Voices

A brief history of modern Polish literature

By Stanley Bill

14 March 2017 - 18:00

Stanley Bill, lecturer in Polish Studies at Cambridge University, takes us through 200 years of Polish literature. 

Writers wield unusual power in Polish history

From the end of the 18th century, there were long periods in which Poland did not exist in political form as a fully independent state on the map of Europe. Rather, it was an ‘imagined community’, sustained by common ideas and language. Above all, it was writers who created these ideas. They imbued the Polish language with the power to forge a strong collective identity, capable of surviving the harshest oppression.

To see this importance, we need look no further than the Polish city of Krakow. On the main square of the former royal capital, in the space of greatest symbolic significance, we find not a monument to a king or statesman or warrior, but a statue of the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz. In Poland, the writer has often been sovereign.

19th century: Romantic poetry and pragmatic prose

In the 19th century, when Polish lands were partitioned between three hostile empires, the Romantic poets created the idea of a suffering, Christ-like Polish nation with a providential mission in European history. These ideas would later be questioned by 19th-century prose writers like Bolesław Prus and Eliza Orzeszkowa, who introduced a more sober, pragmatic perspective.

At the same time, Nobel-Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz invented new literary myths in a series of historical novels. These were set in the earlier period of the greatest glory and power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was one of the largest countries of 16th and 17th-century Europe.

20th century and the World Wars

Poland briefly regained its independence after the First World War. Literary culture flourished. Avant-garde writers like Bruno SchulzWitold Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz used the new licence of freedom to deconstruct the old rules of literary creation, and the prevailing models of Polish national identity.

Then came the nightmare of war. Schulz, a Polish Jew, was murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust. Witkiewicz committed suicide when the Soviet Union's Red Army entered Poland from the east. A generation of young poets were killed in the Warsaw Uprising, when the Polish resistance movement tried to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. The trauma of the double occupation of Poland by the two totalitarian powers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would define Polish literature for decades to come.

After 1945: censorship and independence

After 1945, Poland existed formally as an independent state. But in reality, its communist government was subservient to Moscow. Harsh censorship and political pressure distorted the work of literary writers, forcing many to publish abroad or in the underground press. Yet the post-war era saw the dawning of a new golden age of Polish literature, especially in the influential ‘Polish school of poetry’.

Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski and others would win fame throughout the world, with two Nobel-Prize winners among them.

At the same time, the creative and theoretical works of revolutionary theatre director Tadeusz Kantor, absurdist dramatist Sławomir Mrożek, and innovative theatre director Jerzy Grotowski would define the international development of avant-garde theatre.

Never before had Polish innovations been so influential on writers and practitioners outside Poland. Once again, the poet was sovereign. Secret copies of poems by Herbert, Miłosz and others sustained the Polish community, despite the yoke of official communist language.

Since 1989: Polish writers face new problems

What is the role of Polish writers in circumstances of independence, growing prosperity and unaccustomed optimism about the future? Does the writer still matter in a society focused less on preserving its existence and identity against external threats than on the pursuit of material goods?

The most influential contemporary Polish writers have adopted a range of approaches, which sometimes place them at odds with society. Successful authors Olga Tokarczuk, a former psychologist, and Andrzej Stasiuk, best-known for his travel essays, construct imaginary worlds that do not follow one set of imposed values, and focus on the eccentric identities of their characters.

Writers born in the 1970s and 1980s are also making waves in different literary genres. Young novelist Dorota Masłowska has made the everyday language of Polish contemporary life into compelling literary fiction. Zygmunt Miłoszewski has brought the detective novel into contact with Poland’s troubled history. Jacek Dukaj has inherited the literary science-fiction mantle of Stanisław Lem. Polish reportage has maintained its strength in young journalists following the grand tradition of reporter Ryszard Kapuściński.

Present day: the writer as commentator and critic

For today's writers, aesthetic dilemmas are more important than politics. By the same token, writers no longer dominate Poland’s social landscape in the way that the statue of Mickiewicz presiding over the main square in Krakow does. Perhaps it is good both for Poland and for Polish literature that the writer today is not the sovereign authority of an oppressed nation, but rather a commentator and critic of its freedom.

The London Book Fair runs from 14 to 17 March 2017. This year, the literary spotlight will fall on Poland. The British Council curates the cultural programme, which includes seminars, interviews and panel discussions.

Find out about Polish literature events in London and the UK.

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