The Polish writer Aleksander Wat is best known to English readers for his memoir of imprisonment and exile in the Soviet Union, Mój wiek: Pamiętnik mówieony (1977; My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, 1988). Venclova’s critical biography makes it clear just how much his ordeal in the Communist hell was a piece with the whole of the poet’s life. It turns out that My Century, one of the great testaments to human endurance, was written by a tortured soul struggling constantly to escape the straitjacket of existence.
Wat was born on May 1, 1900, into a cultured Jewish family. His father, Mendel Chwat, was a noted expert on the Kabbalah, the main Jewish mystical tradition. Wat was not brought up in strict adherence to Judaism, however, and his Catholic nurse, who also taught the boy his first Polish, regularly took him with her to Mass. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that Wat would never feel completely secure as a Pole or a Jew, but Venclova makes it clear the inner division went much deeper.
From the time he was a child, Wat was highly conscious of death and the fragility of identity. He characterized his life as a series of crises, which he sought to resolve through education and mysticism, both Jewish and Christian. This inner turmoil, perpetually creative, increasingly unbearable, underlies what Venclova terms Wat’s “iconoclasm.” In his discomfort, Wat could accept nothing at face value, not identity, not language. In Warsaw after World War I, Wat, nineteen and frightfully overeducated, led a wild, bohemian life, cutting an elegantly eccentric figure. With youthful—and uncharacteristic—self-confidence, he attacked old literary conventions with high spirits. In 1919, Wat and a friend introduced Futurism to Poland with a public reading in the tradition of the French Dadaists. They meant to cause a stir, and they did. For a while, Wat’s literary allies engaged in more pranks aimed at shocking middle class complacency. Their activities were interrupted by the war between the Soviet Union and Poland, and once the Russians were defeated and pushed back, Wat gradually lost interest in such antics.
With Wat, iconoclasm was inherently connected with innovation, especially in literature. To capture the immediacy of experience, Wat felt he had to break free of the conventions of so-called rational language. Ready to use any means necessary, Wat replaced logic with connections of sound or position or similarity, skirting nonsense to break through to a new sense. His first major poetic work in this vein was JA z jednej strony i JA z drugiej strony mego mopożelaznego piecyka (1920; ME from one side and ME from the other side of my pug iron stove).
A long prose poem, composed partly by automatic writing, “Pug Iron Stove” is obscure, dense, and very personal. Similar to the writing of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, it depicts the search for the self through disintegration, but with Wat’s distinctive blend of parody (often directed at himself). In the poem, Wat hopes the dissolution of the self (so much like what he would later experience in prison) can lead to a reintegration. Unfortunately, as will be the case time and again in his life and writing, Wat cannot make the final step to transcendence. Instead, there are proliferating images of disease and putrefaction while his identity is coopted by a double, a twin who turns into a nightmarish distortion (a role Wat would later project onto Joseph Stalin).
During the 1920’s, Wat also experimented politically, becoming increasingly involved with the Polish Communist Party, like many futurists of the time. Wat insisted that he never actually joined the Party, but he wrote for its publications and even edited the most respected Communist literary magazine of the period, The Literary Monthly. For this, he landed in jail in 1931, branded a subversive.
Never really comfortable with Communist Party attacks on individual liberty, Wat repressed his misgivings out of a quasi- religious need for meaning. Yet he could not deny his nature, which marked his fiction with a nihilist and anarchic spirit. This attitude touched a nerve in the public, and he enjoyed great success with a collection of short stories called Bezrobotny Lucyfer (1927;Lucifer Unemployed, 1990).
These philosophical parables relying on parody and paradox attacked received opinions, especially ideas about progress, creating a profound impression with their irreverent and pseudoscientific posturing. Wat’s was obviously not an orthodox Marxist outlook on scientific materialism, and the Party never trusted him.
Though considered dangerous by the government, Wat’s ties with the Party steadily diminished throughout the 1930’s, a result of mutual distrust and Wat’s happy marriage. The beginning of World War II, however, forced him back into a very perilous association with the Party.
In 1939, Wat fled the Nazi army eastward to the town of Lwów, soon occupied by the Soviet army in accordance with the secret accord with Germany. What may have seemed at first like liberation became an authoritarian nightmare. A Polish Writers’ Union was set up to promote Soviet interests, and Wat joined, either from cowardice or to protect his family. He later considered this collaboration the moral...
(The entire section is 2182 words.)