Jaroslaw Anders’s Between Fire and Sleep, a collection of essays that first appeared in American periodicals, especially The New Republic, when Eastern Europe was digging out from under the wreckage of Communism, is the best book of its kind available in English and, quite likely, any other language. Granted, the field of nonscholarly books that synopsize modern Polish literature is admittedly narrow, so such praise may sound slight, a little like Spinal Tap exclaiming that they’re huge in Japan.
Yet Anders is not without serious competition from fellow Polish writers. The most imposing is the latter portion of The History of Polish Literature (1969) by Czeslaw Milosz, with its contentious opinions, occasional errors and imperious language. Milosz describes Wislawa Szymborska–who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, sixteen years after Milosz was awarded it–as a poet who “often leans toward preciosity” and who “is probably at her best where her woman’s sensibility outweighs her existential brand of rationalism.” Though the Polish language has no definite or indefinite articles, summary judgments like these leave no doubt that Milosz understood what it meant to crown his History with The instead of A. Stanislaw Baranczak’s Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (1990), written during the poet’s first years of exile in the United States, is suffused with the bewilderment of an Eastern European intellectual trying to make sense of the West, a struggle that is as much Baranczak’s subject as is twentieth-century Polish culture. Last, there are the essays of theater critic Jan Kott, collected in such volumes as The Theater of Essence (1984) and The Memory of the Body (1992), whose interest in what literature says about our lives, whoever we may be, allows him to dispense with the usual arguments for Poland’s relevance.
For generations a staple of Polish addresses to the West (and Western reviews of the same), such arguments have become hopelessly irrelevant, vestiges of what the novelist Witold Gombrowicz described as Poland’s inferiority complex. What lends the aforementioned titles their continued vitality, despite their having been shaped by political circumstances that younger readers cannot remember, is their abiding interest in questions that transcend the headlines and gesture toward aesthetic, metaphysical and ethical quandaries. The nine authors discussed in Between Fire and Sleep thrive on these questions, and most of them received comparable attention from Anders’s predecessors. (Milosz’s third-person passages about himself make for a bizarre instance of critical auto-commentary.) In addition to Milosz, Szymborska and Gombrowicz, Anders discusses Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, author of demonic plays and novels; Bruno Schulz, a lyrical nostalgic; Tadeusz Konwicki, a wicked postwar satirist; Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, whose prose blurs the boundary between fiction and reportage; Zbigniew Herbert, a poet who unfavorably compared the contemporary world with its classical roots; and Adam Zagajewski, whose meditative lyrics are at least as influential in the United States as they are in Poland. At one time, most of these names would have been familiar to high-minded readers looking for “Writers From the Other Europe”–the portentous title of a series edited by Philip Roth for Penguin Books, which first gave an English home to Schulz, Gombrowicz and Konwicki. Today it is doubtful that any reader, Polish or not, would agree that these nine authors encapsulate the whole story of Polish literature in the twentieth century.