Between Fire and Sleep

Between Fire and Sleep: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry and Prose

JAROSLAW ANDERS
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1njkmd
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  • Book Info
    Between Fire and Sleep
    Book Description:

    Twentieth-century Polish literature is often said to be a "witness to history," a narrative of the historical and political disasters that visited the nation. In this insightful book, Jaroslaw Anders examines Poland's modern poetry and fiction and explains that the best Polish writing of the period 1918-1989 was much more than testimony. Rather, it constantly transformed historical experience into metaphysical reflection, a philosophical or religious exploration of human existence.

    Anders analyzes and contextualizes the work of nine modern Polish writers. These include the "three madmen" of the interwar period-Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Witkiewicz, whom he calls the fathers of Polish modernist prose; the great poets of the war generation-Milosz, Herbert, and Szymborska; Herling-Grudzinski and Konwicki, with their dark philosophical subtexts; and the mystical-ecstatic poet Zagajewski. A collection of essays representing Anders's thinking over several decades,Between Fire and Sleepoffers a fresh understanding of modern Polish literature and cultural identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15531-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-xviii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xix-xx)
  5. BRUNO SCHULZ: THE PRISONER OF MYTH
    (pp. 1-27)

    One of the most frequently recounted biographies in the history of Polish literature is known primarily for its ending. On November 19, 1942, a Gestapo officer shot and killed a fifty-year-old man in the Drohobycz ghetto. The victim, one of more than two hundred Jews who were murdered on that Black Thursday, was Bruno Schulz, a local high school teacher and artist and the author of two slim volumes of dreamlike prose that a few years earlier had been hailed as one of the most original achievements of Polish literature in the twentieth century. It is hard to guess what...

  6. WITOLD GOMBROWICZ: THE TRANSFORMING SELF
    (pp. 28-50)

    East European writers, we are told, have been often cast by history in the role, to paraphrase Shelley, of moral legislators of their people. They were supposed to stand like immovable rocks in the turbulent sea of their region’s fate. On a closer look, however, they appear, with a few notable exceptions, to be a strangely mercurial and unstable lot. It is not uncommon to see the same defender of absolute truths transform himself over the years from a devout Catholic into a zealous Stalinist, a dissenting Marxist, a leftist liberal, a free-market libertarian, a communitarian conservative, and back into...

  7. STANISLAW IGNACY WITKIEWICZ: MODERNISM TO MADNESS
    (pp. 51-66)

    At the beginning of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s mad, surreal BildungsromanInsatiability, first published in 1930 in Poland, a young Polish gentleman named Genezip Kapen, a sensitive high school graduate and the son of a brewer in the Carpathian region, looks into the starlit sky and is seized by a sense of cosmic melancholy: “Eternity was as nothing compared to the monstrous infinitude of time within infinite space and the heavenly bodies inhabiting it. What to make of the thing? It was beyond imagining and yet impressed itself on the mind with absolute ontological necessity.”¹ As his aloof, tyrannical father lies...

  8. CZESLAW MILOSZ: A TESTAMENT OF EXILE
    (pp. 67-82)

    Nobody could tell the story of this age better than Czeslaw Milosz, the master of eccentric vision. He was born in 1911, and he had seen it all: genocidal wars, revolutions, whole countries violently erased or slowly fading from the map, the rise and ebb of ideologies, philosophies, religions. Growing up between the two world wars in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, with its Polish and Lithuanian nationalisms and the long shadow of Soviet expansionism, Milosz joined a group of Marxist-leaning “catastrophist” poets, Zagary. Their visions of mass terror and annihilation, taken by their elders for a literary pose, were...

  9. ZBIGNIEW HERBERT: THE DARKNESS OF MR. COGITO
    (pp. 83-112)

    Shortly before his death in 1998, Zbigniew Herbert, one of the most original voices of postwar Central Europe, prepared his own, personal selection of eighty-nine poems from the nearly four hundred he had published.¹ The book closes with the poem “Pebble,” which was originally published in 1961. A human hand comes in contact with a pebble, and both seem to recoil from the encounter, although, of course, we hear only the voice of the hand’s owner. Like a timid suspect, he betrays his sense of guilt by his compulsion to talk, to explain, to rationalize. Like a seasoned interrogator, the...

  10. WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA: THE POWER OF PRESERVING
    (pp. 113-125)

    Wislawa Szymborska, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, must be one of the most reticent or most self-discerning poets of today. In a literary career spanning more than half a century, she is willing to acknowledge only some two hundred of her poems collected in several slender volumes. This sparse body of work, however, displays unusual diversity and polychromy. She defies all the usual terms (classicist, linguistic, moralist) used to classify Polish writers of her generation. She shares some characteristics with all these schools but clearly belongs to none. She practices isolation both in her writing and...

  11. GUSTAW HERLING-GRUDZINSKI: SLEEPLESS IN NAPLES
    (pp. 126-138)

    The narrator of Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski’s beautifully crafted, mysterious, and deeply disturbing stories is an elderly Polish writer living in Naples. Ailing and insomniac, he spends his semiretirement as a sort of metaphysical sleuth piecing together accounts of ancient and modern acts of unspeakable evil, awful calamities befalling individuals and communities, outbreaks of cruelty and self-destruction, downfalls of illustrious families, and cases of moral debasement of seemingly stalwart characters. Though hardly enjoying those spectacles of desolation—they sometimes make him physically sick—he seems to be on a personal mission to record some of the devil’s more imaginative exploits. The reason...

  12. TADEUSZ KONWICKI: POLISH ENDGAME
    (pp. 139-157)

    Strange as it may sound, with the passing of time the Polish tragedy of decades spent under communism looks more and more like a grotesque. When young Polish writers decide to venture into the pre-Solidarity past, they almost invariably choose a comic rather than a tragic style. What strikes one today, from a safe distance, as hopelessly comic is a certain asymmetry between the two sides that faced each other, especially in the last decades of decaying totalitarianism. On one side—the opposition with its fervent idealism, readiness to sacrifice, lofty, romantic rhetoric; on the other—vulgarity, shabbiness, boredom, pettiness,...

  13. ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI: TO HEAR THE SOUND OF EVERYTHING
    (pp. 158-182)

    In the title poem of his volumeMysticism for Beginners,¹ Adam Zagajewski takes us to Montepulciano, one of Tuscany’s fabled hill-towns, where, among the usual splendors of such places (the dusk “erasing the outlines of medieval houses,” “olive trees on little hills,” “stained-glass windows like butterfly wings”), he suddenly declares his belief that the world given to our senses is not all there is, that any landscape

    and any journey, any kind of trip,

    are only mysticism for beginners,

    the elementary course, prelude

    to a test that’s been

    to a test that’s been

    postponed

    The phrase “mysticism for beginners,” the...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 183-188)
  15. SUGGESTED READING
    (pp. 189-198)
  16. INDEX OF NAMES
    (pp. 199-201)