On 11th November Poland celebrated 100 years of independence which was a grand occasion – and I’m only writing this post now because my time management sucks these days, what with nursing and working.
This post has been inspired by my friend A’s celebration on Facebook, where he listed his favorite Polish music albums (hi, A). What music is to him, books are to me and I decided to celebrate (belatedly) with writing about something I actually thought a lot before. See, I read almost exclusively in English these days and I have for quite a few years now. So I wondered the experience of reading which books and authors I would actually miss if I didn’t speak any Polish. Here’s the list:
- We’ll get more serious than that but I will start with Małgorzata Musierowicz. She was my introduction to YA before I even knew the term or could be considered any sort of adult (I was 7 when I got one of her books for Christmas and fell in absolute love). She’s been writing for some 40 years now a series of books centered around one family and their friends. The newer books are arguably not up to the level of the older ones and you can certainly have a lot of complaints about the details of the story but it didn’t matter to me then: instead I was delighted to find a book reflecting the world I lived in. See, the great innovation of Musierowicz was the fact that she placed the romantic and family adventures of her heroines in the realistically described world of Poland as it was: first the People’s Republic, then the 90s transformation (which happened to be my childhood experience) but kept it cheerful and optimistic. I still return to those books regularly because if you know one thing about my reading habits, you know I like reading to be fun.
- From now on we’re moving to what will feel like a required reading for school but only because these books belong to the canon for a good reason. I’m starting with my absolute literary, theatrical, all-around favorite: Wesele by Stanisław Wyspiański. This alone is a reason enough to cherish one’s knowledge of Polish because the play is untranslatable: both its poetry and its historical context make it exclusively Polish. But it’s such a beauty and I used to know most of it by heart, I swear.
- And if we’re speaking of poetic plays, here’s another: Balladyna by Juliusz Słowacki. Słowacki is one of the most cherished Polish writers for his patriotic poetry but Balladyna is different: it’s a sort of Polish folk take on Shakespeare and it’s quite delightful. I read it first as a kid and liked it already without getting the whole context (same with Wesele, actually) – which confirms my theory that you can read good literature at almost any age and intellectual level and get something from it.
- Chłopi by Władysław Reymont is actually a Nobel Prize winner so a little less obscure outside of Poland than the rest of them. This story happening in the 19th century countryside can rival the best of 19th century novelists (yes, even Hardy and I love Hardy). It’s written partly in a peasant dialect and I don’t believe it translates very well.
- Another 19th century novelist who can rival any of the greats is Bolesław Prus, with his historical novel about Egypt (Faraon) and my personal favorite: Emancypantki. I guess some of British classic novels provide similar levels of enjoyment but Prus still belongs on the list of writers I’d be sorry to miss.
- Moving on to the 20th century again, Marek Hłasko and his short stories. I’ve outgrown them somewhat but my first encounter with them was such a revelation that he defined for me what a writer should be like, to such an extent that for a while I thought in his sentences.
- For someone who’s at best lukewarm about poetry I sure put a lot of poets here but that’s because they suffer most in translation. One of the most original and charming Polish poets is Bolesław Leśmian, who created a whole mythical, fairy-tale world through his poetry. He was also my dad’s favorite poet so that gives him extra points.
- Leopold Tyrmand’s Zły is this weird picaresque novel happening in post-war Warsaw and I guess you can live well enough without knowing it but you’re missing a good book.
- Witold Gombrowicz. His are some of the most ambitious books on this list, particularly as he embraced the 20th century’s opaqueness of literature – in other words these are books to study rather than just enjoy. But the way he plays both with language and with patriotic ideas and obsessions of his predecessors makes it for fun, iconoclastic reading.
- Finally something slightly different: a tribute to my childhood reading, the poetry of Jan Brzechwa. If I didn’t speak any Polish, I would probably know enjoyable children’s poetry in whatever language I would speak, but Brzechwa is in a class of his own, with his joy and his absurdity.