Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2182
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 low point of his life, and it did him no good anyway.
In early 1940, he was arrested, and his wife and son were deported to the Kazakhstan Republic within the Soviet Union. Wat spent the better part of two years in Soviet prisons, including the most famous, Lubyanka. During that time, Wat endured an ordeal far worse than anything imagined in “Pug Iron Stove.” The perpetual sense of crisis finally solidified into an actual crisis, and much to his surprise, he was not destroyed. He eventually emerged with his identity intact and stronger for the testing. At the utmost limits of his endurance, in horrible conditions in the prison at Saratov, he had a mystical experience that led to his conversion to Catholicism.
Wat would certainly have died if not for the German invasion of Russia. Suddenly, Poland was no longer a country divided between Stalin and Hitler, but a brave ally in Mother Russia’s fight against the fascist invaders. Poland was recognized as a separate country, and most surviving Poles were released.
In November of 1941, Wat arrived in Kazakhstan, where the Soviets had set up a Polish enclave in exile. In the capital of Alma-Ata, he was reunited with his wife and son. Although his health never recovered from his years in jail, he was allowed a short period of relative happiness with his family. Soon, however, the Poles fell into Soviet disfavor once more.
Wat and his family were then sent deeper into exile to an isolated village where there was hardly food enough to eat. There he made the bravest stand of his life, organizing resistance to Party plans to issue everyone Soviet passports. He was briefly imprisoned, but retained his passport, which meant at war’s end he remained officially a Pole, entitled to repatriation.
Despite all his troubles, Wat wrote some of his most famous verse during this time. “Willows in Alma-Ata,” for example, circulated by word of mouth in Poland even before Wat’s return. Its lyrical depiction of the sadness of the exile, which became a recurrent theme for Wat, served as a model for many young poets.
Willows are willows everywhere
Beautiful in rime and luster art thou, O willow of Alma- Ata.
Yet if I forget thee, O dead willow from the Rozbrat street,
let my hand forget her cunning!
From this opening onward, the deceptively simple poem employs many styles and themes from Polish literature and the Bible. Venclova shows how Wat’s poetry of this period combines the abstract and the concrete, landscapes in particular, to achieve a calmness he would never quite manage to regain.
After the war, there was a brief flowering of Polish literature. A whole new generation of writers, such as Czesław Miłosz, did not deem Communism the enemy, at first. After returning to Warsaw in 1947, Wat himself turned a blind eye to much of what was happening in the country, hoping for the best despite the Stalinist occupation of Poland.
In 1949, however, in a scathing address to a literary gathering, Wat attacked Socialist Realism and ended his own hopes for publication. He supported himself with a little translating, but became increasingly ill. Many observers considered this condition psychosomatic, and even Venclova connects Wat’s nervous ailment with the self-torturing he turned into art.
This anguish became more and more evident in poems where Wat compares himself to the walking dead or Hercules struggling to extricate himself from a poisoned cloak. Wat expresses this theme in his poem “In the Four Walls of My Pain”:
It grinds the living tissue,
crushes the bone, squeezes the brain.
To wring out with a bloody sweat
words words words.
This poem, as restrictive in its structure as the fatal cloak, provides a good example of the way Wat matches style to content. This quality is what attracted the greatest comment and praise when Wat published a volume of poems in 1957 during the brief relaxation of tight Communist control in Poland.
Despite this success, Wat became more despondent. Deeply spiritual, he lacked sure faith. In 1953, Wat allowed himself to be baptized, but that did not quiet the spiritual restlessness. In fact, he became ever more aware of himself as a Jew. While retaining his Christian identity, he saw Christ as the archetypal suffering Jew.
Given the horrors of World War II, it is understandable that his attention turned to the mystery of evil’s origin. He wrote a series of essays on Stalin, trying to understand the man’s evil, which he considered fundamentally linguistic, a warping of the word that made moral behavior impossible. Wat also felt a personal complicity in evil. Not only had he edited a Party magazine and supported Communist governments during and after World War II, but he identified with Stalin: “the poet, master of signs and meanings” saw Stalin as his “opposite and twin, the Great Perverter and Depraver of signs.”
Wat projected this guilt onto the world around him. In poems and essays, as well as an unfinished novel, Wat tried to come to terms with this evil, only to become more discouraged and depressed by his conclusions. He was increasingly aware of the divided impulse in his writing and the impossibility of resolving it. He wanted to grasp the secret of the universe while knowing it would always be multiform and open-ended. Venclova shows how the poetry, at its best, captures something of both the numinous and the actual. Writing about nature, for example, Wat creates a sensuous anthropomorphism, but it only made him more aware that he could not connect with the universal harmony. Worse, he saw in that harmony a parallel to the “harmony” promised by Stalin.
In constant distress, both emotionally and physically, Wat traveled overseas, primarily for medical treatments. He never felt comfortable as an exile and worried especially about the status of his son, but in 1959 he requested asylum in France since he could no longer publish in Poland. Unable to make a living even in the West because of his illness, he became increasingly depressed.
In 1963, he was persuaded to go to Berkeley, California, where Miłosz taught. For a brief time, Wat’s health improved, but the pain soon returned, worse than ever. Unable to fulfill his duties at the University of California, he became more and more unhappy with himself. To help him get something on paper, a friend suggested he tape his memoirs in sessions with Miłosz. Wat covered only part of what he hoped to, but the transcribed and edited tapes of these interviews were later published as My Century.
Although it is one of the great prison memoirs, the book remains a mostly literary construct, as Venclova points out. Throughout this biography of Wat, Venclova provides many excellent close readings of Wat’s poems. On the other hand, the biographical material provided by Venclova is often sketchy. Although the important details are here and Venclova certainly documents Wat’s tortured existence, the reader will have to turn to My Century to glimpse something of the living man.
Still this is an excellent introduction to the life and work of a writer whose nature forced him to acknowledge the absurd when he sought the divine. Then history forced him to live the extremes of both. That something so frail as human consciousness could survive—and bear witness—gives Wat’s poetry and memoirs an authority and power that assures their lasting significance. Unfortunately, Wat himself, riven by illness and depression, could not benefit from his own example. Deciding to end the long exile that he could no longer endure, Wat committed suicide on July 29, 1967.
Sources for Further Study
Choice. XXXIV, November, 1996, p. 466.
Library Journal. CXXI, May 1, 1996, p. 95.
New Criterion. XIV, May, 1996, p. 68.
The New York Review of Books. XLIII, November 28, 1996, p. 4.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 8, 1996, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 4, 1996, p. 44.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 4, 1996, p. 38.
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