My Century

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

My Century is an especially apt title for the memoirs of Polish Dadaist Aleksander Wat. Born in 1900 in that part of Poland then under Russian rule, Wat was fated to bear witness to many of the historical upheavals which went into the shaping of the modern world. The poet was seventeen years old when the Bolshevik Revolution put an end to monarchy in the very east of Europe; one year later, the Second Republic of Poland was born at the conclusion of World War I. Wat was educated in the first independent Polish state to emerge after more than a century of being partitioned among three empires—a state that was to exist for only twenty years, threatened from the east by the Communist regime in the Soviet Union, and from the west by the rising specter of Nazism in Germany. World War II, terrible for most Poles, was to send Wat on a truly odyssean journey through Soviet prisons. With the end of the war, he returned to reborn Poland, only to find himself in disfavor with the Communist regime foisted on Poland by its immense neighbor to the east.

In his foreword to My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, Czesaw Miosz expresses his astonishment that one person could experience so much in such a relatively compact period of time and yet survive. Yet the poet did not escape his adventure without scars. The “void which wrapped around him” during his latest period of official nonrecognition in Stalinist Poland triggered a stroke from which the poet never completely recovered. The situation was aggravated by his acute feeling of guilt for the “sins” he had committed as a prewar leftist in Poland, and the last two decades of his life were marked by periods of severe physical agony. Enemies in his native land often voiced their opinion that Wat’s was an invented illness—a ploy for an emigrant’s passport. Yet the pain did not go away after his eventual emigration to France; indeed, Wat remarked more than once that his taped conversations with Miosz, which form the basis of My Century, had a therapeutic affect on him. More than memoirs of an intellectual fated to play a small role in great historical events, more than simply the confessions of a former Communist, an autobiographical genre which Wat himself loathed, My Century, for the poet, was a respite from the tortures of his illness.

The time span covered in My Century reaches from the early 1920’s through Wat’s release from Soviet imprisonment and his subsequent work among displaced Poles forcibly exiled to Asia by the Soviets at the commencement of hostilities. The book naturally divides into four uneven sections. The first recounts Wat’s early period of literary activity and his sympathies for Soviet Futurist aesthetics and Communist ideology. The second deals with life in Soviet-occupied Lwów and ends with Wat’s provoked imprisonment. The third and longest section speaks of the conditions endured and personages encountered by Wat in Soviet prisons, from Zamarstynów in Lwów to Lubyanka in Moscow. Wat’s memoirs are brought to a close with the poet’s release from prison under the terms of the general amnesty for Poles in the Soviet Union precipitated by the outbreak of the Nazi-Soviet war in 1943. Unfortunately, Wat’s tragic death in 1967 brought My Century to a premature close, and readers are deprived of the poet’s doubtlessly fascinating and enlightening reminiscences of the early years of the Polish People’s Republic—the straw which finally broke this patient camel’s back. It should be noted, too, that the English translation of My Century comprises only about half of the Polish original; in a translator’s introduction, Richard Lourie describes the frustrating task of selection and outlines the principles he followed.

Because of his rich treasure of literary contacts (Wat knew Vladimir Mayakovsky, among others), My Century is a valuable, insightful essay for those interested in twentieth century Slavic letters. Especially interesting are his reminiscences of Wadysaw Broniewski, the “engaged” people’s poet of socialist Poland, who is often slighted and overlooked by Western scholars of Polish literature. Wat describes Broniewski as a courageous person, capable of flashes of heroism, who was, in the end, destroyed by political and historical circumstances. It is quite possible that My Century will precipitate a renaissance of interest in this poet, whom Miosz himself acknowledges as unjustly underrated. Yet even for those readers for whom Polish literary anecdotes fall flat, My Century is an intriguing book because of the compelling testimony it sets forth concerning the dubious methods employed in the “liberation” of neighboring sovereign states by the Soviet Union, as well as the insidious destruction of the individual in totalitarian systems.

The factors that went into the making of Wat’s spiritual and intellectual foundations were many and varied. His father was a devout Jew, who still refrained from imposing his religious beliefs upon his children. Wat’s older siblings, on the other hand, were confirmed atheists and socialists, while the poet credits Anna Mikulak, the Roman Catholic peasant who acted as his childhood nurse, as being the first person to bring him into contact with the world of the spirit by taking him to vespers. Yet, although he was to undergo a dramatic conversion to Christianity while in Soviet imprisonment, during the first period of his literary activity, he was a confirmed fellow traveler.

Upon his graduation from the philosophy department of Warsaw University and the publication of his two early Futurist (or Dadaist) works in verse and prose, Ja z jednej strony a Ja z drugiej strony mego mopsoelaznego piecyka (1920; me from one side and me from the other side of my pug iron stove) and Bezrobotny Lucyfer (1927; Lucifer unemployed), Wat became the editor of a widely read magazine with a decided Communist orientation, the Miesiȩcznik literacki (the literary monthly). Wat states that the motives for his sympathetic approach to Communism, like that of many...

(The entire section is 2515 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Library Journal. CXIII, September 15, 1988, p. 85.

The New Republic. CXCIX, September 5, 1988, p. 34.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, December 8, 1988, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, November 13, 1988, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, July 8, 1988, p. 48.