Obituary:Julian Stryjkowski

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The Independent Online
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.