Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Stefan Żeromski (1864 – 1925)

Since I will be reading several of Stefan Żeromski’s books this year (The Faithful River, Ashes, and The Coming Spring), I thought an introduction to the author was appropriate. The article at Culture.pl serves as a good overview since it goes into great detail about his life and works. In addition, I’ll provide a few quotes from other sources that will help introduce Żeromski.

From The History of Polish Literature by Czeslaw Milosz:
Called "the conscience of Polish literature," Stefan Żeromski was born in central Poland near the town of Kielce, the son of an impoverished nobleman. His native region at the foot of the Holy Cross mountain chain had been a battleground during the 1863 insurrection, and this theme was to receive a new treatment under Żeromski’s pen. His biography exemplifies the fate of those country gentry who migrated to the cities, as well as all the transformations undergone by the progressive intelligentsia in its political attitudes. Żeromski studied veterinary medicine in Warsaw, worked as a private tutor, and endured much financial misery while writing his first stories. For a while, he was a librarian at the Polish museum in Rapperswil, Switzerland—an occupation which proved to be fruitful for his creative work, for he was to make use of his research, later on, in his historical novels. From 1904 on, once he had achieved public recognition, he was able to dedicate all his time to literature. In his early stories, both short and long, Żeromski was a good pupil of the Positivists, applying a realistic style that leaned somewhat toward naturalistic brutality. Yet he was a Neo-Romantic in spirit. His obsession both with social injustice and with the armed struggles of the past carried revolutionary innuendos.

During the first quarter of the [twentieth] century, nobody, not even his enemies, questioned Żeromski’s position as the most important Polish fiction writer. He was called ‘an insatiable heart,’ ‘the conscience of Polish literature,’ and the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Remont for his ‘Peasants’ provoked some indignation among the Poles. It was felt Żeromski should have received it. His extraordinary gift for compassion, his open-mindedness, and the dramatic plots of his books account for that worship. Today, there is a tendency to regard the stories of his early period as better constructed artistic wholes than his novels. In the former, which are closer to the prose of the nineteenth century, he did not indulge in the unrestrained lyricism that later entered his style under the impact of modernism and symbolism; moreover, he merely presented the sad social reality without proposing solutions (in truth, he had never had solutions for the pressing issues of the day). Yet Żeromski was, first of all, a public figure of great stature; this together with his feeling for the unexplored resources of the Polish language—and his vocabulary is of a stupendous richness—secures him a place apart in Polish literature.

In an article for Slavonic and East European Review, American Series, Edmund I. Zawacki said of Żeromski, "His works identify themselves so closely with the struggle of Poland for freedom and for social justice within that freedom that they are a veritable mirror of the historical events, the ideological currents, and the intellectual and emotional attitudes swaying the whole generation of Poles who lived to see their disembodied nation take on the flesh of statehood."

Milosz reinforces the judgment noted in the first quote about the novels of Żeromski while emphasizing the importance of such works in an essay from To Begin Where I Am:

From a courtyard on Wileńska, in its "artisan" section, one entered a lending library to which Grandmother Milosz had a subscription paid for out of her modest pension. I often turned up there, either delegated by her or to borrow books for myself, when I was twelve, thirteen. Mostly Żeromski, Rodziewiczówna, Szpyrkówna, that is to say, bad literature, and it seems to me that a tolerable intelligence in someone who received such training should not be underrated, with a few points added for the obstacles that he must have had to overcome. In all languages, belles lettres are predominantly kitsch and melodrama; however, the accidents of Polish history decreed that fiction had an exceptionally powerful effect on people’s minds, as a language and as a sensibility, so that I suspect there is in the so-called Polish soul an exceptionally rich underpinning of kitsch. As for me—let’s be frank: in the books that I borrowed from the library I was enchanted by such scenes as the death of the beautiful Helen in Ashes, who threw herself into a ravine, and perhaps even more so by the ending of a certain story that was translated from the French about the chouans, or the counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée. The hero’s head is sliced off on the guillotine, but that does not put an end to his highly emotional adventures. To this day I can remember the last sentence: "But his head, still rolling, whispered, ‘Amélie!’ "

I’m not sure the source of the French novel to which Milosz refers but he effectively gets the point across. I'm seeing exactly what he's referring to while reading The Faithful River--beautiful passages with metaphors that are both moving and melodramatic at the same time. It will be fun to explore more...


Fred said...


Could that French novel be _The Chouans_, the first novel in Balzac's "The Human Comedy" series?

Dwight said...

I looked at The Chouans and The Vendetta by Balzac...two books that I believe have an Amelie in them. That quote wasn't the last sentence for either, though. It's possible Milosz was exaggerating by saying it was the last sentence, of course.

I would love to know what the last sentence of The Faithful River is, however (and the 25 pages before it). While reading last night I made it to the final page of the book, which unfortunately was page 154 of a supposed 179-page book.

obooki said...

I've been wondering whether to read The Faithful River this month, but I think I'll save all my Eastern European books till August. My copy does have all 179 pages!!!

I had a similar thing happen with Valery Larbaud's AO Barnabooth, which I was reading earlier this year. I was thoroughly enjoying it, but then noticed that fifty pages were missing from the middle of it.

Dwight said...

It's frustrating, isn't it? I just received my replacement copy and it does have all the pages.

Looking forward to hearing about your Eastern European marathon. If you want my list of characters from The Doll I can email them to you.

Both The Faithful River and Ashes and Diamonds have at the heart of them a martyrdom theme. There have been hints of this in other Polish books. I wonder if that doesn't add to some of the "powerful effect" that Milosz attributes to kitsch.