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Wierzyński, Wittlin, Bobkowski, Mackiewicz ... There are some names about which little needs to be said. But there are also those about which more needs to be heard - because, although less well-known, they certainly deserve to be. Names such Barbara Toporska, Stefania Zahorska or Xawery Glinka. To celebrate its 70 years of its existence, The Polish Library in London took on the task of telling the stories of the more, or less, well-known Polish writers in exile after 1939.
You could talk for a long time, and a lot, about the work of writers and poets. And probably the main purpose of the talks organised in POSK by the Polish Library in London was to show it was worth doing, and that those who had been forgotten or, for whatever reason – whether political or simply through neglect – under-appreciated, should be remembered.
“Barbara Toporska's anti-communist works could not appear in a communist country, as Poland was back then. It was impossible,” said Dr Dobrosława Platt, the organiser of the session and director of the Polish Library.
That's why she, like many other writers, had no chance to exist in Poland, but had success abroad. In 1966, Toporska received a literary award for the most outstanding book in exile from [London-based émigré weekly] Wiadomości for her first novel, Sisters, published by the Institute of Culture.
"Although no one in Poland knew that such a book existed and that it could be analysed alongside the work of Kuncewiczowa or Dąbrowska. Why aren't these studies done? This type of debate and conference, from which papers will be published, will lead to a special reflection on émigré writers who were basically ignored,” added Platt.
Discovering the forgotten
One would assume that the analysis of émigré literature is part of the general study of Polish literature. It turns out that this is not entirely true. The work of Polish emigrants has been pushed to the side over the course of events in Poland, especially during the war, after the war and in the years of communism, particularly the 80s, when censorship effectively restricted freedom of speech.
"It seemed that 1989 opened new avenues where you could talk about joining émigré literature with Polish literature. Despite everything, this did not happen. Émigré literature is still, to some extent, excluded from the literary circuit in Poland, including the circulation of literary critical thinking,” Platt said.
There are various conferences in Poland devoted to émigré literature, but comparative studies between Polish and émigré writers are still not done. The sessions in POSK are a kind of signal that interest in émigré literature is growing, but also that it is necessary to actively promote it.
“Émigré literature is not only Gombrowicz and Bobkowski, but a whole plethora of forgotten writers – amateurs who provided a picture of emigration and who together created émigré literature. And for this reason it's worth adressing writers [who aren't as well known], be they authors of one sentence, or a whole collection. They are also part of our lives,” said Justyna Chłap-Nowakowa, who during the sessions took a closer look at the work and fate of, in her opinion, one of the more forgotten artists, Xawery Glinka.
The choice of writers was not accidental. The main motive for the session was to present the latest research on the works of Polish émigré writers after 1939. It was decided to present the profiles of these writers in exile, whose publications have appeared recently or those which are currently being studied. Among the presented books were: Na wschód od dzisiaj by Barbara Toporska, Dzieła by Joseph Mackiewicz and the pair's joint work Droga Pani; Wybór pism by Stefania Zahorska, W obozach i w konspiracji by Wanda Krystyna Roman, and Lechoń i Tuwim – dzieje trudnej przyjaźni by Beata Dorosz.
The paper on Barbara Toporska, read by Michał Bąkowski, was associated with a new publication issued to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of her birthday, which falls in August next year. In Metafizyce na hulajnodze all of her possible journalistic texts and a bibliography of her works were collected. This was a vast and important undertaking, which is why it was worth speaking about.
Talking about Stefania Zahorska was Anna Nasiłowska, who has just written a biography of the author – the only one, in fact, to have been published in recent times.
When I have presented papers previously, I would be asked: 'Why are you bothering with such writers, since there are so many more important, serious ones?”, said Paweł Chojnacki.
The answer is simple for researchers of literature - but not only. Because for readers of literature it is also obvious. "It seems to me that the opening of this new range of research, for example in the field of literature, will reveal a plethora of names that were once very well known in Polish London.
Showing this forgotten area of reasearch, on these marginalised figures who are sometimes a little eccentric, is very important,” added Chojnacki.
Did you know that Józef Wittlin wanted to write about cats? Who are the "beetles" for which Wierzynski had such great affection? Which place was closer to Iwaniuk's heart – Toronto or Lublin? What was hidden in Bobkowski's “red books”? These and many other questions were answered by scholars of Polish literature during the Polish Library sessions. They presented the results of the latest analysis of émigré literature and showed the many faces of the famous, and the somewhat forgotten, Polish writers outside the country.
Researchers both inside and outside the country looked into archives, biographies and unpublished works of writers. Thanks to this they drew to the surface unknown elements of their work, those already known, and those hidden by the writers.
Nina Terlecka-Taylor presented a less familiar face of Józef Wittlin, which she had the opportunity to familiarise herself with when analysing one of his manuscripts. In it he wrote about the war, about America, about the soul of humanity. From other sources we learn also that Wittlin once wanted to write about ... cats.
Thanks to Beata Dorosz, the guests at the Polish Library's sessions were able to hear about never-before-seen work by the New York Skamanders found in letters sent between Jan Lechon and Kazimierz Wierzyński.
While it was known that the two writers knew each other, probably very few people knew how often they exchanged friendly letters full of typical Skamander wit, candour and ... profanity, terms of endearment (as mentioned earlier with “beetles”) or "loving" confessions.
Wacław Iwaniuk, in turn, was certainly a poet. Although some would say an indecisive one. According to Maja Cybulska, Iwaniuk, whose life took him from his family home in Lublin to Toronto, could not decide whether he liked the city or not. What's more, he couldn't specify even the date of his birthday. Fortunately, researchers did it for him - it was 1912.
Krzysztof Ćwikliński, using Bobkowski's Szkicu piórkiem showed the boundaries between self-creation, hoax, and literary abuse in the creation of writing. Logs, although regarded as a chronicle, did not have to be authentic. Nor did it mean that they were a hoax – ultimately, by writing, every writer creates. So whether wanting it or not, each chronicle takes on the character of a literary journal.
In the papers, which, according to the assurances of the Polish Library's director will be published in the future, you will also learn about Xawery Glinka's journey from Kiev, via Paris and the Middle East, to London; get to the bottom of Kasimierz Wierzyński's friendship with Jan Nowak-Jeziorański; find out what battle Jozef Bujanowski had to fight; and take a closer look at the biography of Józef Mackiewicz.
Such meetings as these show, however, that researchers do deal with emigre literature, and more importantly, encourage people to read it.
Magdalena Czubińska, Dziennik Polski
Photo: Magdalena Czubińska (starting from top: Beata Dorosz; Dr Dobrosława Platt (l) with Maja Cybulska (r); Justyna Chłap-Nowakowa)
Translation by Robert Szmigielski