Posts tagged “Poland

Why Polish literary criticism was once fun to read and English has not been in ages

Part 1 of 2

Here’s an essay which appeared in Poland 2001. I am not sure how much of its fun I am able to preserve in English — but one reason why I am translating it here is to illustrate the technique: pre-1989, literary criticism in Poland had to be fun because it was taken on faith that literature, and all things related to it, had to be fun or — not be at all. (After all, why else read literature?) The other reason why I am translating it here is to offer the author’s (Gondowicz) view of the history of literary criticism in Poland 1945-present — an interesting view, a symptomatic view, and one which I wish to discuss in my next essay.

J. Gondowicz
Toasting Myself

On the pages of Rzeczpospolita [a major Polish daily] a grand debate on the subject of literary criticism has recently come to a close.  Instead of commenting on it, I will say what I think of literary criticism myself, and this on account of the fact that on the 18 of April 1971 — exactly thirty years ago — I happened to publish on the pages of Kultura […] an essay on Parnicki.  Which makes today an anniversary — and to celebrate it, instead of toasting myself, I am writing this note.

To begin with, I will invoke a certain model situation: an allegory.  Artur Sandauer once wrote that the literati of the last prewar brood [i.e. those who had worked become literati during the period of independence 1918-1939] had taken on service under the People’s Republic [i.e. the communist regime, 1945-1989] on, more or less, the same terms on which late Roman rhetoricians once took it on at the court of the barbarian conqueror of Rome, Alaric:  because the ruler had expressed desire for panegirycs in elegant (if somewhat mumbled) Latin, they crowed their mumbled odes, while winking at each other that even such preservation of the great Mediterranean tradition is better than none.

My allegory is different:

In 1934, the academic Karol Irzykowski, writing about some book or other, suddenly reached back into memory:  “In the first years of Independent Poland [1918+] the terrace restaurant Rydz (or was it Under Rydz?), as well as the extensive buffets of the Houses of Parliament, as well as several other well-noted Warsaw eateries, suddenly dazzled with a new, stellar sort of staff.  There, guests, both the notable and the ordinary, were now served by Polish noblewomen from the East, who’d been forced by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to flee their palaces and seek remunerative employment in the Polish capital.  Since, for the most part, these ladies had only received so-called “home education”, they were only qualified to work as serving maids.  They did this with the air of great dignity and self-sacrifice, in every gesture expressing their fallen greatness.  The guests whispered:  “Look, that’s Princess X!”, “That’s Countess Y!”  The prettier ones married — often their guests.  Others, with their foreheads raised proudly high, delivered to all hungry sorts plates and bowls for many years to come…”

And this is my allegory.  As you will have guessed, the noble waitresses stand in my mind for the first generation of post-war [communist era] literary critics. They were the sort who had learned at home how to hold the knife and the fork, under what circumstances to use le subjonctif présent, and to change their collars daily.  In normal circumstances [i.e. capitalist democracy of the old kind], these people would have found their place in diplomacy – or the PEN Club.  Customers treated them with empathy because — had the dice rolled differently it may well have been them serving the tables.  The goodwill went hand in hand with irritation that under such an exalted/downfallen gaze one could not pick his teeth, or his nose, and one absolutely had to tip: the waiters of that generation forcefully pulled up their clientele to their own level — and regardless of what was served on the plate.  After all, they have seen the great days when cooked dishes had been flown in from Paris.

The strangest thing was that some of their customers became fascinated with the mission of the middleman mediating between the back-kitchen and the starched table cloth.  They were impressed by all that ballet with the tray and the proudly upraised chins.  Thus the second generation of literary critics was born — whose nature consisted in imitating the first.

During this shift, French was no longer heard in the kitchen, and spitting into the soups of disliked customers became the rule.  Truth be told, many deserved it — which is why some suddenly got smacked in the kisser, too.  Staff distanced itself from the served meals, and any customer who stupidly tried to eat deserved what he got.  Under normal circumstances [i.e. in a capitalist democracy], this waiting shift would have fulfilled itself in politics, political pamphleteering, or in running the great dailies.  But — that was not to be [i.e. the party decided what got published and the critic’s role was to praise it]: they were expected to be happy with the chance to wear their little uniform.  This generation of waiters found itself doubly frustrated:  feeling the lie of their mastery over the table d’hôte on the one hand [things would get published or not without reference to their opinion], and on the other — belonging spiritually to the plebs eating the horrible swill they served. [i.e. they themselves had been raised consuming the communist lit].

It was not for the next generation to reach the exalted name of “waiter”:  it was to remain a generation of eternal busboys.  Haughtily ignored by the waiter aristocracy, pulled by the ears by the younger waiters, splattered with soup (in which their thumbs were ever dipped), enviously watching tips, they grovelled under their customers’ scornful gazes.  Under normal circumstances [i.e. in a capitalist democracy] these men and women could not have become anything else — because they knew nothing else [i.e. having grown up under communism, they had no notion of how free literature might work].  What kept them in the business was their childish belief in the significance of gastronomy as such, and daily intercourse with the miracle that a joint of this sort had any customers at all.  Their satisfaction lay in being allowed into the room, ability to comment what each guest was eating, and savoring the mysterious scents emanating from the back, where the cultural menu was being stewed.  As you have guessed, I belong to this generation.

The fourth generation, which has come to prominence under new gastronomic circumstances [independence + capitalism, 1989], preserved out of the entire notion of waitering no more than the bow-tie [i.e. are critics in name only].  It has not circled the floor in ages because it holds the strategic post at the cash register.  This is in part because their restaurant has become a fast-food joint, where all customers are served the same swill, devour it in violent sprays of ketchup, and, muffling a hiccup, render their table to the next lot.  And the dishes — the cheaper the better:  any explanation as to ingredients is no longer in fashion because it only discourages the clientele.  All details have been replaced with the advertising line that the whole world eats like this.  Through its own efforts, this generation has achieved the bourgeois awareness that in gastronomy the most important item is lard [Polish: “smalec”, whence the American term “schmaltzy“]; the customer must be served in a flash, or he will go to competition; and no one talks at the table.

This is how it looks form the perspective of my thirty years in the business.  The first generation of waiters, having swept the ground with the tails of their coats, is gradually moving to the Eternal PEN-Club above.  The second, having stuffed its unclean gloves into back-pockets, is trying to woo the owners of the few still frequented restaurants. The third is left with spattered face, sucking its burnt thumb.  The fourth has developed a nation-wide network of fast-food joints, overseen out of the windows of their Mercs.

How might a member of the third generation summarize the present situation?  Perhaps by saying that, though he has none of the prewar manners, and none of the success drive of the Warsaw slyboots, and though the very sight of a hamburger makes him retch, yet in moments of doubt he can cheer himself up by reading old cookbooks?

Ha, ha, ha! I have spilled the soup again!


Joseph Conrad: A case of love foretold

My Polish friends, by and large, don’t like Conrad.

Partly, the reason is translation.  Although Almayer and Lord Jim contain some of the most beautiful passages of English prose ever written (I am thinking of the cruise of Patna, or the view of Georgetown harbor from Strawberry Hill in Lord Jim, or the river covered with red fallen flowers in the elopement scene in Almayer) 1; and I have not checked whether these specific passages read well in Polish translation; I am pretty sure they do not.  I am pretty sure because I remember clearly having had great difficulty working my way through Conrad in Polish, and switching, in frustration, to read him in my then very poor English, because that went better, however slowly. Why, some passages in the Polish translation of The Personal Record for instance — such as the bit about letting the cat out of the bag — were actually incomprehensible — yet, once I switched to the English, they proved clarity itself.

(Thus, it could be said, perhaps, that I owe my English fluency to the poverty of the existing Polish translations of Conrad).

I do not mean that Conrad is somehow untranslatable, but merely that the current translations are quite bad; as there seems to be afoot a kind of universal movement to re-translate, sooner or later these will be re-translated; perhaps then Conrad will sail more smoothly up the Vistula.

A more serious problem is Conrad’s… Englishness. Most of Conrad’s sea books are about man’s men who talk the way English man’s men do: sarcasm, understatement, elision, brevity, black and acerbic humor, and standoffish refusal to engage in touchy-feelies are all (Laconically) elevated to the status of virtues. Conrad’s heroes do not explain anything, ever: in court, Jim testifies about the moment of horror on a sinking ship — the horror which made him lose his mind and act foolishly — in two word: he says “I jumped”. He refuses to explain precisely when he absolutely must.

This is emphatically not the Polish way.  Indeed, I have lost Polish friends because I have become too English, too Conradian. My sense of humor is too biting, my interpretation of human character too uncharitable; I tend to wish people to “break a leg” instead of “good luck”.  And, perhaps constitutionally not unlike Jim (was he not “one of us”?) I, too, refuse to explain.

But mainly, perhaps, it is because of Conrad’s topics. Lord Jim is a novel about shame, for Chrissake; who ever feels ashamed of anything? In The Island of Day Before the (aristocratic, i.e. exceptional, i.e. old-fashioned) old de la Grieve makes a speech to his (ordinary, with-it yob) peons, whom he is ordering to go out and fight (I paraphrase): “We have always been loyal to our lord and we will be loyal now because to be loyal in good times and disloyal in hard times is to be a pig. Now, if any of you scum don’t like it, better tell me now while I have this convenient tree to hand on which to hang you”. In other words, the connoisseur of men’s hearts that he is, he does not expect his peons to be moved by fancy feelings like loyalty. Perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect people to be moved by a novel about shame.

And what to make of a novel like The Shadow Line? It has no romantic interest. They haven’t killed him and he hasn’t run away. There are no screeching tires or ticking time-bombs. On its surface, it is a novel about a man’s first… independent job.

In the author’s note Conrad explains that he meant it to be, more broadly, a novel about one’s passage into manhood.  Why?  Perhaps even he felt his readers were liable not to get it (by and large they did not:  invariably, Conrad sold poorly); so he went out and did something no man’s man ever should: he explained.  Predictably, it didn’t work:  critics still insist it is a novel about ghosts.

It didn’t work because, being one of us, he explained badly: The Shadow Line is not a novel about passage into adulthood; it is a novel about a man’s love for the sea:

A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed
through my veins, gave me such a sense of the in-
tensity of existence as I have never felt before or
since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was,
in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically–a
man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only
world that counted, and the ships, the test of man-
liness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity–
and of love.

Sell that in a (historically) land-locked country.


To me Conrad is –destiny:  he went to sea inspired by books; I went to Asia inspired by Conrad.  He lived a life of action before he ever entertained the idea of writing; I dropped the idea of letters and took up life of adventure instead.  He wrote with profound respect and sympathy for Asians — particularly Malays — whom he saw as noble and proud;  a lot of who I am has come about precisely because I too have adopted his attitude.  On the other side of the ledger:  Conrad evolved a peculiar ethos, one which combined chimeric romanticism and proud stoicism; unhappily, perhaps, it is an ethos I understand — and find easy to embrace.

But above all, Conrad is for me a case of a love foretold:  long before I ever laid my eyes upon them, I knew, from reading him, that I would love intensely and madly the stifling heat of the jungle, the massive muddy fast flowing rivers, the screeching birds and howling monkeys, the intensely colored flowers and the madly scented fruit, the deliciously powerful trade-wind blowing onshore, the flavor of the foods, the patterns of the skirts, the curvature of the weapons, the otherworldly clang of the gamelan.

Conrad the writer interests me less:  the sedentary life of struggling with writer’s block, agents, and publishers seems so much less than his life as a sailor.  How can experimentation in new forms of narrative match the excitement of a good storm at sea?  It is hard to believe that it was for this that he’d left the Otago.


1 The beauty of Conrad’s prose seems surprising in a man who, reportedly, spoke English with a heavy accent until his dying day. It isn’t English, wrote a critic, meaning that no Englishman could have ever written anything like it and that, to his mind, the greatness of the prose lay precisely in this fact: perhaps, he meant to suggest, it took a foreigner to realize the full potential of English prose, lying hidden, as it were in the native’s blind spots. Unlike Nabokov’s prose, which to my ears sounds like Englished Russian, Conrad’s prose is not Englished Polish — indeed, it translates badly into Polish. It is entirely — Conradian; entirely his own.

Lazienki Park, Warsaw

Two years ago I lived within walking distance of this huge downtown park with its beautiful, small palace on water, classical garden statuary, and — obligatory among princes — peacocks.  In the summer it opens at dawn — which, in the northern latitude in the summer is before 4.  Most of these photos were taken between 5 and 6 in the morning.  Except for the peacocks, never saw another soul there.