Stempowski

The Smugglers’ Library

I have been digging up and reading every word ever written by Jerzy Stempowski (1893-1969), Polish exile essayist and literary critic. He is perhaps the world’s only other writer who reads like Bertrand Russell — his prose has such a high meaning/words ratio that he appears to be “thinking too fast” — readers used to the usual plodding fluff-and-ornament have to read him slowly for fear that if they read him at the normal speed, they will somehow fail to get everything he is saying — and everything he is saying is so eminently worth paying attention to.

He, no doubt, would attribute the stunning quality of his prose to his thorough classical education (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, etc.).  He is the only atheist I know who appears to have lost his faith as a result of reading Fathers of the Church at the tender age of fifteen; and perhaps the only man I have ever heard praise as his literary ideal someone whose arguments he thoroughly rejects (Tertulian).  

Perhaps because Stempowski’s prose is so content-rich, his writings are both brief and scarce — his formula seems to have been “write only when you have something to say, and then write only what you have to say”.  Despite the recent rush to print him, there has not been a critical edition:  one finds his work scattered, fragmentary, often the same essays are repeated in a number of different, haphazard, unauthorized collections.  As good as some of those essays are, his best pieces are his private letters:  Stempowski often quoted Bolingbroke as his ideal — and liked to repeat that the History of Europe was written for a single reader – (like Lampedusa’s two-thousand-page History of English Literature).  He wrote his letters slowly, with great care, and after much reflection.

In a letter written to his father in 1945 – the first letter he could risk posting to him – his father, a prominent figure before the war, had remained in occupied Warsaw where he was constantly at risk of being discovered – Jerzy Stempowski described his flight from Poland in 1939 as the German and Soviet troops poured in. (He was to remain in exile until his death). The war found him in Eastern Ruthenia, a country in the Carpathians, the highest and still wildest range of mountains in Eastern Europe, constituting the border between several different states (and therefore a major smuggling route). During the Second World War the region’s borders were redrawn several times with nasty consequences to their various residents.

This is how he tells the story of his exile in his letter:

When I now look back at all these years of our separation, its saddest period seems to me to be that of the summer of 1939, the time of waiting for the inevitable catastrophe [Hitler’s invasion of Poland, September 1, 1939], which I had been able to foresee more or less the way it subsequently unfolded. Mrs Wichuna [Stempowski’s significant other] could not bear the expectation and slipped into a serious nervous disorder of the manic-depressive sort, became ever more frail and ever more slender.

In the days of The Exodus [Polish government fled to Romania on the news that the German invasion from the West was followed by a Soviet invasion from the East, on September 17, 1939], which found us in Słoboda [a town in the then Polish part of Eastern Ruthenia, now in the Ukraine] we kept trying to decide who of us should go into hiding. Reflection proved that Vincenz, his son, and I should go up into the mountains and see what was happening at the border. From there we were either to return and take the rest with us, or else cross over ourselves if the circumstances required it.

Thus we saw the famous Kuty [Polish-Romanian border town] on the day of The Great Exodus. We felt no great enthusiasm to join those present there. [Stempowski and his friends had been in opposition and vocally critical of the last Polish government]. So we double-backed into the mountains, by now empty and forlorn, and the next day we presented ourselves at a different border [Polish-Hungarian].

The situation there was uncertain. It was difficult to foresee what would happen to those who would cross the border. [Hungary was siding with Hitler but not at war with Poland]. Trusting our knowledge of the mountains, which would allow us to turn back in the event of some untoward developments, we entered a foreign country – a very strange foreign country, very exotic – in the hope of finding support for our plans. The further we went, the less we understood the local situation: under German pressure the whole country seemed to have turned to facilitating illegality [neither the Hungarian government nor the Hungarian populace were eager German supporters and both secretly helped Polish refugees]. For some time, threatened with arrest, we hid ourselves in the house of an old nobleman, where life went on more or less in a fashion similar to that of the life of my grand-father in the Ukraine. While there, we got some sense of how this illegal system worked, we took some steps in order to protect ourselves from local authorities [probably bribing sympathetically inclined officials], and we went back up into the mountains in order to collect the rest of our flock. Up there we met the king of local smugglers, a huge man looking like Kruger, the President of Transvaal. His son was a Prague University PhD. The place was full of the remains of the civil war [1938] but our familiarity with the Hutsul language [a Slavic/Ukrainian ethnic group living in Carpathians] allowed us to manoeuvre among the local populace. Vincenz and his son were the first to reach the north slope [enter back into now Soviet-occupied Poland], where they immediately fell into the hands of the first [Soviet] patrol sent up into the hills, and we lost touch for many months.

Later, I crossed also, planning to reach Słoboda by following the top of the ridge of the mountains for about 130 km. I had a slight flu when I set out, but as I went on I developed a full blown pneumonia; I was then at a place about 20 km away from the last hiding-place of the smugglers; that morning I had slept in a bear-lair. It made no sense to head back that way, so I decided to walk down to Tisza Borkut [on the Hungarian side] where there was telephone and railroad. To do this, I had to continue along the mountain tops for another 73 km, and at this time of the year the mountains are empty, black, and cold. Feverish and hallucinating as I walked, I went on for two and a half days. I walked slowly. Every few hours I lay down in my sleeping bag for a few hours of rest, but was unable to sleep. During those days Mrs Wichuna died in Słoboda, killed by a similar pneumonia – many people were coming down with it at the time.

I lay several days in a smugglers’ tavern, tenderly surrounded by heated bricks, but seeing that things were only getting worse, I telephoned for a local doctor, and he took me to a hospital, which had been built for the lumberjacks by the Czech government [the area was part of Czechoslovakia 1919-1938] – about 70 km further south. I lay there from the end of October until January 2 [1940].

Countless are the ways in which one’s body defends itself against pain and annihilation. In the hospital, my personality split into two halves: one, blacked out and drowsy, lay in Aknaszlatina [the name of the town], the other, alert and energetic, cruised far and wide eighteen days before returning to the hospital. After five weeks of illness my heart stopped producing a clear beat and began to produce only an uncertain gurgling, called by doctors pulsus paradoxalis. From this and other signs I realized that the end was near and this brought me a great relief, releasing me from all sort of troubles and obligations. I felt like Duhamel’s dépossédé: tout ce qu’il avait a faire est fait, tout qu’on demandait de lui est accompli [all that he had to do, was done, all that was asked of him, was accomplished]. In this state of withdrawal from the world, conscious but rendered weightless by camphor, I lay three more weeks with advancing broncho-pneumonia. During that time I came to realize how very right the stoics had been, stoics who had denied the existence of the Elysium and all other forms of ghostly or ghastly existence: although I no longer suffered, the existence of the immortal spirit separated from the physical world struck me as worth so very little as to be wholly unacceptable.

So many arguments had been invented to prove that such an existence is possible, and possibly eternal, but my own encounter with it shows that everything is better, even oblivion. I had already begun to long for that oblivion when, contrary to my and Dr Bergman’s expectations, my temperature fell and after several more double shots of camphor I was returned to life. And then I began to cry – all my inhibitory brain-centers had been knocked out.

When at last the time came for me to leave the hospital, I had no idea which way to turn, there was no place to which I wanted to rush to in my present state. I chose the smugglers’ tavern. Meanwhile the winter had become very fierce. Snow-storms came and temperatures dropped to 28C below zero. It was sometimes minus 20 in my room. The smugglers had found me a warmer place, in a long-abandoned brick house, haunted by ghosts of such evil reputation that no one ever came close after dark. There, they prepared a room for me, gave me an iron brazier, a cubic meter of beautifully-scented beech wood, a bottle of kerosene and a small, 50-cent lamp. There I spent the rest of the winter. For thiry-five days there was no train, the kerosene ran out, and I sat in total darkness, trying to remember all the poems I had ever read, all symphonies and concertos I had ever heard. Some poems are like life-savers: one carries them around with him to the place of his naufragium [shipwreck].

My smugglers brought me some books – abandoned by refugees fleeing the territory during the civil war or plundered from suitcases stolen by thieves. Whoever carries books in his knapsack when setting out for such remote country, takes with him whatever he has best – I myself had originally set out with Machiavelli’s Discorso – and so there were among these books an edition of Horace, another of Ovid, several Latin poets of the Renaissance, several Spanish books, some English. I was struck the most by a couplet by the Renaissance poet Janus Vitalis, on the subject of the river Tiber flowing among Roman, Byzantine, and Medieval ruins:

Disce hinc quid possit fortuna: immota labescunt

Et quae perpetuo sunt fluitura, manent.

[Learn therefore the power of Fortune: the immovable fall,

but things intended to be ever-flowing – remain.]

And I reflected upon the river Vistula [main river of Poland, flows through Warsaw] flowing, like the Tiber, among ruins, and this couplet of Janus Vitalis, with its pentameter imitating the murmur and gurgling of waters, seemed to me the most beautiful couplet I have ever heard.

I did not want to leave the mountains, counting still on a chance to return to Poland. I knew well life abroad and it did not attract me. Nor was I counting on “The West”. I knew perhaps better than most its spiritual weakness and I expected nothing of it, nothing but force of arms. Nor was I able to undertake a longish journey: when I left the hospital, I weighed 68 kilo [130 pounds], my left kidney was dislocated so that I had to hold it in place as I walked, I had no feeling in my hands and feet on account of the toxic parasthesis [burning sensation brought on by medication], my pulsus was still paradoxalis, and the 700 meters which separated my hiding-place from the smuggler’s tavern seemed to me impossibly vast. (Suffice it to say that today, if I think the railway ticket too dear, I cross over to the Southern slope of the Alps on foot, over passes 2500-2800 m high and think nothing of it. But back to my smugglers).

Only at the end of winter did I receive reliable news from Poland and understood that there is nothing to wait for at the border. I descended from the hills to Budapest, where I spent a few more weeks in an excellent hospital, where they put me back on my feet – i.e. gave me back the power to walk.

Until then I moved all by myself and had no contact with other refugees. But in Budapest I found a few friends and learned about the plans and affairs of the emigres. There, I was contacted by friends from Angers [a city in France where new Polish government in exile was now formed], by Gorylla, Antoni Słonimski and others. The two sons of Vicenz also came. I sent one of them West and kept the other one, his mother’s only child, hoping for her arrival with the melting of the snows. Unfortunately, our situation began to deteriorate and, to avoid being cornered, it was necessary to seek an escape to the West. In early spring – first days of April – I traveled to Belgrade, which left upon me an indelible impression. Built on several hills rising from infinite waters, filled with the monuments of Mestrovic, the greatest master of monumental sculpture since antiquity, Belgrade is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. After a few days I was able to read local periodicals which seemed to me very youthful, but infinitely livelier than La Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Old Serbia is very similar to Krzemieniec and Kuty, even to Jałtuszków, so I felt there en pays de connaissance [familiar country]. I was chased out of it by the German attempt to take over the city by tourists who, one morning, dressed in identical brown coats and green hats, seized the post office and the airport. In the afternoon, arrests of their supporters began, but it was a clear sign to me to start moving.

I was able to undertake all those travels thanks to my “gold fund” [prior to the outbreak of the war, Stempowski had converted much of his capital into gold coins], of which somehow no one relieved me along the way, and which I have managed so wisely that I still have one large rixdal [imaginary currency in which polish noblemen in Alfred Jarry’s novel Ubu Roi estimate their net worth]. At any rate, wherever I went I met helpful and pleasant people, and wherever I stayed I quickly made friends whom I would be glad to meet again.

Italy was very unpleasant. On the one hand the fascists, copying German SS-men with their uniforms and gestures, on the other the vengeful people who hated them. After two days, I crossed the Swiss border, thanks to the help of Dr Zbinden, who’d arranged a visa for me, and who took me from the Berne station to the house of his friends in Muri. There I was meant to wait a couple of weeks for the French visa, but before it could come through, the German invasion came. About a week before it began I had met in Muri a very wise officer who had described its course to me in great detail: there had been many visionaries, but all had been in Cassandra’s position, they had been a minority, and no one had wanted to hear them. At last I found myself chased into a corner – there was no place to flee to anymore.”

Stempowski was to remain in Muri until the end of the war and later to settle in nearby Berne.

In an essay entitled “The Smugglers’ Library”, written several years later, Stempowski wrote more about the books the smugglers had brought him to his hide-out in the mountains:

When the room warmed up sufficiently, I opened the sack and began to take out books one after the other. The first was a pretty good edition of Horace, then came Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics, and several Italian poets of the Renaissance. Then there came Spanish books, most of them publications from the time of the Civil War, but there was among them a volume of Gracian’s Agudeza y arte de ingenio. At the bottom, there were some English Romantics: Sothey, Coleridge, a few volumes of Walter Scott, Pride and Prejudice, and, finally, a seriously used Fairy Queen by Spenser.

And thus I had a winter of superb reading.

How did this strange and sober collection of books arise? How did all those books get to the smugglers’ hide-out?

It’s easy enough to guess that not any book will find its way into the depths of the mountains. Hardly anyone takes books along when going for a long journey on foot with a bag on his back. The only one who does this is the stubborn reader, with a well-sifted library of best books. But even he does not take along with him the first book that comes to hand.

I have learned the history of these books in various fragments (as it was not politic to ask too closely).

The Latin books came from a small lumberyard somewhat lower on the river Cisa. During the wars and upheavals of 1938, a philologist hid there pretending to be a simple worker – in his spare time, perhaps while hiding among the trees, he entered numerous comments and observations in the margins of his books. One day he disappeared as mysteriously as he had come, leaving behind him a few things. He was the silent type and had avoided human contact: no one knew who he was and where he had come from.

He must have liked books, since he had brought them all the way here” the smugglers decided. “Perhaps one day he will come back to collect them.”

The Spanish books had found a different way to the remote tavern. At the end of the Spanish Civil War two travelers worked their way East, perhaps towards the Soviet Union. I am not sure whether they had selected the right path: the Soviet border was then still far away. To reach it, they would have had to go by way of Poland, and probably deal with the Polish border police, or else by way of Bucovina and Besarabia, where the Romanian Siguranza awaited them. Nor was an encounter with the Soviet border guard necessarily promising. Who knows what fate caught up with them – and where?

In the mountains, they were attacked by robbers. On the spot a leather bag was left containing their no longer needed toiletry and several Spanish books. The bag lay several days in the forest. It seemed the travelers cared more to reach the border than to recover their luggage.

Who knows whether they will like it in Russia, people tell different tales about that? Perhaps they will return by the same route? Just in case, let us preserve their bag,” the smugglers decided.

The story of the English books was even more complicated. A certain Italian aristocrat from the Trieste area – back in the days when Italians discovered Hungary – decided to shoot lynx and bear in the Carpathians. Youthful and apparently as rich as he was eccentric, he reached the source of Cisa and in the last settlement before the wilderness he immediately bought a small hut, which he then decorated to his taste. Among his luggage were a case of champagne, a case of cigars, and fifty packets of unused cards. The young man apparently had a weakness for books, too, since, for the rainy days, he had brought along a small library. After a few weeks, the Carpathians bored him, he left and never returned, but retained the ownership of the house.

During the troubles, German adventurers stayed there. They drank the champagne, smoked the cigars, and played the cards, but paid no attention to the books. Later, the house underwent other adventures. In recent years an agent of the Gestapo lived there. Part of the furniture disappeared. One of the occasional residents of the house, apparently while leaving it with some of the moving assets, left a few English books at the roadside tavern.

No one buys a house never to return,” reasoned the smugglers. “The Italian prince will surely return, and perhaps will be glad to see that within the empty walls his books have remained.”

The smugglers were mistaken in their expectations. He who leaves his house in wartime, seldom returns. The Italian aristocrat has not only abandoned his Carpathian hut, but also his palazzo in Dalmatia. I later heard that during the war he was spotted in Ticino [Switzerland]. The smugglers themselves have met with similar fate.

Only the Faerie Queen no longer belonged to anyone. It was brought there by a tourist who had spent the night in a nearby forester’s cabin, and had left the next morning for the high range, leaving the book behind him. His body, partly gnawed by wolves, was discovered only the following spring. Times were already uncertain by then and no one from the family turned up to claim his remains.

During wars and upheavals, a reader leaves behind him his whole library. He takes with him only his favorite book, but even this he must abandon in a roadside tavern, or somewhere at the forking of the roads in the forest. The smugglers’ library was a visible proof of this fact and – a kind of warning. A wartime reader must above all count only on his memory. At the end of his road he will be left only with his memory’s contents.

Unfortunately, in times of greatest need, memory proves to be the thinnest and weakest of threads. During great revolutions whole nations suddenly lose their memory and stand dumbfounded, deprived of their past, unable to see their way ahead.

(…)

There was a magical element in my meeting with the smugglers’ library, something of that table which covers itself with ready meals at the utterance of a word, something of that carpet by way of which one can at the merest wish travel to the furthest places in the world. I made a note of this aspect of my adventure during my stay up in the mountains and I have had the time to reflect upon it.

The flying carpet is only a literary metaphor describing an otherwise well-known phenomenon. When the traveler possesses a real flying carpet, he is not impeded by the the usual difficulties of travel – borders, fronts, demarcation lines, visas, passes, space or other barriers. When we see him thin, darkened, with his feet deformed by thousands of miles of walking, stubbornly silent, dumbfounded by the great confusion of various landscapes, we understand that the difficulties of travel are only the cost of his true passion.

A flying carpet goes beyond the order of nature only when it falls into unqualified hands, that is to say, in the hands of people not in any way inclined to travel, who are perfectly satisfied with two or three short trips on the carpet, whereupon they marry and live the happy life of the settled.

In the Near East there is a formula, expressed in the Levanine French as follows: Qui mange du caviar noir, Dieu lui donne toujours in peu de caviar noir – he who feeds on black caviar, God always sends him a little of it.

By what complex, convoluted ways tobacco reaches everywhere where there are smokers? In the same way books await readers everywhere. In places where, it seems, it may be hard to find bread or wine, in forest hide-outs, in taverns, among raftsmen and sailors – everywhere there lie hidden books, awaiting their reader. The more discerning his taste, the greater his demands, the rarer and more beautiful reading awaits him. He only needs to remain himself, never compromise, under any circumstances, and always be like that Levantine caviar-eater, demanding stubbornly each day of his God a bit of his favorite fare.

On my last day in the mountains I carried the bag back to the smugglers’ tavern. As far as I know, the tavern was robbed many times afterward, and her dwellers either died a violent death or were scattered to the four corners of the world. Who knows what fate befell their books? The soldiers who came to rob the tavern came mainly in search of booze and tobacco, probably not taking much interest in books. Perhaps they are still there, among the ruins of the tavern, awaiting their next reader. To him who will find them and read them, to the unknown lover of Virgil and the Latin poets of the Renaissance – salutem.”

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