Posts Tagged ‘Polish literature’

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

May 21, 2019

916mlDO1b2L._AC_UL436_  Olga Tokarczuk knows how to write a compelling and fascinating book: this one, although completely different in many ways, hooked me as quickly and completely as did Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. It’s a book about travels and travelling, which is what initially attracted me to it, but it’s not travelling as we know it, Jim.

It’s easy to read, and yet oddly haunting, unsettling, even disturbing at times. Brief sections seem to reflect on her own movements, and these alternate with much lengthier fictional digressions very loosely classifiable under the idea of travel. There’s also quite a lot of biographical material about various people from the past and their travels. I can’t think of a genre to label it with! There are interesting musings on the English language, and also on islands and the people who live on them, which seemed particularly thought-provoking and relevant in our Brexit days. She also struck a chord with me writing about the idea of revisiting the cities and people of our younger days – something I find myself doing quite a lot at the moment – we cannot really go back. I was compelled to agree: the Provence of 2018 is not the Provence I visited in 1983. On the other hand, it’s still Provence and still gorgeous…

A major theme running through the book is anatomy and the exploration of the human body in past centuries, leading up to the current exhibitions of plastinated bodies and body parts, made famous by Gunther von Hagens and others in recent years.

She clearly has a thing about the importance of the animal kingdom, an idea that was central to her previous book, and it recurs differently in this one. And there is a clever trope about plastic bags travelling everywhere and taking over the planet. Another idea that recurs numerous times is the importance of motion per se, the need to keep moving so that one is never tied down, fixed to a place and thereby controlled.

I enjoyed the book and will be re-reading it. It wasn’t shocking or horrifying as much as continually disturbing, through Tokarczuk’s reflections on – and thereby getting me as reader to reflect personally on – life as a journey. She had me considering the value, significance and even necessity of my own travelling, what all that movement had brought me, and contrasting motion with stillness, or the lack of it. If you want to read a truly original twenty-first century writer, here she is.

I’ll have a moan about editors before I go: somewhat disappointed in Fitzcarraldo books production values when they can allow ‘bored of’ and ‘miniscule’ (for ‘minuscule’) to appear in a literary work!

Olga Tokarczuk: Primeval and Other Times

October 29, 2015

51q23Ej2pPL._AA160_Well, this gets my award for the most powerful and moving book I’ve read this year so far…

The simplest way to categorise it is to call it Polish magic realism, I think. These are tales of a mythical Polish village through the troubled twenthieth century, though that’s a very bald description; they are stories, descriptions, reflections and philosophising too. As we meet and follow a series of characters, Tokarczuk also reflects on the nature of the world and our existence in a century which didn’t seem to care about people or the planet.

I’d read her novel House of Day, House of Night about ten years ago, and obviously enjoyed it enough to put this book on my Christmas list…four years ago! It’s another novel about a small place, and I don’t recall a thing about it; that might explain why t took me so long to get around to this one.

In some ways, Tokarczuk’s writing is very ephemeral: one seems to glide or float through the pages, yet the impressions are very powerful and you are irresistibly drawn in to her world; her style is very lyrical, and it does seem to have been beautifully translated. There is an absolutely magical chapter in which a child explains the family treasures she has come across in the drawer in the kitchen table; not only are you drawn further into the child’s world, you create your own version of the drawer at the same time – or at least, I did.

Some of the characters are there throughout the book, some pop up only a couple of times. Chaos begins with the First World War, continues through the reborn Polish nation, erupts again with the Second World War, though not as horrendously as one might expect, except for a dark and vague chapter where Jews are killed, and we cannot tell who the killers really are. Tokarczuk seemed to me to be alluding to those still murky episodes in Polish history which have yet to be owned and fully revealed…

She challenges religion in a number of ways, not aggressively, but through offering new angles on ages-old beliefs, perspectives which the reader is invited to explore and entertain, at least for a while. There are also some curious takes on some well-known Bible stories.

One of the main characters is a boy – hard to describe other than to say that in some ways he is half-witted or mentally different (itself hard to say, given the circumstances of the novel itself) – who is also one of the most learned characters, perhaps the one who I liked the most. And his name is Izydor…

I do like it when I am utterly bowled over by something I did expect to like when I finally read it, but didn’t have such great hopes of.

My small world of Polish literature…

September 19, 2015

So I’m fifty per cent Polish, but neither read nor speak the language; I’m proud of my ancestry and even have a coat of arms to go with it… I’ve read widely in Polish history, and sought out some Polish literature which is available in translation – not that there’s very much, to be honest) and have to say I’ve been mildly disappointed thus far.

The national epic, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz, I have yet to read. It’s a lengthy poem, and the translation I possess looks rather daunting. On the other hand, the little of Czeslaw Milosz‘ poetry I’ve read I have enjoyed.

One major Polish novel I’ve read and enjoyed is Boleslaw PrusThe Doll, a nineteenth century naturalist text which reminds me of the works of writers such as Zola or Balzac… and then there’s the epic Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, superficially a tale of the very early days of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome, but also an allegory about Poles suffering under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian yoke; though the translation available is very dated, the story is engaging and by no means saccharinely religious, which one might have expected froma Polish Catholic writer.

My acquaintance with twentieth century fiction has been limited to Witold GombrowiczFerdydurke and Transatlantyk, both of which I found interesting rather than gripping. Memoirs, history, criticism, reflection and essays are what Poles have done well, in my experience thus far, and with the nation’s fraught history over the past century, perhaps that isn’t too surprising.

Milosz writes sensitively and hauntingly about his vanished past – his home city of Wilno, formerly in Poland, was allotted to Lithuania by Stalin as the city of Vilnius – in a similar way to how Günter Grass writes about Danzig/Gdansk (in fact Grass develops a lengthy fictional parallel between the two cities in his novel The Call of the Toad), and also about the vice-like grip of Stalinism on the intellectual life of post-war Poland, which led to his leaving and settling in the United States. The Captive Mind is a classic analysis of those times. The memoirs of Aleksander Wat and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski also deal with the 1930s/40s/50s and the mentally and physically tortured lives many Poles had to lead during those years, either under the Nazis or Russians or both. One might argue that the times were so fantastical in themselves that no fiction could do them justice…

The history of all the different Polands is admirably treated by Norman Davies in several masterly works: his two-volume History of Poland, Rising ’44, Microcosm, Vanished Kingdoms… and the incredible complexity of relations between nations in the region and between races and nationalities, that were at the heart of so much conflict and destruction have been expertly traced and unravelled by Timothy Snyder in Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations. Again, the truth is so bizarre, you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Sadly, I feel my knowledge and understanding of Polish literature is very limited, due to the lack of texts available in either English or French; if anyone knows of anything I’ve overlooked, I’d be pleased to hear of it…

* Polish readers must excuse the lack of Polish diacritics in my text; I can’t find an easy way to include them, from a UK English keyboard.

Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke

April 3, 2015

41L3hsuxUbL._AA160_ (1)So, I’ve finally read another of the oldest unread books in my library, which has been languishing there for about 35 years. I think I’ll stop reading Gombrowicz now. This novel articulates in fictional form many of the ideas that he wrote about at length in his diaries; it seems on so many levels to be allegorical, about the difficulties of the new Poland in coming to terms with its new self and its past.

Superficially it’s a story of transformation: an adult of thirty regresses into a schoolboy of half that age, who then undergoes a number of increasingly bizarre, often hallucinatory adventures. I found myself wondering about transformations in the literature of th 1920s and 1930s: there’s Gregor Samsa in Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, the transformations I mentioned in The Street of Crocodiles, and now here.

Our schoolboy adult in class is forced, by idiotic teachers in the most asinine ways possible, to admit to liking the traditional classics; the idea is that the past perpetuates itself and its values in spite of subsequent generations who want to escape it. I could see how Gombrowicz’ contemporaries were challenged and shocked by his onslaught on the old ways, beliefs and traditions. His allegory presents a new Polish Republic that is not a nation rejuvenated, so much as a nation infantilised by a semi-moronic insistence on past glories. He is also desperately searching for the key to how one can escape the bonds of one’s past, either as an individual or as a nation.

There is an almost coherent narrative strand to Ferdydurke, with the newly-infantilised schoolboy standing for the new Polish nation, though interrupted by Shandean authorial interventions where the author seeks to direct our thinking himself… There are farcical scenes about duelling, about a daughter who invites two different men, a teacher and a fellow-pupil, to her room for an assignation… on the same night, and a bizarre episode in an aristocratic household where the author’s friend wants to ‘fraternise’ with a servant: the consequences are farcical. Gombrowicz is setting up the ridiculousness of the bourgeoisie, and using anarchy as his secret weapon. And what, exactly, were the relations between social classes in interwar Poland supposed to be? The aristocracy was legally abolished in 1919.

Ultimately it’s a book of its time, I think, and will be increasingly hard to approach for subsequent generations. As I worked my way towards the denouement, I found myself thinking of James Joyce‘s realisation, at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must leave his native land and go into exile, and seeing the parallel working itself out in Gombrowicz’ mind: there was no place for him in the new Poland, and he left forever, a couple of weeks before Hitler and Stalin snuffed out its brief existence.

Bruno Schultz: The Street of Crocodiles

March 31, 2015

51ft9Cr66yL._AA160_I finally picked this up and read it for the first time (having bought it new in 1980!) because I learned from Gombrowiczdiary that the two knew each other, and Gombrowicz rated Schultz quite highly.

It’s a collection of linked short stories centred on Schultz’ hometown of Drohobycz, formerly in eastern Poland. The atmosphere is dreamlike, almost hallucinatory in places; there are echoes of Kafka‘s short story Metamorphosis as Schultz writes about his father, though the transformation is slower and more drawn out than that of Gregor Samsa.

Although they are divorced from reality, there is a hypnotic feel to the stories; the characters are also unreal: the closest comparison I could come up with as I thought about them was with Marquez and magic realism, that style which was to emerge much later on. The language is often beautiful, lyrical as we shift from semi-reality to fantasy. Echoes of some of Boris Vian, too. I often wonder which writers have read, heard of or comes across each other when I pick up on similar traits like this in different writers.

The two most accomplished stories are The Street of Crocodiles and Cinnamon Shops (this collection is sometimes given the name of that story as its title), both powerful and haunting visions of aspects of the town. When I read something like this, I find myself reading quite differently compared with how I interact with a more conventional novel or short story: here, I drift too, in a dreamlike state, through the almost poetic visions and imaginings of the writer, rather than absorbing words and thinking about them as I seek to take plot and character on board. Quite a magical experience.

%d bloggers like this: