(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The momentous historical events in Eastern and Central Furope which began to take shape in 1989 contain important cultural and literary aspects. In cultural terms, greater access to the intellectual life and thought of countries previously known largely, and to some degree stereotypically, as members of the Soviet bloc is becoming available. And from a strictly literary point of view, texts which might otherwise have remained suppressed or been denied translation are being published with sufficient regularity as to facilitate at least a preliminary redrawing of the artistic map of Europe. In particular, the publication of texts such as Lucijer Unemployed draws attention to the development and fate of Furopean modernism at the hands of writers who were not frequenters of the salons and little magazines which provided modernist entrepreneurs in London and Paris with their impetus.

In the light of the collection of stories under review, therefore, it is possible to consider realignments and reformulations of the conception of a modernist tradition which is more wide-ranging in its effects and more problematic in its objectives than familiar contemporary academic characterizations have been inclined to allow. Thus, the Polish Futurism which Wat is credited with cofounding, and of which this volume of his stories is a representative expression, emerges as an entity quite distinctive from its better-known Italian counterpart, of which indeed it articulates a fascinating, if not necessarily intentional, critique. Moreover, Aleksander Wat’s own career, sketched in his introduction by the most celebrated figure in contemporary Polish literature, the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, can be seen to function as an instructive lesson in the fate of the literary artificer under totalitarian conditions: “At the end of his tumultuous life, Wat calculated that he had known fourteen prisons.”

Milosz also draws attention, however, to the attraction between intellectuals and totalitarianism which existed particularly in the interwar period, quoting to telling effect from Wat’s critically important Moj wiek (1977; My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, 1987). One of the most significant aspects of Lucifer Unemployed is its embodiment of an unnervingly dehistoricized temperament which expresses itself in tones of self-mocking frustration and coldly sardonic anger. At one level, Lucifer Unemployed may be read as a prolonged meditation in disenchantment, as may more prominent modernist, Anglophone texts from the same period whose authors were drawn to a totalitarianism at the opposite end of the political spectrum from that of Wat. It is possible to regard the tone and temperament of Lucifer Unemployed as the expression of youthful arrogance and a somewhat facile, stylistically self-conscious, and even intellectually pretentious literary personality. (The book was the author’s first published volume of prose.) On the other hand, it seems equally valid to regard the highly mannered character of Wat’s writing (captured, on the whole, with persuasive fluency by the translator), and the stories’ intellectual range, as indications of cultural desperation and aesthetic impasse, conditions which are confronted from a quite different standpoint but with not altogether dissimilar results in the early stories of Samuel Beckett.

While it is important to underline the historical importance of Wat’s fiction, it is also relevant to draw attention to some of its undoubted difficulties. These constitute, broadly speaking, an absence of the fundamental features of what is conventionally understood by the term “realism.” In this way, also, Lucijer Unemployed is a product of its time. Like many of the most highly prized Fnglish, American, French, and Russian texts of the teens and twenties of the twentieth century, Wat’s stories present thought—rather than, for example, social behavior—in action. The psychology of individual characters remains undeveloped. Settings are presented only when germane to a given story’s overall theme. Interaction between characters is largely schematic. Fvents take place with bewildering swiftness, or else they fail to take place with an equally bewildering finality. Large spans of time are arbitrarily covered. The norms of coherence generally associated with the well-made literary artifact—norms drawing on such organizational principles as linearity, three-dimensionality (or illusions thereof), explicit denouement, depiction of human relationships in a recognizable...

(The entire section is 1868 words.)