Tag Archives: Jerzy Pilch

Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel longlisted for Best Translated Book Award

Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, translated by Bill Johnston, has just been longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Fiction nominees were announced two days ago on the Three Percent blog and include some formidable competition: Robert Walser’s The Tanners, trans. Susan Bernofsky (Switzerland), Ferenc Barnas’s The Ninth, trans. Paul Olchváry (Hungary), Abdourahman Waberi’s The United States of Africa, trans. David and Nicole Ball (Djibouti), Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s Anonymous Celebrity (trans. Nelson Vieira (Brazil), César Aira’s Ghosts, trans. Chris Andrews (Argentina), Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, trans. Martha Tennent (Spain/Catalonia), Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, trans. David Colmer (Netherlands), Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future, trans. Joanne Turnbull (Russia), and many other remarkable works. I have to say I’m a little disappointed that El Salvadoran author Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror (trans. Katherine Silver) didn’t get nominated, but that’s because I’m currently reading it and think it’s great. Also, I really wish Gombrowicz’s Pornografia (trans. Danuta Borchardt) had been selected: Three Percent might have reinterpreted its rule against retranslations inasmuch as this is actually the first translation from the original… But what to do.

The award, which is in its second year, has been getting oodles of attention in the British and international press, with articles in The Guardian, the Independent, Bookseller.com, and places farther afield; but as Open Letter publisher Chad Post pointed out today on his Facebook profile, U.S. publishing media have been weirdly quiet about it — probably, as subsequent comments suggest, because the news hadn’t been routed to them by a publicist…

Anyway, this year the award has been cleaved in two, evidently to reflect our two literary genders: you know, fiction and poetry. There’s no longlist for poetry, but its shortlist will be announced, along with the fiction shortlist, on February 16th. Unfortunately, the human gender balance doesn’t come off so equitably: of 25 nominated authors, 3 are women. Well. (The 28 translators, on the other hand, are split evenly.)

It would be interesting, of course, to know what the jury’s criteria are in nominating and awarding, and hopefully that will be expressed in some form during the awards ceremony this spring. Until then, hopefully, Jerzy Pilch is in some amazing company. Congratulations all around.

Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities

The Quarterly Conversation has a great short essay by Matthew Jakubowski on Jerzy Pilch’s novel A Thousand Peaceful Cities (Tysiąc spokojnych miast, Wydawnictwo Literackie 1997), which Open Letter will publish in summer 2010 in a translation not by Bill Johnston, but by David Frick, who is better known as a scholar of Polish Baroque literature, among other specialties, and as Chair of Berkeley’s Slavic Department. This is surprising, but great news. Johnston no doubt has enough on his plate, what with his translation of Wiesław Myśliwski’s magnum opus Stone Upon Stone due out from Archipelago next year; and Polish literature needs more translators. TQC also includes an excerpt from the book, which as Jakubowski describes, is “a coming-of-age story set in the small southern Polish town of Wisla during Soviet rule in the 1960s” and is “narrated by a boy named Jerzy at age twelve or thirteen, with the occasional shift in perspective to show Pilch commenting as an adult on his memories as an adolescent.”

(Note [19 December 2009]: as editor E.J. Van Lanen comments here, Open Letter will be publishing a fourth book by Pilch in 2011, also translated by David Frick.)

Hello! Przerwa skończona!

Yes, the hiatus is over! The past 5 weeks have seen, among other things, preparations for three Polish Cultural Institute events here in New York City:

the Institute’s season opener at Symphony Space on September 11, which featured readings by Polish poet Piotr Sommer and American poet Christian Hawkey and a performance by members of the New York-based ensemble The Knights of recent works by Lisa Bielawa and Jeffrey Lependorf (works composed as settings of poems by Hawkey and Sommer respectively)…


the Polish Cultural Institute booth at the 4th Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 13 (which featured an informal reading by Jacek Dehnel, the author of the acclaimed novel Lala and editor of Six Polish Poets, and a book signing by Alex Storozynski, author of The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution)…




photos: A. Grenda

…and our first session of the European Book Club, at which both newcomers and seasoned aficionados of European literature in translation discussed Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, recently published by Open Letter Books, together with Open Letter publisher Chad Post, who came down from Rochester to talk with readers.


The rest of the autumn will be awash with Polish culture — see the Polish Cultural Institute’s website for more details and consider subscribing to the newsletters if you haven’t already. Be sure not to miss the debut performance in the U.S. of work by celebrated Polish composer Paweł Mykietyn (Thursday, October 1, at Symphony Space; the concert will be preceded by a conversation with Mykietyn and Cuban-American composer Tania Leon) and the dissident Theatre of the Eighth Day‘s return to the U.S. with their famous production Wormwood, which will be performed at Yale University November 5-7 and at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City November 11-15.

As for upcoming literary events, make sure to mark your calendar for the following:

October 6-7: After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century — a public conversation on the ins and outs of long-form and literary journalism with leading authors of the genre (these include Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Suketu Mehta, and Lawrence Weschler, as well as Wojciech Jagielski and Paweł Smoleński). The event is cosponsored with the National Book Critics Circle, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the new Literary Reportage concentration of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.


November 3-4: Polish Poetry Now: Bożena Keff, Marzanna Kielar, Tomasz Różycki, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki will read at the new Poets House in New York on Wednesday, November 4, following a discussion there the night before with translators Benjamin Paloff and Bill Johnston; on Thursday, November 5, they will read and discuss their work together with translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones at Harvard University. Check back here and at the Polish Cultural Institute website for more details.


November 10: As part of the Performing Revolution in Central and Eastern European festival that the New York Public Library is organizing, there will be a book party at Idlewild Books in New York for The Wall in my Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain — a Words without Borders anthology published by Open Letter Books. Polish author Dorota Masłowska will read, together with Romanian poet Dan Sociu and German author Kathrin Aehnlich; New York University professor Eliot Borenstein will moderate.


Hope to see you at any or all of these events!

European Book Club

The Polish Cultural Institute has joined the European Book Club, and will be featuring Jerzy Pilch’s THE MIGHTY ANGEL at its meeting in September.

Founded in 2008, the European Book Club is a collaboration between a handful of New York-city based European cultural institutes: the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Czech Center, the French Institute Alliance Française, the Goethe-Institut, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, the Polish Cultural Institute, and the Instituto Cervantes. Each month, a different participating institute hosts a book club meeting, which is then “mirrored” at the Brooklyn Public Library later the same month—a measure just introduced due to the overwhelming popularity of the Book Club last year and the fact that so many people had to be turned away. So, for instance, Jachým Topol’s classic CITY SISTER SILVER will be discussed tonight at the Czech Center, and the mirror session will take place tomorrow night in Brooklyn. Next month, Muriel Barbery’s acclaimed novel THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG will be hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française on April 13, and reproduced in Brooklyn on April 21. The Polish session will be held in September at Solas Bar (appropriately enough), in the same second storey room of this fine East Village establishment where the St. Mark’s Bookshop reading series takes place. If you’ll be in New York then, make sure to check back here, at the Polish Cultural Institute’s website, or at the EBC’s website sometime around the middle of August for information on how to sign up.

Book Sales up in Europe; in Poland, too.

There’s an article in the Business section of today’s New York Times on the increase in book sales in Europe: “Book Sales in Europe Are Gaining in Tough Times.”

The number of books sold in France, for instance…

…rose 2 percent in December from a year earlier and 2.4 percent in January, according to Livres Hebdo, a trade publication.

The trend has been similar in Germany, where the number of books sold rose 2.3 percent in January, according to the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, a trade organization. Analysts say many other European markets have also shown gains.

In the United States and Britain, book sales have been slightly less robust, falling by a fraction of 1 percent in both countries last year, according to Nielsen BookScan. Sales in the United States were down about 1 percent in the first 10 weeks of this year.

How have book sales fared in Poland? Pretty much the same, evidently, as in its Western neighbors. The publishing magazine Książki reported in their issue of 18 December 2008 that 2007 book sales in Poland reached 2.57 billion zloties (about $750 million at today’s exchange rate), representing growth of 9% over 2006. The following year was less spectacular, but consistent with numbers in France and Germany; the report anticipated an increase in book sales in December 2008 of 2.5—3% over the previous December, wrapping up total sales for 2008 at 2.64 billion zloties (or $771 million currently).
2008 was not, according to the Książki report,

a year of bestsellers, but fortunately this was compensated for by strong sales of evergreens (a surprising number of titles from 2007 remained at the top of the charts in [bookstore chains] Empik and Matras, such as books by Małgorzata Kalicińska [author of the successful Mazurian Trilogy] and Wojciech Cejrowski [author of travelogues with such promising titles as Gringo Amongst the Wild Tribes]).

Other bestsellers for 2007/08 that the Książki article mentions include (in no particular order): J.K. Rowling’s (and Bloomsbury’s) global superhit Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Jan T. Gross’s Fear (published in U.S. by Random House, there by Znak); Katarzyna Grochola’s 7th novel Trzepot skrzydeł (A Flapping of Wings) published by Wydawnictwo Literackie; Jerzy Pilch’s Marsz Polonia (March, Polonia) published by Bertelsmann’s Świat Książki; SB a Lech Wałęsa (Lech Wałęsa and the Security Service) by Sławomir Cenckiewicz i Piotr Gontarczyk, published by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN); and Jeremy Clarkson’s Born to Be Riled (Insignis).

Of all the authors Książki mentions (and I’ve only included a sample here), only Jerzy Pilch straddles both literary and popular camps. Unsurprisingly, as the report concludes, all of the bestsellers came with robust marketing support. With the zloty in a bit of pain (it’s currently at $1 = 3.43 zl; last October it was $1 = 2 zl), I suppose folks in Poland, too, are wondering how the book market will fare in 2009…

“the good author with a bad monkey on his back”: Jerzy Pilch’s THE MIGHTY ANGEL

Brian MacDonald’s piece (“Under the Literary Influence,” 20 February 2009) on the New York Times “alcohol and American life” blog Proof (who knew?)  surveys a terrain familiar to fans of Raymond Chandler, Malcolm Lowry, Hunter S. Thompson, and company. Imbibers of this canon rarely look to foreign-language writers for their fix, but there’s one book that by all rights should become a staple on the menu: Jerzy Pilch’s THE MIGHTY ANGEL, which Bill Johnston has translated for Open Letter, and which comes out on April 28th.


True to his Protestant background (one of the 2% of non-Catholics in Poland), Pilch has produced a postmodern, latter-day-Pietist diary of alcohol addiction, and recovery, that is both product of and commentary on the giddy, groggy matrix of writing and drinking. The narrator paints periphrastic portraits of his fellow inmates on the alco wardColumbus the Explorer, the Hero of Socialist Labor, Simon Pure Goodness, Don Juan the Rib, the Most Wanted Terrorist in the World, the Sugar King, the Queen of Kentall the while composing his own story as simultaneously an “emotional journal” and a love letter to the “woman in a yellow dress with spaghetti straps” he sees one day outside his window. The book, for which Pilch received the prestigious NIKE Award in 2001, is more complex than it may appear, playing as it does with multiple modes of writing and eschewing straightforward plot in favor of a stylized confessional voice. At different moments it also approaches the generic openness of the silva, which is described by Przemyslaw Czaplinski (following Ryszard Nycz) as:

part of the tradition of unobliged writing, which means that a work rooted in this school of poetics does not compose an entirety, be it thematic, generic or aesthetic.The narrative evolves from situation to situation, driven by associations, recollections, and above all opportunities… [and] can accommodate portraits, anecdotes, sketches, essays, stories, micro-dramas, commentaries, tableaus or notations of ideas for works. (“Letter from Poland,” Context 20)

But it is also simply a lot of fun to read, no small thanks to Bill Johnston’s exquisite translation (it’s clear that Johnston really enjoyed working on this book). And as far as critical assessments of THE MIGHTY ANGEL go, this nugget of commentary on Brian MacDonald’s blog post is, if inadvertently, right on the money:

I just don’t think it’s possible to find a replacement for the good author with a bad monkey on his back. As they stumble through the haze of their addictions and fears they give insight to the mathematics of need like no other. (Fred X. Quimby)