Tadeusz Konwicki Konwicki, Tadeusz (Vol. 117) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tadeusz Konwicki 1926–

Polish novelist, journalist, essayist, screenwriter, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Konwicki's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 28, and 54.

A leading literary figure in post-World War II Poland, Konwicki is a novelist and self-described "essayistic prose" writer. Best known to readers in English-speaking countries as the author of the novels Sennik wspólczesny (1963; A Dreambook for Our Time) and Kompleks polski (1977; The Polish Complex), Konwicki wrote many other novels that have remained unavailable in translation. In his fiction, he combined elements of satire, irony, and surrealism with political analysis, philosophical rumination, and social commentary about the significance of historical events. Konwicki's forced emigration from his homeland during World War II profoundly influenced the thematic unity of his writing. Except for his initial, minor works which affirm the quality of postwar Polish life in compliance with the dictates of socialist realism, nearly every work concerns in some degree various aspects of war, sweeping criticism of contemporary life, and nostalgia for the scenes of his native landscape and the lost culture of his youth. In addition, Konwicki directed and wrote scripts for several films between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, some of which won prizes at prestigious European film festivals. In both his writings and films, he examined the grim realities of twentieth-century Polish life, including the devastating effects and lingering memories of World War II, the subsequent Communist domination, and the social spasms resulting from the imposition of martial law and the rise of the Solidarity labor movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Critics have admired Konwicki's analysis of what he has termed "the Polish complex," a state of alienation and despair induced by both the romantic idealism and the tragic events of Poland's past which stunts the development of individual expression. Moreover, Konwicki framed his definition of "the Polish complex" in terms of his tendency to view Polish history as a series of failed attempts to gain freedom and independence. Lamenting the paucity of translated editions of Konwicki's prose, Michael Hofmann has observed that his books "give a fascinating picture of Poland—no, they are Poland, as Juan Rulfo is Mexico, or Patrick White Australia."

Biographical Information

The son of a Polish metalworker, Konwicki was born and raised in Nowa Wilejka, an ethnically diverse village of Lithuanians, Jews, Poles, Russians, and other "Asiatics" near Wilno in what was then northeastern Poland (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania). According to Konwicki, he is "a hideous hybrid formed at the boundaries of [the Polish and Russian] worlds." As World War II ravaged Europe, he completed high school by attending underground study sessions. In 1944, Konwicki joined and fought with the Polish underground resistance movement, Armia Krajowa (Home Army), which liberated Wilno from Nazi occupation. When Russian troops entered the conflict, Polish guerrillas were arrested, imprisoned, then either executed or deported to concentration camps in Siberia. Konwicki, however, escaped deportation and resumed fighting against the Communists, until further resistance became futile, and his native land—as most of Eastern Europe—eventually fell under Soviet control. In 1945, Konwicki escaped to central Poland, living first in Krakow, where he studied Polish literature at Jagellonian University, then resettling in Warsaw, where he pursued a career in journalism and literature. Konwicki won the Polish Slate Prize for Literature twice—first in 1950 for his literary journalism collected in Przy budowie and again in 1954 for the novel Wladza, both of which exalt heroic workers who support the Communist agenda. By 1956, when state-imposed restrictions on artistic expression relaxed somewhat for the Polish movie industry, Konwicki found a new medium and began a career as a film director and screenwriter. His films either presage or illumine such themes as self-destructive guilt and deep sexual frustration that appear in his prose works. With the publication of Rojsty, written in the late 1940s but not published until 1956 and widely viewed as the watershed of his literary career, Konwicki completely repudiated the principles of socialist-realism and began to experiment with other modern literary models, most notably in A Dreambook for Our Time, which brought him international recognition. In 1977, the "official" publishing house Czytelnik turned down The Polish Complex, and censors banned both the novel and Konwicki's name from the press for ten years. Despite such efforts to silence him, Konwicki found an outlet for his writings in the drugi obieg, the Polish expression for the Russian samizdat system, or the underground press. Subsequently, three other novels clandestinely appeared: Mala apokalipsa (1979; A Minor Apocalypse), Wschody i zachody ksiezyca (1982; Moonrise, Moonset), and Rzeka podziemna, podziemne ptaki (1984). By the late 1980s, Konwicki returned to the "official" press with the publication of the lyrical novel Bohin (1987; Bohin Manor).

Major Works

Suffused with doubt, guilt, and skepticism, Konwicki's prose repeats several narrative constants, including similar situations, settings, episodes, and characters. A satire based on Konwicki's experiences with the Polish resistance in Wilno, Rojsty depicts a young man who desperately seeks hero status while attempting to prevent the communist takeover of Poland, but instead he dies anonymously. This novel examines concerns and motifs that Konwicki explored in his subsequent work, including themes related to banished hope and vain ambition. A Dreambook for Our Time, a terrifying study of a war-shattered mind trying to cope with a bleak, godless existence, relies on garish episodes and inner monologue to lend a surrealistic quality to the narrative. Oldster, the protagonist, a tormented survivor of World War II, engages in a futile attempt to come to terms with his past. Alternating between Oldster's random, blurred memories of his war experiences and the dreamlike events of his present life, this novel features a series of connected flashbacks, nightmarish images, and shifting realities. Published in the underground literary magazine Zapis, The Polish Complex tells the stories of a group of Poles waiting in line on Christmas Eve for a shipment of gold rings from Russia; the people represent various types of Polish personalities and their situations reflect diverse living conditions in pre-Solidarity Poland. The narrative digressions to historical conditions of Poland in 1863, when a popular rebellion against czarist rule failed, underscore an unending cycle of thwarted ambitions and hypocritical complacency that define "the Polish complex" for Konwicki. Nowy Swait i okolice (1986) comprises a collection of over fifty self-illustrated essays that alternate between childhood memories in prewar Wilno and his present-day life in Warsaw. In contrast to the tone of Konwicki's other works, Bohin Manor adheres to romance conventions well-established by the late-nineteenth century. Set on a Lithuanian manor farm in 1875, this novel recounts the resolve of a young, female protagonist to wed an elderly count in order to relieve her isolation and to regain the standard of life to which she was accustomed prior to the 1863 Polish revolt against Czarist Russia that had cost her family its wealth. Instead, she enters a romantic though mutually unwanted relationship with a working-class Jew. At the same time. Bohin Manor also represents the genealogy of Konwicki's grandmother and features characters linked to actual historical figures, which plays with the distinction between reality and illusion.

Critical Reception

Echoing the sentiments of many critics, the Polish, Nobel Prize-winning author Czeslaw Milosz has called A Dreambook for Our Time "a major literary sensation" and "one of the most terrifying novels of postwar Polish literature." Reviewers usually noted the stoic tone of the novel; however, some commentators have found that the novel is "nihilistic and gloomy" and incapable of arousing reader sympathy. As they did to A Dreambook for Our Time, Western critics warmly responded to The Polish Complex, and most have concurred that this novel presents Konwicki's finest literary qualities—a skillful use of surrealist techniques, distinctive Polish character types, and an ability to show the influence of historical forces in shaping the modern Polish psyche. Scholars have suggested that The Polish Complex powerfully states the degrading effects of a totalitarian regime yet offers a poignant analysis of the Polish condition. According to some critics, the image of the Polish queue symbolically represents the passive faith of the Polish people in an idealized homeland as well as their implicit cooperation in an organized process of victimization and oppression. Jerzy R. Krzysanowski has said that "even if Konwicki's novel might fade away with time, as often happens with contemporary novels, that single [image of the queue] … will remain in the history of Polish literature as the most shocking and tragic document of the years of violence and oppression." In retrospective light of developments in Polish society, some critics have complained that Konwicki's works lack political understanding and underestimate the determination and power of Polish workers. Still, "Konwicki has modernized Polish perceptions about art and literature; he has brought them, so to speak, up to date," Mozejko has asserted, adding that in this achievement "lies his originality and very important contribution to the Polish cultural scene."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Przy budowie (journalism) 1950
Wladza (novel) 1954
Klucz (novel) 1955
Rojsty (novel) 1956
Zoblezonego miasta (novel) 1956
Dziura w niebie (novel) 1959
Sennik wspolczesny [A Dreambook for Our Time] (novel) 1963
Ostatni dzien lata (screenplays) 1966
Wniebowstapienie (novel) 1967
Zwierzoczlekoupior [The Anthropos-Specter-Beast] (novel) 1969
Nic albo nic (novel) 1971
Kronika wypadkow milosnych (novel) 1974
Kalendarz i klepsydra (prose) 1976
Kompleks polski [The Polish Complex] (novel) 1977
Mala apokalipsa [A Minor Apocalypse] (novel) 1979
Wschody i zachody ksiezyca [Moonrise, Moonset] (prose) 1982
Rzeka podziemna, podziemne ptaki (prose) 1984
Nowy Swait i okolice [New World Avenue and Vicinity] (memoir) 1986
Bohin [Bohin Manor] (novel) 1987
Zorze wieczorne (novel) 1991

∗This work contains the screenplays Zimowy smierzch, Ostatni dzien lata, Zaduszki, Salto, and Matura; an enlarged edition (1973) also includes Jak daleko stad, jak blisko.

Abraham Rothberg (review date 17 May 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Still the Poles Go on Living," in New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1970, pp. 4-5, 20.

[In the following excerpt, Rothberg considers the themes of stoicism and endurance as represented by A Dreambook for Our Time.]

For more than 200 years Poland has lived between the hammer of Germany and the anvil of Russia, cloven by partition after partition, inflamed by insurrection after insurrection, molded by anguish, tribulation and death. Still the Poles go on living, making love, drinking vodka—oh yes, drinking vodka!—and occasionally and sporadically working to rebuild their war-torn country They seem to be a people without incentive, their lives without...

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Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski (review date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Polish Complex," in The Polish Review, Vol. XXV, No. 1, 1980, pp. 98-110.

[In the following review, Krzyzanowski discusses The Polish Complex in the context of Konwicki's canon, describing common themes, techniques, and contemporary and historical allusions.]

Tadeusz Konwicki, whose works only recently entered the American book market, hardly needs an introduction to his Polish readers but a few words about his literary career might be helpful to those who have not read his novels in the original language. As the author of many contemporary novels, producer and director of well-known movies, a winner of many international prizes and readers'...

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World Literature Today (review date Autumn 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Polish Complex, in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 4, Autumn, 1982, p. 720.

[In the following review, the critic delineates the historical significance of the setting, plot, and characters of The Polish Complex.]

A prolific and talented novelist (who has also worked effectively in film), Konwicki has recently felt it necessary to express through fiction his most passionately held sociopolitical views. The Polish Complex, first published in London by "Index on Censorship" (1977) after limited samizdat circulation at home, points an accusing finger at Russia, the age-old enemy which has dominated, exploited and repressed...

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Ewa Kuryluk (review date March-April 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Eastern Poland …," in American Book Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, March-April, 1985, pp. 21-2.

[In the review below, Kuryluk examines elements of time and setting in A Minor Apocalypse, suggesting analogies to contemporary Polish-Soviet relations.]

One of the best ideas in Tadeusz Konwicki's Minor Apocalypse is the uncertainty of time. All actions of the novel take place in Warsaw between the morning and the evening of one day, but none of the characters is sure which day, month or year that is. Different dates are suggested by different people, newspapers and calendars. Supposedly the occasion is a festive one and a banner reads: "Long live the...

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Wanda Urbanska (review date 15 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poland Has 50 Good Years Coming," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 15, 1987, pp. 2, 11.

[In the following review, Urbanska comments on the thematic diversity and frank tone of Moon rise, Moonset.]

At first glance, it might seem that Tadeusz Konwicki had an ax to grind with his Poland. In Moonrise, Moonset, Konwicki's irreverent memoir of the fateful year 1981, the author spars with such sacred cows as Radio Free Europe, Solidarity followers and Czeslaw Milosz, the 1980 Nobel Prize laureate for literature. "I had an itch to give certain people a real thrashing," he writes, "but I lost the urge."

Don't believe him. In this...

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Patricia Hampl (review date 15 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bohin Manor, in New York Times Book Review, July 15, 1990, Sec. 7, p. 7.

[In the review below, Hampl traces the autobiographical and historical significance of the narrative design of Bohin Manor.]

This beautiful, grave book [Bohin Manor] begins not once, but twice. It opens first, guilelessly, as a novel: "Miss Helena Konwicka rose that day right after dawn, as she usually did during the week."

On the next page it starts up again, this time in the voice of a memoir: "Miss Helena Konwicka, my grandmother, stopped in front of her window, and once again glanced at a dewdrop containing a likeness of the holiday morning's...

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K. J. Phillips (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sacrificing to Baal," in Dying Gods in Twentieth-Century Fiction, Bucknell University Press, 1990, pp. 82-107.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips analyzes various mythical rituals enacted by the narrative of A Minor Apocalypse, emphasizing their significance in the context of the Polish resistance movement.]

A Minor Apocalypse(1979) is the ninth novel by Tadeusz Konwicki and his second to be published in samizdat, the Polish underground system for circulating dissident literature. When the narrator tries to dispel his waking thoughts about death—his own mortality, his country's subjection, the planet's extinction—with "gestures of...

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Tadeusz Konwicki with Dorota Sobieska (interview date 7 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Everything comes from what I said at the beginning, from this territory': An Interview with Tadeusz Konwicki," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 112-23.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on January 7, 1991, Konwicki discusses geographical influences of his native territory on his writings and thought, his storytelling methods, the significance of animal symbolism in his works, the poetic quality of his prose, and his views on women.]

[Dorota Sobieska:] I have plenty of questions but would prefer this to be more of a conversation.

[Tadeusz Konwicki:] Yes, but I have to have something to...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 27 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poland's Jester in Chief," in New York Times Book Review, January 27, 1991, p. 25.

[In the following review, Baranczak locates the tenor of Konwicki's views in New World Avenue in the tradition of the jester role, focusing on the paradoxical thematic and stylistic tone of the memoir.]

In 1959 the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski published a trailblazing essay, "The Priest and the Jester." The two personifications stood for the two opposed strategies of modern intellectuals—conservativecelebration of absolute values and critical questioning of them. Mr. Kolakowski himself chose the jester because, in his view, the jester's seemingly insolent and...

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Reuel K. Wilson (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bohin Manor, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 514.

[In the following review, Wilson draws thematic parallels between Bohin Manor and Konwicki's other works.]

Tadeusz Konwicki, a prolific writer with a tendency obsessively to return to his roots in formerly Polish Lithuania, has in the last decade become a major spokesman for his compatriots' sense of collective despair and impotence. Now that the Soviet Union is no longer inclined to play its traditional role of oppressor vis-à-vis its long-suffering but always unbending western neighbor, one wonders what will become the new target for Konwicki's acerbic wit...

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Reuel K. Wilson (review date Autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of New World Avenue and Vicinity, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, p. 734.

[In the review below, Wilson describes the subject, tone, and style of New World Avenue.]

Today Tadeusz Konwicki is one of Poland's most respected literary personalities. He loves conversation and is known for his acerbic wit, often expressed over coffee at the little café located in the basement of his Warsaw publisher, Czytelnik. Czytelnik's offices are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Nowy Swiat (New World Avenue), the focal point of the writer's present existence. The busy thoroughfare with its old-fashioned charm and modern vitality...

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Henry Dasko (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Note on Konwicki's Filmmaking," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 197-200.

[In the essay below, Dasko provides an overview of Konwicki's filmmaking.]

Tadeusz Konwicki's filmmaking adventure, now well into its fourth decade, is not a common scenario. While film directors frequently cross over into literature, if only to coauthor a screenplay, few novelists are ever offered a chance to stand behind a camera. In neither craft is Konwicki a journeyman; in fact, his accomplishments as a writer place him firmly in the august circle of those European men of letters whose voices ring with unchallenged spiritual and artistic...

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Edward Mozejko (essay dale Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beyond Ideology: The Prose of Tadeusz Konwicki," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 139-55.

[In the following essay, Mozejko traces the evolution of Konwicki's literary career, outlining the thematic and formal features that define his narrative discourse.]

In many ways Tadeusz Konwicki (born in 1926) is a typical example of a writer who entered mature life in Poland after the establishment of the communist dictatorship in 1945. His writing underwent a gradual transformation from socialist realism, which he embraced as his "creative method" in the late forties and early fifties, to a complete rejection of socialist principles...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Baranczak, Stanislaw. "The Polish Complex." Partisan Review LI, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 433-41.

Ruminates the themes of The Polish Complex and everyday life in Poland.

Beres, Stanislaw. "Bohin Manor: Romance with Nothingness." Review of Contemporary Fiction XIV, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 189-96.

Examines narrative strategies that inform Bohin Manor, emphasizing Konwicki's manipulation of romance and realist conventions.

Myers, Thomas. "Training the Memory: Dystopian History in Konwicki's A Minor Apocalypse."...

(The entire section is 130 words.)