The casually serious literary reader probably has some grasp of national characteristics and literary history of England, France, the U.S., Russia, perhaps Germany. Beyond that, it’s individual writers, two or three to a country, and for some, maybe one, or none. Trinity University Press has embarked on a series of books to enlighten us about the literatures of other nations, through the words of the writers themselves.
Under the series editorship of Edward Hirsch, three volumes have now been published : Irish Writers on Writing (edited by Eavan Boland), Mexican Writers on Writing (Margaret Sayers Peden) and Polish Writers on Writing (Adam Zagajewski.)
Since I represent no one but myself here, I am going to be entirely personal in my responses. Of these three, the literature I know the most about—especially from school days-- is Irish, and indeed many of the names (from William Butler Yeats to Brian Friel) are familiar, though of the 77 writers represented, not even a majority. From the day in Catholic high school when a rebel nun slipped me her worn copy of A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and into my immediate post-college years (when I hauled the heavy consequence of Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce like a talisman on my goofy 60s/70s journeys), I pretty much worshipped James Joyce, and he alone was an education in the history of Irish literature.
However, what interests me now about this volume is the role of theatre in 20th century Irish literature, and it’s there in the first dozen or so writers represented. My first impression was that compared to the other volumes, this one seems more like a standard anthology, containing excerpts of literary work rather than a focus on “writing on writing.” But maybe the selection is more subtle. It’s certainly extensive, and though I haven’t read much of it yet, it seems substantive, and likely to repay careful and sustained attention.
After Gabriel Garcia Marquez rocked my world (as we didn’t yet say in the early 70s), my passion passed to Mexican writing, although the only writers represented in this volume that I read then are Carlos Fuentes and the writer I still read and highly esteem, Octavio Paz. Paz I believe was at Harvard when I lived in Cambridge, which is when I wrote my first review of his work, for the Boston Phoenix. So it’s a fitting delight that the introduction to his chapter quotes a poem by Celia Gilbert, who was my friend and colleague at the Phoenix in those days.
The essays and statements in this volume I’ve sampled are more directly focused on the subject of writing. They speak of its mysteries and discoveries, its ironies and its relation to history and real life. I look forward to delving more deeply into them, and to discovering more of the breadth and character of writing in Mexico, including the women writers included in this volume, such as Rosario Castellanos, Margo Glantz and Elena Poniatowska.
But the volume I most naturally needed to read concerned Polish writing. Polish literature is a complete mystery to me, as is my own relationship to that land. Though my last name is (I’m told) a fairly common one in Warsaw, I don’t even know if it is the real name of my father’s family, or an approximation adopted when his grandfather arrived in America, probably recruited to work in the western Pennsylvania coal mines where I was told he toiled for the rest of his life. We don’t know where he came from—not the town or the region. We don’t even know if it was Poland, especially since that country’s borders changed so many times in the past century or so. We don’t know where his wife was from (my grandfather, born in the U.S., married a Slovak.) Though my father’s family was Catholic, there were Jews named Kowinski, and I found record of at least one having died in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. The only other Kowinski who turns up regularly in Internet searches is Fred, an actor in Germany.
There was at least one Kowinski who married into nobility (the “ski” is supposed to indicate nobility, though so many non-nobles adopted it that it lost its accuracy). But almost certainly, my immediate family came from the peasantry. Perhaps by the late 19th century they were working class: coal miners there as well as here. We were lower middle class economically in my childhood, and still mostly working class culturally, though I interacted with my father’s family far less than with my mother’s. She was born in Italy, and my upbringing was among the Italian community—immigrants with a craft (my grandfather was a tailor), mostly from the same region and even the same village; I seemed to be related to many of them. All of my father’s family was native born, and I recall no knowledge or interest about any ancestral homelands.
So I approached this volume on Polish writing with real hunger. I was hungry for information, and for some sense of what in me might be related to Polish writers. In terms of history, though these writers grew up in Poland, many were forced into exile by the Nazis and the Soviets and their own Communist government. This different sort of exile became a preoccupying theme. Editor Zagajewski writes in his preface that in many ways the dilemma of World War II is the focus of this collection.
History earlier in the century was also traumatic, and so the marks of history are everywhere on these writers and their literature. Still they write of the working demands and mysteries of literature itself, as well as its function in their lives and the life of their country.
Boleslaw Lesmian (1877-1937) is the first writer in the collection. “But the more we reflect and investigate,” he writes, “the more we look more deeply into the essence of the thing and listen to the faint whispers of existence, the more our sense of reality becomes discriminating, the more its field visibly narrows.” He reaches for the transcendent. “But beyond the self there exists some tone in the soul: some elemental song without words, waiting for the necessary words to come in a creative hour…” Again, music.
Some of these writers are rigorously logical, others more poetic. Among the most poetic is Bruno Schulz (whose novel, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass was brought to the attention of English language readers when it was included in Philip Roth’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series for Penguin in the early 1980s). A truly remarkable writer, he recalls from his childhood being carried by his father “through the spaces of an overwhelming night, conducting a conversation with the darkness.” For him, literature is a door to such realities. “In a work of art the umbilical chord linking it with the totality of our concerns has not yet been severed, the blood of the mystery still circulates…”
For Schultz, literature is our version of the most basic and characteristic human activity. “The most fundamental function of the spirit is inventing fables, creating tales.” Julia Hartwig sees no contradiction between communication and the deepest mysteries. Concerning poetry she writes, …”although Kerouac’s slogan, ‘Write so the whole world understands you” may sound frivolous, it’s worth taking to heart. And it’s not at all in contradiction with Braque’s statement: ‘ Only one thing is important in art: that which can’t be explained.’ Because understanding in art is not always an intellectual act.”
And of course I glommed onto any tidbits that might tell me about Polish culture and society. Jerzy Stempowski observes that “The nobility did not derive from invaders and nomads but from the same settled population as the serfs.” Jozef Czapski narrates fascinating if horrifying experiences in World War II with a sense of national history. In writing about his own poems, Czelaw Milosz ruminates on landscape and character. Milosz is one of many exiles in this book—in his case, he lived many years here in California, which gave him the feeling of being in “some unearthly fields among the lotus eaters.” Of the writers here, he’s probably the most familiar to me, mostly through his admirable prose (even though he denigrated Arcata, the town where I now live, asking in his book Milosz ABCs, “Should one live there? Perhaps as punishment.” But he was writing about a time when smoke from timber mills darkened the sky; we see a lot more sunshine these days.)
Many of these writers who saw Communist social experiments came to oppose any utopian ideas, as Gao did. And Zbigniew Herbert saw the same social function for literature that Gao did, though in a different way: “In general, writing is not a medium of expression, of expressing oneself, but an art of empathy—that is, entering into others.”
It seems that many of these writers also practiced other arts, such as painting, music and theatre, or were primarily artists in another medium. Throughout this book, I get the impression of a real Polish literary and artistic culture, and community of writers and artists, supporting and of course sniping at each other, and taking very seriously their concerns and stances. They were very aware of western European art and literature (and American), but working through the dangers of xenophobia versus rootlessness, national character and universal principles.
The British playwright Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia, and has long wondered what his life might have been like had his parents not fled during World War II. These thoughts bear fruit in his newest play, Rock & Roll. My relationship to Polish culture is even more complicated, tenuous and ambiguous. Yet there is something to it, and in this personal sense, this book has been like a missing link, or a key to an as yet vague and tantalizing lost home.
As a writer, of course, all of these superior collections provide inspiration and provoke thoughts and feelings. The Writer’s World (as this series by Trinity University Press is called) is a brilliant contribution to literature, which these days needs reminders of its importance in this increasingly frenetic blizzard of addictive technology and commercially encouraged ignorance.