Reading Matters: Men of letters hit by history

The brilliant career of Polish writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz ended when he committed suicide 'at the Russian border on 17 September 1939, upon receiving the news of the Soviet army's march into Poland'. Now there's a punchy ending for a writer whose most famous book is headed by two lines of Tadeusz Micinski's: 'When choosing my destiny, / I chose insanity.' But we're not dealing here with the train hit by a cow, but with a man and a literature hit by history.

How does one persuade people to read a whole literature? Not necessarily because it's better, but just for its very difference, its speculative richness, its aptness for our time? The writer who committed suicide wrote the novel Insatiability, among others. Why should we be interested in it? Is Poland a part of Europe, or just, as Jarry said in Ubu Roi: 'Poland, that is, nowhere'?

I would like to make a case for 20th-century Polish literature, and have wanted to do so ever since the day Czeslaw Milosz started talking about Lwow, a town with three cathedrals (Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Armenian). Lwow was once the Polish province of Reussen. It was then German, and traded with Byzantium; fell to the Cossacks, then the Swedes, then the Turks. It had produced, Milosz said, a poet with singular and wonderful metrics. That was his point: that the accidents of history breed a certain kind of literature. As a Lithuanian-born Pole, he felt that in his bones.

But their language, which sings, is not ours; the names are, we think, unpronounceable. Still Poland has produced three Nobel laureates in literature (Henryk Sienkewicz, I B Singer, who wrote in Yiddish, and Czeslaw Milosz, and should have had four, had Conrad been honoured). In itself, that is no guarantee. But how about Witkiewicz, and a hero devoted to saving dogs, and to 'illicit, loathsome lust'? Or Witold Gombrowicz: 'Whenever I see some mystique, be it virtue or family, faith or fatherland, there I must commit some indecent act.' Or Zbigniew Herbert's Still Life with a Bridle, that airy, humanistic account of the relations between art, real life, craft and commerce? Or Alexander Wat's My Century, a devastating and immense memoir extracted from a dying man by Milosz himself? Few major writers would have spent those painful months listening, tape-recorder in hand.

How does one country produce so remarkable a literature in so brief a time? Unlike most East European literatures published (in scattered form) over the past 25 years, it is not dissidence that accounts for the special character of Polish letters, but dispossession. Poland is a special case: of a nation that lives its politics in literature. I suspect we read dissident writers out of sympathy and guilt not untouched by self- interest. These are marketable commodities. East Europeans, George Steiner once said memorably, at least take literature 'seriously': even if that means suppressing it. In the absence of much else - nationhood, independence, a 'real' life - that is probably true of Poles too.

But more than that, Poles wear literature like skin. Like the Elizabethans, fresh out of the wars of succession, they are, as Lampedusa put it, 'tense', by which he means 'born vibrant, of restless minds'. From the late Twenties onwards, Polish literature celebrates its extraordinariness by making it seem natural, necessary, a condition of life itself.

Readers of Tadeusz Konwicki's Bohin Manor and Minor Apocalypse (and I hope they are many) will know what I mean. They will also come to know that in Polish literature a fierce critique of our times is embedded.

Are there 'national' characteristics in writers? Well, would an English writer think like Milosz? 'If we are born with an inclination to anger, and in this lovely century to boot, how are we to cope? . . . Anger goes underground, and emerges only in disguise, transformed into irony, sarcasm, or icy calm . . . One shouldn't imagine that those swallowed by a dragon won't experience moments of perfect contentment.'

Swallowed by the dragon means, in that place, eaten alive, by politics, by events. In his 400-page interview with Konwicki, Stanislaw Beres says: 'Your book questions the ethics of both parties: of those in power and those in opposition. Your hero is subjected to moral blackmail.' And Konwicki answers: 'They would come with their little black briefcases and ask you to sign . . . Do you think the IRA doesn't blackmail and doesn't force Irish society to collaborate?'

This ambiguity towards authority pervades Polish writing. Like E T A Hoffman's supernatural Maerchen (the word derives from 'mark', the 'marches', the border- lands, which are always ambiguous) Poles write in and of a country that was, then wasn't, then was, but really had no frontiers, geographical or mental; a country that was ever squeezed between greedy neighbors. Poles are absolutists, as people who live on a knife-edge must be.

Real literature is different from explanation. It doesn't account for 'something else'. In Konwicki's apocalypse the state owns time; only the Minister for Security knows the real date: 'We were in advance or behind on our production schedules . . . we had this mania to catch up with the West.' Why read literature? Because no one but ourselves should own our own time. Why Polish literature? Because no one but ourselves should own our own times.

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