James Hopkin won an Arts Council short story competition with ‘Even the Crows Say Krakow’. His debut novel, Winter Under Water, set in several cities across Europe, was published in paperback by Picador last week.
Poland has made a significant contribution to world culture, not least in the field of literature. I first visited the country in 1998 and was amazed by the reverence shown to writers and books – so much so, in fact, that I later moved there to write my first novel. Of course, English language publishers are notoriously reluctant to translate any but classic works, but smaller presses such as Twisted Spoon, Serpent’s Tail and, most recently, CB editions should be congratulated for doing so. You may have to hunt for one or two of the titles listed below but, believe me, you’ll be rewarded.
1. The Collected Poems, Zbigniew Herbert (coming in November from Atlantic Books)
Not only Poland’s finest poet but also one of the best of the 20th century – he died in 1998. Inexplicably overlooked by the Nobel Academy, who instead honoured two of his compatriots, Czeslaw Milosz (1980) and Wislawa Szymborska (1996), Herbert’s work draws on classicism and mythology, though often to lampoon any system’s claim to completeness. In 1981, he gave his voice to Poland’s nascent Solidarity movement. His wry poems are modern, European, mischievous and frequently breathtaking. He influenced my first novel and I returned the favour by pinching my subtitle – ‘Conversation with the elements’ – from a line in his wonderful poem, ‘A Journey’.
2. A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki (Dalkey Archive Press)
A classic, dark satire of communist times in which a struggling writer is asked to set fire to himself, by way of protest, in front of the hideous Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. In an ‘age of sorcerers and soothsayers dying away, all those prophets and messiahs who failed to save the world’, Konwicki steps in to offer a little magic, a little poetry and a little guidance in a grim totalitarian world.
3. Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz (Marion Boyars)
Susan Sontag described Gombrowicz (1904-1969) as “one of the super-arguers of the 20th century” and who are we to disagree? The undisputed master-stylist of Polish literature, Gombrowicz offers, in Pornografia, a novel of role-playing, voyeurism and (one of his abiding themes) the joys of prolonged immaturity. Only last year, his wickedly playful novels were removed from the school syllabus by the Polish minister of culture on the grounds that they were corrupting Polish youth. “Alas!” writes Gombrowicz. “After the age of 30 men lapse into monstrosity!”
4. The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (Abacus)
The story follows the arrest of Irma Seidenman, one of the last surviving Jewish women in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. With a fine balance between poetic tenderness and an unflinching account of the brutal realities of the day, Szczypiorski shows us the intertwining lives of the few Poles, Jews, and Germans who risk everything to save her. Szczypiorski himself fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, then survived Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His experiences are brought to bear with both shocking and heart-warming brilliance.
5. The Fictions of Bruno Schulz (Picador)
A self-confessed “parasite of metaphor”, Schulz treats us to a rich poetry of transformation. A magically-drawn panoply of characters range from an eccentric father in the attic, to Adele, the maid, for whom the narrator harbours a self-flagellating love. It’s a painstakingly vivid evocation of life in a cluttered shop threatened by the merchants along The Street of Crocodiles. One moment Schulz is darkly foreboding, the next he bursts into colour and flight. As he once explained, he writes of “the state of spellbound suspension within a personal solitude”. And you will be spellbound, too.
6. House of Day, House of Night – Olga Tokarczuk (Granta)
One of the leading lights of contemporary Polish literature, Tokarczuk was once a psychiatric nurse with a fondness for Jung. Her writing frequently investigates the borders between waking and sleep. This wise and moving novel is set in a town lying on a geographical border and steadily reveals the secrets and dreams of its disparate inhabitants, and was the winner of the prestigious Nike prize in Poland. Also worth discovering is Farewell to Plasmas (Twisted Spoon), a sharp and witty collection of vignettes by Tokarczuk’s friend, Natasza Goerke.
7. New Poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz (Archipelago Books)
The last living truly great Polish poet, and, like Herbert, unlucky to have been pipped tothe Nobel by two compatriots. New Poems translates the last two collections in Polish from this 86 year-old poet and playwright. A soldier in the Polish land army during the war, who had a brother murdered by the Gestapo in ’44, Rozewicz saw that ‘at home a task / awaits me: / To create poetry after Auschwitz.’ He accomplished this with unflinching wit, poignancy and elan.
8. Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk (Twisted Spoon)
Galicia was a district of the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassing southern Poland and western Ukraine, which Stasiuk recreates on his travels, encountering all sorts of fascinating characters on the way. Like Tokarczuk, the prodigiously creative Stasiuk likes to investigate the hinterlands and the rich seam of stories buried therein. He, too, is one of the forerunners of contemporary Polish literature, highly regarded in Germany as well as his homeland.
9. Castorp by Pawel Huelle (Serpent’s Tail)
Taking Hans Castorp from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Huelle pictures the reluctant young scholar’s student days in Gdansk. Love and mysteries ensue, alongside a sly indictment of German colonialism. Gdansk-born Huelle is an internationally recognised author whose other novels translated into English include Mercedes-Benz, a charming homage to Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and Who Was David Weiser? which is fast becoming a modern classic.
10. Death in Danzig by Stefan Chwin
A magically melancholy (ie quintessentially Polish) novel, focusing on Hanemann, a German doctor, who remains in Danzig at the end of the war after most Germans have been expelled. A paean to the troubled history of Gdansk/Danzig, Chwin marvels at what endures though such turbulent times, from small personal triumphs to a range of bewildering, often talismanic objects, all beautifully evoked.