Tag Archives: Prose Fiction

Eustachy Rylski’s Holly Golightly

By some circuitous (or merely confected) coincidence, author Maeve Brennan, who I mentioned in my post about Olga Tokarczuk and the Leipzig Book Fair a few days ago, returned today via an essay I’ve just read by Polish author Eustachy Rylski. Rumor has it that Brennan, who worked together with Truman Capote at Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker for a spell, was the inspiration for the character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And Rylski has written a rather compelling little essay about that book and its heroine—whom he encountered for the first time in early 1960s Poland at the tender age of eighteen—and on the competition between great works and popular literature for the author’s imagination.

Not that most Americans much care about this sort of thing (or do they?), but the essay also provides a rare glimpse into the subjective, intimate reception of a work translated “from the American English” into another language—in counterpoint to the stochastic view, and is a great meditation on the power of character in fiction. (Interestingly, I think most Americans would immediately associate Holly Golightly with Audrey Hepburn in the film version; Rylski’s essay returns her character to the realm of the written word.) In any case, despite his reservations about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, its negligibility as compared with “the Russian classics, Iwaszkiewicz, Camus and Mauriac,” Rylski does find something to value in it:

What Capote’s characters say to us is: why not hang out with us here and there, get knocked about a bit, listen to us talking bullshit, soak up some sun with the girls on the fire escape, have a chat with O. J. Berman about the movie career you’ll never achieve, sit at the bar in Joe Bell’s, and if you get bored of yourself or us, of the city or life, we won’t hold you back. But in parting we’ll say: don’t you worry about the one-eyed cat, he’ll be fine. If the first merit of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is general lack of obligation, the second stems from it, which is youth.

(Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

The essay appears (in Polish) in a collection of Rylski’s articles and essays titled PO ŚNIADANIE (After Breakfast) just published by Bertelsmann subsidiary Świat Książki. The Polish Book Institute just posted a write-up of the book on their website. They also have more information on Rylski, who is well-respected in Poland as a novelist, but arrived on the scene rather late (his first book was published after he was forty).

On other fronts in the European reception of American literature, the Leipzig Book Fair has awarded its Translation Prize to Eike Schönfeld for her translation of Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. Great choice, though Kinsky’s Tokarczuk would have been lovely, too.


The Book Institute also has a nice write-up on their website by Jagiellonian University professor Jerzy Jarzębski about Paweł Huelle’s newest book, a collection of short stories titled COLD SEA TALES (Opowieści chłodnego morza). I think Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who recently translated Huelle’s THE LAST SUPPER for Serpent’s Tail, has translated some of these already. I like Huelle the short story writer (of MOVING HOUSE AND OTHER STORIES) almost better than Huelle the novelist (with the exception of MERCEDES BENZ, CASTORP, and DAVID WEISER, of course), so this new collection, just published by Znak, promises to be a real delight. Hopefully we’ll see it in English soon.


“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)

“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.