Culture

To be liked by the great shadows

Piotr Kieżun · 1 January 2013
How do we categorise Barbara Toruńczyk’s book Żywe cienie [Living shadows]? At first sight it is a collection of portraits of well-known Polish writers and intellectuals, who the author had the privilege to meet along her intellectual path. As many as thirteen out of sixteen texts are silhouettes of the most important figures of 20th-century Polish culture.

They include Zbigniew Herbert and Czesław Miłosz, Marek Edelman and Jerzy Turowicz, Jan Kott and Paweł Hertz, as well as Giedroyc, Lebenstein, Nowak-Jeziorański, Jacek Woźniakowski and Wiktor Woroszylski. We may only congratulate her or experience a pang of jealousy (or both) that she had such teachers and friendships.

But “Living shadows” is something more than yet another commemorative collection. For Toruńczyk did not create an accidental group of names. The majority of the protagonists are contributors to Zapis and Zeszyty Literackie, two publishing ventures to which the author, as managing editor and editor-in-chief, devoted a major part of her life. This is the overarching vault which brings together all the figures she portrays. “Living shadows” is opened by an article on Zapis, the first independent literary magazine published underground, and closed by two interviews given by Toruńczyk to celebrate the 20th and 25th anniversary of Zeszyty Literackie. And it is this editorial theme which is the most interesting in the entire volume and inspires important questions. First, questions about the purpose and meaning of literature among the communist drabness and mendacity; second, questions about the privilege of observing literary production from the inside on the example of the greatest writers; and third, questions about the phenomenon of a periodical turning into a community of friends.

The first theme, although the most dramatic, because involving difficult personal experiences, is perhaps the easiest to describe. The reason is probably that it has become part of history and Toruńczyk herself takes a distanced view. How did it happen that a twenty-something university graduate with a passion for scholarly work took a leap into the maelstrom of the editorial adventure? “There was a period – writes Toruńczyk – when we were all editors.” And it did not depend on professional preferences but on temperament, an irresistible desire for freedom. The work of an editor in an underground publication was one of the few, if not the only valuable form of rebellion for young Warsaw intellectuals. As Grażyna Pomian wrote in the introduction to Polish “Solidarity”: “However critically you would assess the independent press, it had one virtue overshadowing all imperfections – namely being independent.” This was its seduction, its enticement, it allowed people to transcend the rigorously defined limits of freedom under Gierek’s “small stability”. “Most sexy for us – Toruńczyk recalls – was that which was illegal, not formalised: informal relationships, adventures with the police. It was a colourful, interesting life.” Barbara Toruńczyk belongs to the generation of “commandos[1]” and the traumatic experience of March 1968 was the direct reason for her – unintended – political involvement. But the text on Zapis shows that we often forget about a simple fact – about the age of the rebels, about their youthful drive, which as a mutinous, lie-hating element often sufficed as a motive for openly confronting the communist regime.

So Toruńczyk’s autobiographic story about her generation and the communist times is also a story about the power and determination of youth. In the case of the author herself it is also an account of the role played by literature in the life of this generation. For young people from that period literature was inextricably bound with politics, for good and bad. We must admit that excluding the Romantic period, poetry probably has never carried such a heavy political burden. As Herbert wrote ironically, not much was needed – a pinch of good taste, simple sentences grounded in reality. Poems by Miłosz, Kornhauser and Barańczak said more than many a manifesto. Adam Michnik provides a perfect illustration of that. It is striking that his eminently political “History of honour in Poland”, written in prison, is in its essence a book of literary criticism, full of references to and quotes from Polish poems, novels and essays.

But a close union of literature and politics, even if it helps to expand the scope of civic liberties, in the long term is always harmful. And not for politics, which could learn a lot from good literature but for the republic of letters itself. This belief led to the creation of Zeszyty Literackie. As Toruńczyk recalls in the interviews, the idea of calling another magazine into being was not to everyone’s taste. At home the editors were accused of aestheticism. After all, this was the period of Martial Law. Giedroyc saw Zeszyty as a competition for his Kultura. And Herling-Grudziński did not see a need for publishing a strictly literary periodical by the émigré community. “He himself tied his fate to Kultura, for he realised that a literary magazine in exile stood no chance, that literature could at best provide the sexy part of a political journal.” Miłosz judged the whole enterprise in a slightly different way. “Already in the 1960s – Toruńczyk writes – he believed that the émigré community should have a literary monthly or quarterly without political commitments, for literature was for him the most important stage for realising the will for freedom and independence, in the profound sense of these terms.” It was then same belief which on the one hand drove Miłosz to argue with Giedroyc about the most important duties of Polish intellectuals and on the other hand accompanied him in 1984, when he delivered his famous lecture Nobility, unfortunately, where he criticised the “mawkish Polishness” present both in Polish politics and in Polish literature.

Ultimately Zeszyty Literackie did come into being, benefiting not only Polish but also global culture. Not just native writers but also Josif Brodski and Tomas Venclova contributed to it. Its admirers included Milan Kundera. How do you edit texts by such eminencies? In “Living Shadows” Toruńczyk gives us a glimpse into the editorial work from behind-the-scenes. The first commandment is taken from Giedroyc: do not be afraid to recruit people more talented than yourself. Other imperatives issue naturally from her own practice. Interestingly, Toruńczyk is restrained in her editorial ambitions. “I put my stakes on the force of the word – she writes – that is on the author; on those who have the courage to search on their own. I am not trying to temper it. I am fascinated by the metamorphosis of literature itself, its own force and regenerative ability. You must be aware that the artist comes first. A true writer does not need the editor’s advice; if we can give anything at all to artists, it would be to show understanding for the creative process, which is really full of tensions.” Slightly earlier she staunchly pronounced: “I am worried that today the editor in Poland feels entitled to intervene in the creative process.”

One could venture a claim that such an attitude was born from the privilege of consorting with the best Polish writers in the 20th century. For the majority of contributors to Zeszyty Literackie has belonged to an older and already acknowledged generation of artists, most of them dead now. Andrzej Franaszek brings this up in one of the two interviews: “But if we omit the dead, who will remain?” For Zeszyty Literackie, already thirty years in existence, nurturing the youngest generation of writers is perhaps the most important but also the most difficult challenge. And this work is slowly but surely being done. After all, it was Zeszyty that discovered and successfully promoted Tomasz Różycki.

But the issue of the future of Zeszyty Literackie is doubly difficult. With such big names in store, it is hard to find authors who would not be overwhelmed by their stature and start a creative dialogue with them without losing their own idiom. In the interview with Joanna Szczęsna published in “Living Shadows” Barbara Toruńczyk quotes Brodski’s advice to young adepts of literary art: “Going into print, you must be willing «to be liked by the great shadows»”. Having read about the turbulent beginnings of the first independent Polish journals, one would like to supplement this catchphrase with a sentence which both contradicts and supplements it: „…and at the same time be able to be not liked by them”. This is what the young commandos did in the 1970s and later in exile, drawing on the achievements of the best and at the same time arguing with them. This persistence, the courage to ask difficult questions, inquisitiveness and spiritual strength are things without which the existence of Zapis would be difficult to imagine and the existence of Zeszyty Literackie quite impossible. The story told by Barbara Toruńczyk is the best witness to that.

Book:

Barbara Toruńczyk, Żywe cienie, Fundacja Zeszytów Literackich, Warszawa 2012.


[1] An opposition grouping centred around Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski.