, in his case the native country. It made him a novelist who asked the basic questions—How does one survive? By what does one live? His nationality, put into works of fiction, expressed itself in abstract terms. Life, the destructive element, had to assume in his novels the plots and places that fiction requires, but its cold reality cannot be localized, even in relation to the sea. No wonder he could not understand Jane Austen, for whom a house, a village, a family, were the essential beginning and end of any fictional enterprise.

Polish fiction is of course rich and various, but it may be that all of it is at least touched by the ultimate bareness and extremity of intellectual perception that is so marked in Conrad. Aleksander Wat, one of the most original Polish writers of the postwar era, gave his own fantastic version of it in Lucifer Unemployed, a series of wholly bizarre stories first published in Warsaw in 1927. The second, “Kings in Exile,” begins with a sentence that might make us think we are back in the sea world of Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus. “The first mate of the English ship Cromwell peered at the horizon….” But in another second we are engulfed in an anarchic world in which nothing makes sense even though all the ingredients seem familiar and recognizable, the sort of world which surrealists and futurists had perceived as coming into objective existence after the chaos of the Great War. Wat was one of the writers who rose to the challenge and tried to find his own correlative fictional world to express what had happened.

He wrote about the nature of that world in My Century, a book of memoirs published in London in 1977, and by the University of California Press at Berkeley eleven years later, with the subtitle The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual.

What I put together in Lucifer was a confrontation of all humanity’s basic ideas—morality, religion, even love…. But that cerebral questioning and discrediting of love was thorough, taken right to the end. The discrediting of the very idea of personality…everything in general brought into question. Nothing. Period. Finished. Nihil.

Czeslaw Milosz put on a tape-recorder many of Wat’s recollections at Berkeley in the two years Wat visited there (he died in Paris in 1967), and his collected poems were published in Polish after his death. Wat had had an eventful career and Milosz’s tape machine did not lack for material. Wat had been locked up by the Polish authorities for being a Communist in the Twenties, had escaped to the Russian zone after the German occupation of Poland, was again arrested, and subsequently did time in what he calculated to be as many as fourteen prisons.

After the war he returned to Poland from Soviet Central Asia, where he had been searching for his wife and son, who had been deported there. He was soon in trouble with the new Polish regime and forbidden to publish his books, and although things improved in 1956 a serious illness forced him to emigrate soon afterward.

Wat’s poems and prose writings made him a cult figure in Poland, even to the younger generation who had grown up after the war, but as with many cult figures it is not easy for the outsider today to see what all the stir was about. Wat’s own comments on Lucifer, as quoted, have a decidedly passé sound about them. Yet he remains an archetypal man of his time, a figure, as Milosz says, “sorely tried by history,” who did not live to see the collapse of communist dogmas “considered untouchable in his day.” Wat is interesting on the dialectic he analyzed in himself, the desire that burned in the intellectual, not in the man in the street, for that single “global answer to negation” that communism represented. Like Conrad’s destructive element, the deep sea itself, it seemed the only medium that could keep the intellectual afloat.


There is a certain irony in the fact that Lucifer Unemployed, which was first published in 1927, takes as its key figure the Christian devil, who is searching for an appropriate occupation. He certainly found it in the message and method of the new Party. Wat compares his early experience to a Graham Greene short story in which some young hoodlums destroy for a joke the whole interior of a man’s house: when he returns it looks perfectly normal from the outside but the inside is a void. He compares himself to those young thugs who have stripped the house, “throwing the key into the Vistula,” and throws himself upon the only faith that can now exist. The lasting impression, of the black joke in Lucifer Unemployed lies in its intuition, below the book’s conscious level, of what was ultimately to become of that faith.

Fantasy remains a favorite form among Polish writers, although its texture and technique have altered. Swift or Voltaire would be familiar with Wat’s satiric vision, which indeed depends in some degree on the reader’s own recognition of their traditional way of making fun of things, as when Lucifer, the only being left in the universe who believes in God, nonetheless offers his services to an atheist magazine. That kind of irony would be ignored by Marek Hlasko and his readers, who have, as it were, moved into a world in which the literary medium has become as random, and almost as meaningless, as what it is saying. Killing the Second Dog reads like a film script, with the same kind of unpointed and inconsequential dialogue, and many of Hlasko’s short novels became films, such as Next Stop—Paradise, even though they had been refused publication by the Warsaw censorship.

After leaving Poland, where his rise to fame as a writer had been meteoric, he ended up in Israel, working as a truck driver and manual laborer. Israel is the setting of Killing the Second Dog, which has a certain zest as an account of pimping and boozing in Tel Aviv, but whose aimless improvisation becomes predictable and soon begins to pall. Hlasko had led an equally rough and tough life in Poland when young, and he died, worn out, of an overdose of sleeping pills in Wiesbaden in 1969. He was only thirty-five.

Stanislaw Benski’s delightful stories, Missing Pieces, are very different. They were written, the author remarks, in order to preserve the memory of the last Jews in Poland. Benski, who died in 1988, was the director of a nursing home for old people in Warsaw, and many of his stories have to do with Jews whom he met under his care, invalids in mind as much as in body, who still feel imprisoned in the ghetto or the extermination camp. The author’s understanding of their psychology, and the ways in which they still strive in their last years to come alive again, is profoundly moving. In a perceptive introduction to Killing the Second Dog, in which he observes that it can be “read” like a film, which may account for its contemporary appeal, Professor Thompson Bradley also compares Hlasko’s “phantasmagoric vision of the grotesque reality of everyday life” with the work of Bruno Schulz, who was killed on the street by a Gestapo officer during the war. Certainly Schulz’s stories—The Street of Crocodiles and Under the Sign of the Hourglass—present their own kind of phantasmagoria, but it is, so to speak, a phantasmagoria of coziness and domesticity, not the harshly alienated world of modern Polish fantasy.

And so Schulz for me is more like Benski than he is like Hlasko, and particularly more like these touching tales by Benski of Jews enclosed in their own past, the “missing pieces” of present day diasporic memory. Benski tells us that he writes “about the last residents of small villages, the shtetlach, about the pious and impious, the honest and dishonest, the intelligent and the simple, about those who are forever seeing the ghetto walls and the chimneys of the crematoria.” Neither Schulz nor Benski is in the least like Kafka or Gogol, the other two writers Professor Bradley mentions in connection with Hlasko, for theirs is the central and by now wholly cosmopolitan way of looking at the world through the eyes of a matter-of-fact incredulity. The specifically Polish version of this vivid incredulity draws both on the traditions of the movies and of abstract philosophy, the two reinforcing each other unexpectedly. In Tadeusz Konwicki’s romance, Bohin Manor, a third element is added, that of historical fantasy: figures and periods of the past are sandwiched together in the enclave of a small Lithuanian estate presided over by Helena Konwicka, the author’s reconstructed, or rather reimagined, grandmother.


Again the movie camera seems the medium that persuades us of the possibility, the absolute normality indeed, of every anachronism that comes within its focus. It may be the rear end of a Polish Fiat, unexpectedly projecting from the hay barn of the manor in the years that followed the subjection of the 1863 uprising against Russia, or the appearance of a heavily mustached Josef Dzhugashvili (the real name of Stalin) in the role of the local chief of police. There is also a man-eating monster roaming the Lithuanian woods called Schicklgruber—the real name of Hitler. The titles themselves of Konwicki’s previous novels—A Dreambook for Our Time, Anthropos-Specter-Beast, The Polish Complex—convey the kind of element in which his imagination works. A recent film of his, Lava, which was based on Mickiewicz’s poem Fore-fathers’ Eve, was shown at the 1989 Moscow Film Festival.

The weird and wonderful qualities of Bohin Manor, which never loses its readability as well as its “seeability,” make unsurprising Neal Ascherson’s statement that Konwicki is the most popular writer in Poland today. But he is also highly exportable. The love story he tells—of Helena’s betrothal to a neighboring gentleman and her falling for a strange and fascinating Jewish visitor—gives the book the kind of romantic suspense of which Walter Scott and Sienkiewicz were masters. But of course Konwicki is much more conscious and sophisticated in his manipulation of the complex strands of Polish history and society. In an introduction to his excellent translation, Richard Lourie emphasizes the coolness and evenhandedness with which Konwicki depicts and imagines his historical fantasy. The strange Jewish figure who roams the world, suffering, dying and returning to life, finding a brief incongruous resting place in the boudoir of the lady of Bohin manor, reminds us that the Poles too have had their perpetual diaspora; and that, as Andrzej Szczypiorski, author of The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, puts it, “Poland without its Jews is no longer the Poland it once was.”

Nor is Konwicki indulgent toward the old Polish magnates themselves, the Radziwills and Potockis who once ruled their provinces with a rod of iron. Meanwhile a nice boy, who will afterward become Lenin, is growing up in the house of a school inspector; and Konwicki boldly improvises a prose poem by the young Adam Mickiewicz, whose verse epic set in Lithuania, Pan Tadeusz (1834), is, as Richard Lourie points out, even more central to Polish literature than are Pushkin’s poems to Russian. Pushkin’s son himself is a character in Bohin Manor, seeking to atone for his father’s poem “To the Slanderers of Russia,” dashed off after the Polish-Lithuanian uprising of 1831, and still relevant today for its imperious claim that all “Slav streams” should merge in the “Russian sea.”

“Count us out,” the Lithuanians might say, as they are saying today. Speaking the oldest Indo-Germanic language in Europe, they are not Slavs at all, and they only accepted Christianity in the fourteenth century, when their dynastic leader formed the alliance with Poland that resulted in the conquest of half of Russia. But so many great Poles—the poets Mickiewicz and Milosz, the liberator Marshal Pilsudski—have come from Lithuania that the Poles have a traditional affection for a country whose native inhabitants are in fact as much anti-Polish as anti-Russian. This awkward fact is as familiar to Milosz, who speaks of it in his marvelous memoir The Issa Valley, as it is also to Konwicki.

It happens that Pilsudski, the gruff warrior who preserved the new Polish state from Lenin’s invasion in 1920, is also a hero behind the scenes in Rondo, whose narrator, Tom, is rumored to be his natural son. This produces an ironic situation, for Tom has little or no interest in politics but is anxious to capture the attention of a leading actress in the Warsaw theater, who is in turn only interested in him as a figure who represents, under the German occupation, the heroic traditions of Polish resistance. Tom’s attempt to meet her expectations of him ends in disaster, especially after the war, when his supposed connection with right-wing politics leads to his persecution and imprisonment by the Communist party.

Both Rondo by Kazimierz Brandys and The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski are novels about recent Polish experience, told in a more straightforward and realistic manner than seems common among Polish writers today, although both Brandys and Szczypiorski are subtle narrators whose cerebration, like that of Conrad, is key to the dramatic action and adventure which make up their stories. The beautiful Mrs. Seidenman is a young Jewish widow whose blonde hair and blue eyes, together with a set of false papers, save her in the war years from the Germans’ extermination of Polish Jews, until she is betrayed by an informer. She is rescued from the Gestapo only to be forced to flee Poland again twenty years later, when the Communist regime has begun a campaign of anti-Semitism against the small national Jewish population left over from the Holocaust.

Szczypiorski, who was born in 1924, took part in the 1944 Warsaw uprising and was lucky to end the war in a German concentration camp. He then became one of the most popular and celebrated novelists of the new Poland and served as cultural attaché in Denmark, also becoming head of the Polish Authors’ League. He was arrested and interned in 1981, after martial law and the troubles which produced Solidarity. In 1989 he was elected to the Polish Senate, remarking that “politics is a boring profession created for ambitious people with no talent—still, I have never declined my civic duty and I won’t now.” He and Kazimierz Brandys are perhaps the two most respected senior contemporary Polish novelists although Brandys still lives in France, a self-exile as so many Poles have been, after he had been exiled in earnest after his work for Solidarity, a time chronicled in his Warsaw Diary: 1979–1981, and in Paris/New York: 1982–1984.

The strengths of both Brandys and Szczypiorski lie in their experiences, which have made them, as artists, experts in sobriety and in a certain sort of realism. What happens to young Tom, and to the beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, is wholly believable, and carries the full impact of historic truth, both in relation to the war and to the Russian-imposed regime that succeeded it. The alternative response where the Polish novel is concerned is represented by Aleksander Wat and by Witold Gombrowicz, two pioneers in the native idiom of fantasy who have exercised a potent influence on their contemporaries and successors. Gombrowicz’s “mad” novel, Ferdydurke, and his diaries written when self-exiled in Argentina during the war, can still be apprehended through some of the more recent Polish literary personalities, and in their narrative style—not only that of Brandys and Szczypiorski but of Konwicki as well. What strikes one about these novels, however, is their richness and variety, the breadth of experience one encounters in them. “God’s Playground,” as the old Respublica used to be called in its heyday, is still a magic setting for literary enterprise.

This Issue

July 19, 1990