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."
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).
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.
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."