A kind of hole in time, a sucking pump of void — a fragment of the Diary Written At Night-Time

Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski (1919-2000) was a Polish novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, soldier, prisoner of the Soviet Gulag.  Arrested in 1940 after the Soviet invasion of Poland, he left with the Polish army formed within the Soviet Union in 1942, fought against Nazis in North Africa and Italy (Tobruk, Monte Cassino). After the war, he settled in Naples where he married one of the daughters of Croce. He was of the principal contributors to the leading Polish emigre monthly Kultura (publishing books otherwise banned in Poland under Soviet rule) where his Diary Written In Night-time was published in monthly installments over a thirty year period. A kind of journal intime of a thinking man, it is composed of essays, short stories, book reviews, letters, imaginary dialogues, political commentary, and a few, very sparing, carefully disguised — and yet for all that very affecting — autobiographical entries — and nothing in the way of the usual “had breakfast, walked the dog” trivia which fill the diaries of the great.

Here are several of the more personal, more poetic pieces that struck me while reading Volume I. Perhaps, had the journal consisted of nothing but pieces like this, it would soon become tiresome; but scattered as they are among other, more argumentative and purposeful prose, these pieces stand out like diamonds set in a cast iron ring. The first excerpt, dated 1972, records an incident in 1945 when the soldiers of the Polish army in Italy have learned that they have been betrayed by their allies: that the US and UK had ceded their country to the Soviet Union and that there would be no free fatherland to return to after all. (Elsewhere in the diary, remembering the 1945-6 period in Rome, Herling writes: “one drank a lot in those days, drank to unconsciousness, drank to forget”).

July 16, 1972

The well known English critic Alvarez tried to take his own life. He was saved and the consequence was his book, The savage god, a study of suicide. Besides his own experiences Alvarez used as the immediate impulse for writing the story of the suicide of his friend and (excellent) poetess Sylvia Plath. The book is a huge hit in the UK and in America.

The subtitle is misleading: this supposed “study of suicide” was compiled by a literatus interested chiefly in the topic of “suicide and literature”. I see nothing wrong with this sort of narrowing of the subject, but in this case I am repulsed by the insistent, and irritating, insinuation that only “artists” are capable of “true suicide”; ordinary eaters of bread take their own life for trivial reasons; but for artists, a suicide is the conclusion of an uncontrollable “creative act”. Above the book ponderously hangs a reflection from Kierkegaard:

The whole world may be divided into those who write, and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, those who do not disapprove of it and believe in their own wisdom, but if they were capable of writing, they would write exactly the same things. At bottom, they are as desperate, but, when one does not have the chance to become someone important thanks to his own despair, then there is not much point celebrating it or showing it. Could this be the way to overcome despair?

I had no idea that Kierkegaard could be so stupid. He is perhaps explained – though not justified – by this: to him “despair” became the equivalent of “grace” in the Puritan faith, the special grace of the elect. He surrounded this “mortal disease”, this “hemophilia of the soul”, with the defensive air of blue blood.

Many years ago I happened to spend ferragosto, the culminating day of summer (August 15) celebrated by Italians, in a down-at-heel tiny hotel in Rome. The city was deserted, the heat was unbelievable. I lay naked on my wet bed, dragging myself every now and then to the sink, to stick my head under the faucet, and to look down the dark well of the courtyard. The only sound was the ugly noise of the elevator when some soldier brought up a girl from Termini for a short time. Even love-making next door took place quietly, sleepily, without moaning or squeaking of the bed. I can’t remember the lazy, unglued course of my thoughts, though I remember that they slithered here and there through the landscape of years past and that there was in them a gradually crystallizing fury (according to Kierkegaard: the chief face of despair). Around six o’clock in the evening I felt something difficult to describe, a kind of hole in time, a sucking pump of void. I stood at the window. What brought me to was the pain in my hands tightly grasping the lock of the shutters. Soon thereafter the streets rippled with voices, the city came to life, in the house next door someone sang, at full throat, a popular song. In the midnight news bulletin it was reported that alle sei della sera circa four persons took their own lives in various parts of Rome.

In the vain effort to understand the Savage God a day like that weighs more than any literary “study of suicide”.

Next:  an expedition to Panrea (Lipari Islands) and the tale told by the kerosene lamp.

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