Obituary:Julian Stryjkowski

Julian Stryjkowski was one of the more interesting as well as one of the more controversial of Polish 20th-century novelists. He is unfortunately not yet translated into English (with the one exception of The Inn, 1966), and therefore not so well-known to the English-speaking world as other Polish writers such as Witold Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, and Tadeusz Konwicki. He was never an open critic of the Communist regime, and thus did not attract the Western approbation frequently afforded to dissident and emigre writers regardless of their literary ability.

His controversial past ensured that Stryjkowski remained a lonely figure though recent publicity surrounding his novel Silence (1993), in which he openly declared his homosexuality for the first time at the age of 88, provoked discussion of his other themes - his Jewish heritage and his one-time deep commitment to Communism - and helped to establish him as an important literary figure. Many of his novels, published originally in the Fifties and early Sixties, have been recently republished.

Stryjkowski was born Stark and took his later name from the small provincial town of Stryj in Eastern Galicia, then in the Austrian-ruled section of partitioned Poland, where he grew up in a shtetl (an exclusively Jewish community), as the son of a Jewish schoolteacher. Although Stryjkowski claimed never to have been a believer, he was nevertheless deeply influenced by the enclosed, traditional, intensely religious atmosphere of the shtetl. During his teenage years he immersed himself in the study of Hebrew and became a committed follower of Zionism, a creed which he was soon to abandon but later re-embraced following his disillusionment with Communism during the 1950s.

In 1932 he completed a degree in Polish literature at the University of Lwow (now Lviv) and became a grammar-school teacher in the town of Plock. He joined the Communist Party of the Western Ukraine and was imprisoned for his party activities during 1935-36 by the inter-war Polish government. When war broke out in 1939 he was living in Warsaw but returned to Lviv, where he was employed by the Polish Communist daily the Red Standard. When the Germans reached Lviv he moved to Moscow, remaining there until 1946, and then returned to Poland, by then a Communist satellite state.

From 1946 to 1952 he worked for the Polish Press Agency, and from 1954 was for many years a member of the editorial board of the leading literary monthly Tworczosc. His disillusionment with Communism was gradual. A severe blow to his loyalty had been the execution of Rudolf Slansky, former General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, in November 1952, for allegedly being a Zionist, but it was not until the expulsion of the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski from the Polish party in 1966 that he finally gave up his own membership.

Stryjkowski's involvement with Communism, especially during the war years, led to his being badgered in recent interviews into justifying his former behaviour and loyalties; he tended to fudge the issue by claiming that he always regarded himself as "a writer, not a hero" and that his former ideological blindness was no more reprehensible than that of many other people. In an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in 1994 he also strongly suggested that his lifelong suppression of his homosexuality fundamentally impaired his ability to be free and open regarding any moral issue that touched him personally.

It is therefore noteworthy that the area which occupied Stryjkowski most in his novels was that of personal moral responsibility and the threats made to an individual's conscience by the pressures of the real world and especially by the dilemmas forced upon individual human beings by historical and cultural change. His characters' need for a strong moral and cultural orientation is deeply interlinked with his Jewish background, the only experience in his life with which he consistently identified. His best works portray Jewish themes. His first novel Voices in the Darkness (written in 1943-46 in Moscow and published in 1956) depicts the tragic frustration experienced by an orthodox believer faced with modern cultural and social changes which he cannot accept but to which his close family and fellow villagers succumb. Later novels portraying Jewish themes include The Inn, Azril's Dream (1975), The Stranger from Narbanne (1988) and Echo (1978). Meanwhile other novels, Great Terror (1979) and its sequel, The Same, but Otherwise (1990), are largely autobiographical; in the first of these he portrays his experiences as a Communist in wartime Lviv.

As portraits of Jewish life in Poland, Stryjkowski's works stand comparison with those of both Bruno Schulz and of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but what makes him unique is the combination of a first-hand knowledge of shtetl life with a personal involvement with Communism.

Ursula Phillips

Julian Stark (Julian Stryjkowski), writer: born Stryj, Poland 27 April 1905; died Warsaw 8 August 1996.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick