Reading Matters: Men of Letters Hit by History

Article excerpt

The brilliant career of Polish writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz ended when he committed suicide "at the Russian border on 17 September 1939, upon receiving the news of the Soviet army's march into Poland". Now there's a punchy ending for a writer whose most famous book is headed by two lines of Tadeusz Micinski's: "When choosing my destiny, / I chose insanity." But we're not dealing here with the train hit by a cow, but with a man and a literature hit by history.

How does one persuade people to read a whole literature? Not necessarily because it's better, but just for its very difference, its speculative richness, its aptness for our time? The writer who committed suicide wrote the novel Insatiability, among others. Why should we be interested in it? Is Poland a part of Europe, or just, as Jarry said in Ubu Roi: "Poland, that is, nowhere"?

I would like to make a case for 20th-century Polish literature, and have wanted to do so ever since the day Czeslaw Milosz started talking about Lwow, a town with three cathedrals (Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Armenian). Lwow was once the Polish province of Reussen. It was then German, and traded with Byzantium; fell to the Cossacks, then the Swedes, then the Turks. It had produced, Milosz said, a poet with singular and wonderful metrics. That was his point: that the accidents of history breed a certain kind of literature. As a Lithuanian-born Pole, he felt that in his bones.

But their language, which sings, is not ours; the names are, we think, unpronounceable. Still Poland has produced three Nobel laureates in literature (Henryk Sienkewicz, I B Singer, who wrote in Yiddish, and Czeslaw Milosz, and should have had four, had Conrad been honoured). In itself, that is no guarantee. But how about Witkiewicz, and a hero devoted to saving dogs, and to "illicit, loathsome lust"? Or Witold Gombrowicz: "Whenever I see some mystique, be it virtue or family, faith or fatherland, there I must commit some indecent act." Or Zbigniew Herbert's Still Life with a Bridle, that airy, humanistic account of the relations between art, real life, craft and commerce? Or Alexander Wat's My Century, a devastating and immense memoir extracted from a dying man by Milosz himself? Few major writers would have spent those painful months listening, tape-recorder in hand.

How does one country produce so remarkable a literature in so brief a time? Unlike most East European literatures published (in scattered form) over the past 25 years, it is not dissidence that accounts for the special character of Polish letters, but dispossession. Poland is a special case: of a nation that lives its politics in literature. I suspect we read dissident writers out of sympathy and guilt not untouched by self- interest. …