First, the poets had a great party; then, there was a bad hangover. Different people handled it differently. Some behaved nobly, some abominably and some both. Now, they are all dead. Some of their poems will be remembered as long as the Polish language is spoken.
Marci Shore, a historian at the University of Indiana, wrote a wonderful book about the generation of Polish poets born around the turn of the century whose formative experiences were the slaughter fields of the Great War and the re-birth of Poland. Among the poets, there were two groups and one loner. The first group were the Futurists: Jasienski, Wat, Stern, Wazyk and others; the second group was the Skamander: Lechon, Wierzynski, Tuwim, Iwaszkiewicz and Slonimski. The loner was Broniewski who, in his politics, was closer to the Futurists and, in his poetry, to the Skamander. Other players appear as well: older writers (Witkacy, Zeromski), younger writers (Stryjkowski, Milosz, Borowski), Stalin's commissars (Wasilewska, Borejsza, Berman).
This book, though, is not about the Futurist or Skamander poetry as such. Rather, it is about the poets as human beings, making choices about their poetry, politics, religion, identity, and private lives. If the political elements predominate, it was more often the case of history forcing the poets to choose rather then the poets choosing to become political. Norman Podhoretz's reference to the intersection of literature and politics as the "bloody crossroads" is very apposite.
The outline of the story is well-known: the Futurists got attracted to Marxism early on, in part because it fitted with their radical visions of rebuilding everything from scratch. They were also the first ones to be burnt by Stalinist purges. Others like Wat followed into the Gulag after 1939. The Skamander poets had started firmly in Pilsudski's camp (who would interrupt cabinet meetings to let the poets present their satirical sketches). In time, though, the Skamander drifted apart. The decisive break within the group came during WWII, after which Tuwim returned from exile to embrace communism, joined eventually by Slonimski. Lechon and Wierzynski refused to return, kept their independence but paid for it, especially Lechon, dearly. Iwaszkiewicz did well (and some good as well) on his country estate near Warsaw regardless of who was in power. Broniewski's long-standing faith in communism remained unscathed by his sojourn in Lubianka though his poetry was more independent than he was.
It is a great story and the writer tells it with great aplomb--actually, it is very hard to believe that this book originated as a Ph.D. thesis. Anyone with any interest in either Poland or history or literature or 20th century politics will find reading it immensely rewarding. Even those who grew up on these poets and know their odysseys, will find it difficult to put this book down. To me, the best things in the book are the wonderful vignettes about the poets and those around them that inform better than would pages of bibliographical details. Let me mention a few:
Broniewski: his beloved grandmother, upon reading his leftist poems, wrote to him from Plock: "And now, my Wladzio, as for your poetic creations--after having read them, I wept bitterly".
Jasienski--wrote his once-famous novel I Burn Paris in retaliation because he saw a book by a French author titled Je Brule Moscou; he didn't know that "bruler" in French could mean other things than "burn."
After Wat's arrest in 1931 following an editorial meeting of the communist-sponsored Miesiecznik Literacki his wife went to a lawyer to bail him out. He asked her: "Which would you prefer: that your husband sit in prison or that he cheat on you?". She may have been a revolutionary, but not in the matter of marriage. "Let him sit in prison", she
answered. Broniewski's wife was more understanding.
Having ben preceded to the Soviet Union by his fellow Futurists--Wandurski, Stande, Jasienski, who were in turn arrested, forced to make absurd confessions, and shot--Wat led a precarious existence in Soviet-occupied Lwow; with a job as a proofreader in Czerwony Sztandar fearing that, somehow, they would let pass a deadly printing error, like the "t" in Stalin's name being replaced by an "r".
Wat was arrested with others, including Broniewski, in a set up made to look like a drunken brawl. In prison, Broniewski was interrogated as a Polish nationalist and reactionary; Wat, simultaneously, as a Trotskyite, a Zionist, a Catholic and a nationalist. In Lubianka, Wat ended up sleeping in General Anders's former cot.
Aristocratic Wasilewska (a daughter of Pilsudski's Foreign Minister) thrived in the Soviet Union; her proletarian husband did not. He noticed things she refused to acknowledge. One day a stranger came to their house, asked for him, and shot him on the doorstep. Later, Khrushchev sent emissaries to Wasilewska to explain that the organs made a "mistake" but, for the sake of the cause, it could not be admitted. He hoped that Wasilewska would understand; she did.
The name for the communist-led grouping of Poles in the Soviet Union (Union of Polish Patriots) was invented by Stalin himself. When Wanda Wasilewska objected to Stalin that in Polish the word "patriot" had a right-wing connotation, Stalin responded that she shouldn't worry because words could be given new meanings.
After the fall of Poland, Tuwim went into exile ending up temporarily in Brazil where Lechon was also evacuated. Tuwim, homesick, could not write. But once Lechon surprised him by producing a new poem, Tuwim locked himself in a room and started to write poetry again--the outcome was Polish Flowers.
Later in the United States Tuwim discovered his proletarian roots, though, of course, he came from a middle class family; politically, he embraced the Soviet Union. When his old friend the editor Grydzewski asked for an article from Tuwim about the Soviet murders of Bundist leaders Erlich and Alter, Tuwim refused by quoting Kochanowski "Niezle czasem zamilczec, co czlowieka boli/ By nie znal nieprzyjaciel, ze cie ma po woli." Still later, in Warsaw, he had no problem with Wazyk's attempts to impose socialist realism on Polish writers; however, Wazyk's botched translation of Eugene Onegin proved too much.
Lechon, Tuwim's friend and then most bitter enemy, wrote in exile upon learning about Tuwim's death: "May the Polish ground rest lightly over you, Julek, the Polish ground you so poorly, so foolishly but still truly loved."
Borowski, after his return from Auschwitz, could not bear to hear about survivors who had difficulties adjusting. He raged: "What are you sniveling to me about, control yourself, if we're here now together, it is only because there in Auschwitz we took bread from the dying who no longer had the strength to raise a piece of bread to their mouths. We didn't cover them in blankets! We took their blankets because we knew that they would no longer need them. It was their deaths that rescued us from ours." But the price turned out to be too high for him as well--soon thereafter, Borowski gassed himself.
Slonimski returned to Warsaw for a brief visit in 1945; he questioned Iwaszkiewicz who had lived through the German occupation about what had happened to the people he knew. "Shot, shot, shot ...", was the response. "For what?" Slonimski kept asking. Iwaszkiewicz thought that Slonimski, having spent the war years in London, acted like a visitor from outer space.
Slonimski returned to Warsaw permanently in 1951--the worst possible time. (Elsewhere, he explained this by saying that his jokes were not funny when told in English). Just about then, Milosz defected from his communist diplomatic post. Slonimski's attack on Milosz reads like a crude Stalinist denunciation. Milosz's response was more restrained but with a hard edge (he reminded Slonimski his earlier words that, were he to find himself in hell, he hoped to be one of those with a pitchfork rather than one getting boiled). Yet Milosz bore no grudges, as anyone reading his Treatise on Poetry will attest.
The appearance of Caviar and Ashes is a cause for celebration. If has few heroes; instead, it is full of appalling dilemmas that were forced on some creative souls who had the misfortune to be born into the 20th century in Eastern Europe. Thus it comes close to describing history "as it really was." Your judgments on the art and the behavior of the various writers would not necessarily be the same as the author's but she is well entitled to her views--she had mastered Polish and plowed through libraries and archives in Warsaw, Moscow and Tel-Aviv. My only quibble with her might be that she could have provided more background on the Polish literature pre-1918. Otherwise, it is difficult to judge for any uninitiated reader what it meant, for instance, for the Futurists to reject Polish romantic poetry. She could perhaps also have stressed more the essential continuity of the Polish culture, despite all the political twists and turns. I personally learned about Jasienski from a Jacek Kaczmarski's caustic song about him!
(This review was originally written for the Polish Library of Washington DC)