Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Research Specialist, Transgenic Mouse Core Facility, MUSC, Charleston, SC 29425) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Poland is a country that has always fascinated me, probably because I grew up during the cold war and propaganda was my only source of information. It was hard for me to believe that people would be so different from what I knew to be true from my own surroundings. Working at a university I have had the good fortune to meet several people from this country. Many have become lifelong friends. These relationships afforded me the opportunity to travel to Poland in the early 1990s and discover that my theory about “normality” was true. Over the years I have been given numerous gifts of Polish origin, including three books written by Nobel Laureates. Two of the works are in English and one is in Polish. I have made attempts to wrap my tongue around the Slavic sounds and numerous consonants of this language. I am forever away from mastering this. However, I enjoy hearing the language, embracing the culture, and now and then chasing pickled herring with a shot of cold vodka.
The country of Poland has produced five Nobel Laureates in Literature: Henryk Sienkiewicz; Władysław Reymont; Isaac Bashevis Singer; Czesław Miłosz, and Wisława Szymborska. The books I own are Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz (the Polish version), Unattainable Earth by Czeslaw Miloksz, and Poems: New and Collected by Wisława Szymborska. Recently I discovered an English, Kindle version of Quo Vadis. Now I am in business.
When I was given Quo Vadis I was told that this epic was required reading. What better choice could I make? The title translates “Where are you going?” so I decided to go with a twist while reading this book. I will follow along in the almost 700-page hardback book as I read from my Kindle. This is somewhat easier than it sounds due to the use of Latin words in the novel, the character’s names, and because I know a few (a very few) Polish words. I have now arrived in the time of Nero, exploring the Roman culture and the love story that is developing between Ligia and Marcus Vinicius. Sienkiewicz extensively researched the Roman Empire in order that his story details would be historically correct. This research is obvious in the heavily-footnoted Polish version. The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Sienkiewicz in 1905 “because of his outstanding merits as an epic writer,” with Quo Vadis often cited as the example.
Władysław Reymont, born Stanisław Władysław Rejment, was a stubborn child. After just a few years at a local school, his father sent him to Warsaw to learn a vocation. His only certificate of education was for journeyman tailor, a vocation he never practiced. Instead, he began traveling and performing in theaters. He never excelled as an actor, but he developed a passion for traveling that translated into his literary career. His travelogue of his 1894 pilgrimage to Czȩstochowa is considered a classic example of travel writing. In 1924 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his great national epic, The Peasants.” He died the following year at the age of 58.
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born the son of a Hasidic rabbi in a small village near Warsaw, Poland when it was part of the Russian empire. The family moved several times, even splitting up due to hardships created by the first World War. When it came time, he entered the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw, but soon realized that following in his father’s footsteps was not for him. His final move was to the United States, emigrating because of the growing Nazi threat. It was here that he continued his love for writing focusing on Yiddish culture and writing in Yiddish. His first published work won a literary competition. In 1978 Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life.”
Czesław Miłosz, “who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts,” was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. Miłosz was raised Catholic in a rural Lithuanian village. After studying law, he traveled to Paris where his cousin Oscar Miłosz, a French poet of Lithuanian descent, lived. The time with his cousin was influential, and he published his first volume of poetry in 1934. Later he served as Poland’s cultural attache to Paris and ultimately defected to France prior to emigrating to the United States in 1960. Because of these decisions his work was banned in Communist Poland. The awarding of the Nobel Prize raised his country’s awareness of his literary success. The Unattainable Earth was Miłosz’s first collection of poetry after winning the Nobel Prize. The added bonus here is that he translated his own work into English. Included in the collection are select poems by Walt Whitman and D. H. Lawrence that Miłosz was translating into Polish. Interesting dynamic for the book. As we transition from the boil of the summer, I will leave you to contemplate “Winter”:
The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.
“In Ilawa,: the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.
He was the youngest of our group, I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.
And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.
Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.
I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.
You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs.
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.
And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.
You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.
Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.
Poems: New and Collected by Wisława Szymborska opens with her Nobel Lecture: “They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well that one’s behind me. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come — the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line — will be just as hard, since I’m supposed to talk about poetry.”
Szymborska resided in the city of Krakow until her death this year. She studied at the Jagiellonian University there and became involved in the writing scene. She did not finish her studies due to financial hardship but continued writing. Her first attempt at publication in 1949 was censored as it “did not meet socialist requirements.” In 1996 Wisława Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” This recognition was based on a small collection of published poems. Maybe quality of work, not quantity of collection, is important after all. I will leave you with an excerpt from the beginning and the end of “No Title Required.”
It has come to this: I’m sitting under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
It’s an insignificant event
and won’t go down in history.
It’s not battles and pacts,
where motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyrannicides.
And yet I’m sitting by this river, that’s a fact.
And since I’m here
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.
Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
its Friday before Saturday,
its May before June.
Its horizons are no less real
than those that a marshal’s field glasses might scan.
When I see such things, I’m no longer sure
that what’s important
is more important than what’s not.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.