“A melancholy affirmation of the world as it is”: A few words on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz

Like the New York Review of Books or the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the Polish magazine Polityka has established its own books series: Polska Literatura Współczesna (Modern Polish Literature). Poet and critic Jarosław Klejnocki reviews one of its newest titles, TATARAK I INNE OPOWIADANIA (Calamus and Other Stories) by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, in Polityka‘s February 10th issue.

Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz is one of the best, and almost certainly the most eminent, Polish author of short stories in the twentieth century, a master of the short form in narrative. If you need convincing, get hold of a copy of Calamus and Other Stories. The collection contains stories written after World War II, so we will not find old stalwarts like “The Maids of Wilko” or “The Birch Grove” in it; but for that we have a chance to commune with stories that today are hard to find (like “Sérénité” or “Heydenreich”) or practically forgotten (“Zarudzie”), along with others that in the past few years have even been adapted for the screen (like “Lovers from Marona” or the eponymous “Calamus”—Andrzej Wajda’s newest film [NB: the Polish “Tatarak” is translated by another variant, “Sweet Rush”], which is being shown at the Berlinale).

Incidentally, Iwaszkiewicz’s stories tend to be quite long and often exceed the limits of what we presently understand by short narrative form; nowadays they could easily be considered micro-, or even full-length, novels.

Despite the fact that Polish prose in English basically constitutes a canon of lacunae, it is still remarkable that Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980) hasn’t had more than two (yes, two) solo titles published in all of Anglophony: THE SUMMER AT NOHANT: A PLAY IN THREE ACTS, translated by Celina Wieniewska and published in London by Minerva Press all the way back in 1942, and Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation of the stories: “A New Love,” “The Wilko Girls,” “The Birch Grove,” and “The Mill on the River Utrata,” published in Budapest in 2002 by Central European University Press as THE BIRCH GROVE AND OTHER STORIES. This may be due to the fact that, as Leszek Kołakowski explains in his introduction to the latter book, Iwaszkiewicz was compliant with the Communist authorities (as he had been with the interwar regime of Marshall Piłsudski). But so were a lot of writers translated into English, and I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Iwaszkiewicz was a short-story and novella writer, and the Golden Age of Translation in Anglophone Publishing (i.e. the post-war, pre-conglomerate era of the late 1950s to early 1980s) coincided with a decided editorial bias in favor of the novel.

A few other individual stories by Iwaszkiewicz have made it into English and been anthologized in volumes like Maria Kuncewiczowa’s 1963 THE MODERN POLISH MIND (includes the story “Tatarak” translated as “Sweet Flag”) , Bogdan Czajkowski’s and Andrzej Busza’s 1983 GATHERING TIME: FIVE MODERN POLISH ELEGIES (published in an edition of 200, it includes the story “Map of Sunshine”), Wiesiek Powaga’s 1996 DEDALUS BOOK OF POLISH FANTASY (which has an excerpt of “Mother Joanna of the Angels”), and Teresa Halikowska’s 1996 THE EAGLE AND THE CROW: CONTEMPORARY POLISH SHORT FICTION (“The Statue”). (I am pretty sure that there is something in Celina Wieniewska’s 1967 anthology POLISH WRITING TODAY, as well, though I don’t have the book handy and there is no reference to its contents on WorldCat or elsewhere online.) So basically, Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation aside—which like most CEU Press books is near impossible to find in bookstores—Iwaszkiewicz today is accessible to English speakers mainly through subtitled film adaptations like Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1961 MOTHER JOAN OF THE ANGELS, Andrzej Wajda’s 1970 THE BIRCH WOOD and 1979 THE MAIDS OF WILKO, Andrzej Domalik’s 1986 SIEGFRIED, or Wajda’s 2009 SWEET RUSH.

Wajda actually pretty much captures Iwaszkiewicz’s moody but improbably transcendent ambivalences in THE MAIDS OF WILKO (which was screened in a crisp new print at the Film Society at Lincoln Center last fall). Klejnocki describes the enigmatic character of the author’s work in greater detail:

The people in Iwaszkiewicz’s stories are characterized by internal complexity, sensitivity, and a rich psychic life; but the description of their fates, choices, and personalities is often shrouded in an aura of mystery and inexpressibility. As if the author wanted to tell us that the subject is in essence a riddle even to himself, that he does not have complete control over himself and does not completely understand his own conduct (this viewpoint is wonderfully illustrated in “The Lovers from Marona”).

In Iwaszkiewicz’s work the traditional existentialist belief in the unrepeatability and singularity of any human life is met with a practically pagan resistance to death, a feeling of terror at the inevitability of departure, in opposition to which we once again find the atavistic primal apologia of our earthly existence. Almost all of Iwaszkiewicz’s stories are fraught with pessimism and fatalism—for time is inescapable, human life is ephemeral, few of our plans will come to fruition, and there’s  little chance of reconciling the opposing forces and the clamor of passions within each of us. But we can also take pleasure in the form of the world, in the countless delights of life, as long as we know how to see them in everyday experiences.

“A melancholy affirmation of the world as it is—that is the hidden message, never directly expressed, of Iwaszkiewicz’s prose, and also of his poetry and plays,” writes Kołakowski in his introduction; he wonders whether this world view had an ultimately spiritual motivation and recounts its practical consequences for Iwaszkiewicz’s position in a Polish society starkly divided between officialdom and opposition. More recently, the Swiss Polonist German Ritz has ascribed this indirection in Iwaszkiewicz’s prose to “inexpressible [homosexual] desire,” an interpretation that is supported by the more expressive homoeroticism of works like “Siegfried”; and scholars in Poland have begun to consider his writing in terms of other (Lacanian mainly) theoretical approaches that may also prove to be fruitful.

There is, in any case, a lot to suggest that Iwaszkiewicz would find a substantial readership in English if he were more available.


One response to ““A melancholy affirmation of the world as it is”: A few words on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz

  1. Pingback: Wajda’s adaptation of Iwaszkiewicz’s SWEET RUSH at NYFF « Bacacay: The Polish Literature Weblog

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