Jerzy Peterkiewicz: Polish poet turned English novelist

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The Independent Online

Jerzy Pietrkiewicz (Jerzy Peterkiewicz), writer: born Fabianki, Poland 29 September 1916; Lecturer, then Reader, in Polish Literature, School of Slavonic and East European Languages, London University 1950-64, Professor of Polish Language and Literature 1964-79, Head of the Department of European Languages, London University 1972-77; married first Danuta Karel (marriage dissolved), secondly 1948 Christine Brooke-Rose (marriage dissolved); died London 26 October 2007.

Jerzy Peterkiewicz was a Polish poet who became an acclaimed English novelist. He arrived in Britain in 1940 as a wartime refugee with no knowledge of the language, and went on to become Professor of Polish Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at London University; his long years at SSEES marked the heyday of Polish studies in Britain. In later life he translated and edited the poetry of Pope John Paul II.

He was born Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, of sound peasant stock, in 1916 in the village of Fabianki, near Dobrzyn in north-central Poland. His mother was nearly 50 when he was born. She died of cancer when Jerzy was 12; his father's death two years later marked the end of his childhood. He grew up speaking the local dialect, and the first linguistic jolt in his life was learning literary Polish at the Jan Dlugosz Gymnasium in Wloclawek, from which he graduated in 1934 before going on to study journalism in Warsaw.

Nineteen thirty four was also the year of his poetic début. Pietrkiewicz became associated with a group of peasant writers known as "Authenticists" and their literary periodical Okolica Poetów ("Neighbourhood of Poets"), which occupied a polemical stance towards the "Establishment" poetry of the leading Skamander group. Based on their belief in the biological and spiritual separateness of the peasant class, whose culture they saw as the true source of inalienable Polishness, their artistic programme was not to calque reality, but to promote the authenticity of personal experience by nurturing the imagination and cultivating grass roots. At the time Pietrkiewicz was also a contributor to the ultra-nationalist Catholic press, though his rabid anti-Semitism would subsequently mellow.

On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Pietrkiewicz left his job as a literary editor on a daily newspaper and escaped via Romania to France, where he started work on a novel, Po chlopsku (1941, "In Peasant Style"). After the collapse of France, he made it to London, on a boat from La Rochelle to Plymouth, arriving in the country with no knowledge of English. Having suffered a burst appendix, he was unfit for war service, and with the help of the British Council, he went to the University of St Andrews to study English Language and Literature, gaining an MA in 1944.

He then completed a doctorate at King's College London (1947) – a comparative study of English and Polish lyrical forms, which provided an excellent grounding for his two-way translations of English and Polish poetry. (In 1960 he co-edited, with Burns Singer, an anthology, Five Centuries of Polish Poetry, 1450 to 1950). He stayed in London and was appointed to teach Polish language, and after 1950, literature, at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. A professorship came in 1964, and later a personal chair.

Meanwhile, marriage in 1948 to Christine Brooke-Rose, who was likewise to become a novelist and scholar of considerable stature, further anchored his newly acquired Englishness. In 1953, he published The Knotted Cord, largely modelled on his wartime novel and the experiences of his rural childhood: the Polish poet had become an English novelist.

Peterkiewicz, as he now styled his name, was deeply convinced that in exile only poetry should be written in the mother tongue: a Polish novelist addressing an émigré audience could not help but be parochial. Nevertheless his choice of English as a creative language was less a conscious decision than a natural stage in his artistic development: it was also a "poignant challenge". Although, as he later claimed, he had started on this new venture almost by chance, it was his publisher's enthusiasm, and warm reader response, that gave him the confidence to continue.

In the event a further seven novels were published – Loot and Loyalty (1955), Future To Let (1958), Isolation: a novel in five acts (1959), The Quick and the Dead (1961), That Angel Burning at My Left Side (1963), Inner Circle (1966) and Green Flows the Bile (1969) – to considerable critical acclaim, and Peterkiewicz was identified as one of the leading novelists of his generation.

Imaginative fiction then gave way to philosophical reflection. His outstanding works of the 1970s include The Other Side of Silence: the poet at the limits of language (1970) and The Third Adam (1975), a monograph on the Mariavite sect, in which scholarship is interlaced with vibrant personal reminiscences; his friend Andrzej Panufnik provided a musical arrangement for its radio adaptation. BBC Radio 3 also produced several plays by Peterkiewicz, including one on the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca.

In 1979 Peterkiewicz translated Karol Wojtyla's Easter Vigil, and Other Poems, followed by his Collected Poems (1982), which appeared in a new edition later the same year as The Place Within: the poetry of Pope John Paul II. The early Nineties saw a further phase of heightened creativity, with the publication of his autobiography, In the Scales of Fate (1993).

In the wake of Solidarity, Peterkiewicz's poetry was "rediscovered" in Poland, and he was widely fêted there. Others were called upon to translate some of his substantial output, both novels and scholarly work, into his mother tongue, his poetry enjoyed several new editions, and he received the Prize of the Ministry of Culture and Art in 1987. An inspired and inspiring teacher, Peterkiewicz betrayed in his lectures an undisguised preference for Old Polish poetry, and the highly intellectual Catholicism of Cyprian Norwid. He had an incantatory manner of reading poetry that could hold his student audience spellbound.

Peterkiewicz divided his time between a house in the Alpujarras in southern Spain, where he did much of his writing, and an apartment in Hampstead in north London. In 2006 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of St Andrew's.

Nina Taylor-Terlecka