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There is not a gray hair in my soul, no senile tenderness in me! Having thundered the world with the might of my voice, I-beautiful, twenty-two years old go. -Vladimir Mayakovsky
IN THE ELEGANT CAPITAL city of Warsaw, the editor Mieczyslaw Grydzewski would bring his two dachshunds to a café called Ziemianska. In the summer the café on Mazowiecka Street opened its garden, yet the place of honor remained a table poised on a platform protruding from the stairway. In these years following the First World War, a small group of poets would gather at Ziemianska. Their Warsaw was a city of cafés and cabarets, of droshkies pulled by horses through cobblestone streets. Often they fell into depressions, overcome with nihilism, with the premonition that the world would soon end. Even so, these were lively times at Ziemianska. The beautiful Ola Watowa, who might have become an actress, loved their café life: "At Ziemianska our friends, people we knew sat around every table, passing from one to another. The atmosphere was lively, amusing, people werewitty. There were some venomous jokes as well: instances of ridicule, like ... 'Wazyk with the ugly little face' [Wazyk brzydki twarzyk]. Painters, writers, poets. Slonimski was incomparable in his sharp wit.... Impassioned discussions would break out constantly, everywhere.... On rare occasions the wonderful Witkacy would appear. In the summer Stefan Zeromski-beautiful, imposing-would sit in the garden at Ziemianska.... I would mix chocolate into my coffee."
The table on the platform belonged to the young poets of the journal Skamander-Julian Tuwim, Antoni Slonimski, Jan Lechon, Kazimierz Wierzynski, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, and their friend and editor Mieczyslaw Grydzewski. They "believed deeply in the present." Their luminary was the bibliophile Tuwim, with his unearthly ear for sounds and penchant for Esperanto. Tuwim, the son of a quiet bank clerk, was a Jewish boy from Lódz who attended a Russian school and resolved to become a Polish poet. His sister thought him to be a panacea for all ills and believed him to be surrounded by a magical aura. Tuwim suffered from agoraphobia; at times he appeared restless and fretful. He suffered from something else as well: there was a large birthmark on his face, about which he was terribly self-conscious. Those around him, though, saw something else. The Russian novelist Ilya Ehrenburg was struck by Tuwim's beauty; Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz by his sparkling eyes. The young Iwaszkiewicz had come from Ukraine; he became the host of the legendary Stawisko, an estate where he lived with his beloved wife Anna-and often with his male lovers as well. Iwaszkiewicz was gentle; his letters home during his days in the military were delicate and loving. "My dear Mama!" he wrote home from the army, "Yesterday I tramped around Ostrowa all afternoon with Chwat [Wat], a neofuturist in the machine-gun company here." After Antoni Slonimski fell from a horse in 1919, he was bedridden in his mother's home for weeks. Iwaszkiewicz would come to visit him, and would cringe at Slonimski's harshness towards his mother. Slonimski's acerbic edge was also his most distinguishing character trait, so much a part of his brilliance as an essayist-which made his youthful, unrequited love for a married woman the more poignant.
Also frequenting Ziemianska were the futurists. Tadeusz Peiper, an avantgardist from Cracow just a few years older than the others, returned from a trip to Spain to find that a younger generation, without so much as a glance requesting permission, had seated themselves around the table of literary life. Peiper began to make out their faces: Bruno Jasienski, Anatol Stern, Aleksander Wat. The avant-garde included as well "independent poets"-Wladyslaw Broniewski, Adam Wayk, Stanislaw Ryszard Stande, Mieczyslaw Braun, and Witold Wandurski-although the latter two resided in Lódz and came to Ziemianska only when they found themselves in Warsaw. In January 1922 Broniewski lamented in his diary that he had been reading the Skamander poets and saw that his own poems were only wretched imitations. Stanislaw Ryszard Stande was thin, with an oblong, pale face and a wry grimace, a face that would take on a mocking expression when he smiled. Jan Lechon interpreted Stande's expression as revealing disgust-or at the least distaste-for his Skamander friends, yet this was perhaps unjust: that grimace was the physical result of an accident. During the 1905 Revolution, as an eight-year-old child, Stande was trampled by horses. In 1919 he became the first of the poets to join the Communist Party of Poland (KPP).
Irena Krzywicka, the free-spirited daughter-in-law of the great Marxist sociologist Ludwik Krzywicki, was present at the café Pod Pikadorem where the Skamander poets made their debut in November 1918. A young, shy student, she came to the café with her aunt and uncle, who were taken aback by the young poets who had departed so radically from their predecessors. Krzywicka herself felt differently. "I devoured those young people, whose every poem seemed a revelation of the new poetry," she wrote, "with my eyes, my ears, my entire soul." She was sensitive to the aesthetics of physicality: "Iwaszkiewicz was enormous, slender, with a rare beauty and dreamy, slanting eyes, a thick, sensual mouth, an idle grace; Slonimski had the wise face of a typical intellectual, with a powerful gaze from behind his glasses and narrow, joking lips; Lechon was ugly, thin, with a prominent nose, all crooked with sharp angles, but unlike anyone else; Wierzynski-the most banal and the most handsome in the common sense of that word; well and finally he, Tuwim, with a dark birthmark on his cheek, with raven-dark hair and burning eyes and a strongly bent nose, a typical southerner with an explosive temperament." Irena Krzywicka noticed that conversations with Tuwim tended to take on a fantastical character. She knew Antoni Slonimski's verses by heart, and watched the beautiful married woman who was Slonimski's inspiration. Krzywicka liked Aleksander Wat very much, but was never able to acknowledge him as a literary master. She was skeptical of futurism, and felt neither inclined nor competent to "write without sense." The skepticism was mutual, and Krzywicka was criticized for being a "passéiste"-a criticism to which she in part attributed her own literary paralysis. And so she remained "only a fan of constructivism," not a participant.
Yet it was Wat who was intellectually the most sophisticated. He read prolifically in all the languages around him-Polish, Russian, French, German-with the exception of Yiddish, the only language his father spoke well. His childhood reading included Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Darwin, and when he was only just on the verge of adolescence he had already become a Darwinist-who would insist to his Catholic nanny that God did not exist and humans were descended from apes. When in school he became friends with Anatol Stern, Stern gave Wat the name Buddha-Zarathustra, and together they experienced the negation of all possibilities. Adam Wazyk was not alone in believing that the young Wat actually harbored religious longings, of which he was terribly ashamed.
In January 1919, at the age of eighteen, in a feverish, manic, "trancelike" state Wat composed the long prose poem JA z jednej strony a J A z drugiej strony mego mopsozelaznego piecyka (I from One Side and I from the Other Side of My Cast-Iron Stove). Some five years earlier, the Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti had liberated words from syntax. Wat had not yet discarded syntax, but he did stretch syntax to its threshold, to that liminal space beyond which meaning in its conventional sense was no longer possible. Hovering at this threshold, Wat now told a story of rotting and decay, of the degeneration of civilization. The esoteric sophistication and density of the language betrayed a knowledge of foreign languages, the Bible, European literature, and Greek myths astounding for an eighteen-year-old-a self-education that devastatingly pointed to catastrophism and nothingness. He wrote of eternal nights; of the horror of encountering at midnight one's own sallow image; of the nightingales that sang him to death; of his faces, which he changed with each zenith of the sun. Wat's web of images and allusions played with an inversion that might have been carnivalesque were they not so dark, so macabre. Sleepy castrates moaned in the corners of a grotesque arcade; children emerged from graves to suck his fingers; and "God with a swollen hydrous body trembles from cold and loneliness." "At midnight," the young Wat wrote, "it is always necessary to place your head under the dazzling, yes! dazzling knife of the guillotine." The piece was saturated with a deep sense of moral degeneration, of the collapse of civilization, of the "accursed principium individuationis" that paralyzed him. Nothing redemptive remained, there was no salvation, and the blasphemy throughout the poem suggested less heresy than it did nihilism. Sexuality had become licentious and grotesque: "I leave for your meeting, where trembling in tears and without sensation you will surrender, you will surrender, he (she) will surrender, we will surrender, all of you will surrender, they (they the women) will surrender." Images materialized in his feverish mind: Andalusian witches clapping castanets danced with a long dark thin musical Jew in the heavens of the inhabitants of the Kirghiz steppes. The knight Death approached with rattling gold taps, the knight Hell just behind him. They kissed the narrator's fragrant hands. Palimpsests moved gray sheets of lice and in the corner of a closet a louse was crunched under the large fingernail of a mad god. Wat's friends appeared as well, as did the smile of the woman Antoni Slonimski loved. To the Skamander poets Wat devoted the following passage:
Sage's Slit: to Ant. Slonimski. Stagnation of steam marbles. Polymorphism and polychromism of your skull bewitched you. Signboards will spit and growl: Old scoundrel. To Julian Tuwim. In the polar glowing spaces let love be weakness, which you want to eradicate. naa NN aaa Na Naaa. To Jar. Iwaszkiewicz.
In the last stanza Wat returned to himself, tormented by his own narcissism, and wrote that it was he himself who was burning in the "inquisitorial interior" of his cast-iron stove. This was "too much" for Irena Krzywicka, but not for the older, magnificent Witkacy, who loved Cast-Iron Stove and forced his whole court in Zakopane to read it. Later Bruno Schulz told Wat that it was Cast-Iron Stove that had inspired him to begin writing.
Wat had spent his youth absorbing books he found in his parents' home and imagining a bleak future for himself as a drunk in the gutter, a clochard, or a hermit philosopher living in extreme poverty. His life played itself out somewhat differently. In the spring of 1923, around the time of his twenty-third birthday, Anatol Stern and Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz came with Wat to an end-of-the-year ball at Warsaw's drama school; it was there that Wat met Ola Lew, a first-year drama student. Irena Krzywicka pointed out that while Wat was "very ugly," Ola Lew was beautiful. Shortly after that ball, Wat saw Krzywicka on the corner of Nowogrodzka and Krucza streets and called to her, "Have you seen what good fortune has come to me? Such a beautiful girl-and she wanted me."
Ola Lew was the greatest stroke of good fortune in Aleksander Wat's life. Her parents, however, were not sympathetic; because she brought home a futurist and not a doctor or a lawyer, they refused her a dowry. Undaunted, she left her parents' home and entered Wat's world of colorful personalities. She met Anatol Stern, the only person Wat's tolerant father ever threw out of their home, and Bruno Jasieski, whose memory for poetry was extraordinary. Hovering about their circles as well was Adam Wayk "with the ugly little face," the first in Poland to translate the French futurist Guillaume Apollinaire. This independent avant-garde poet came upon the stage with a dazzling first book, Semafory (Semaphores), given a glittering review in Mieczyslaw Grydzewski's Wiadomosci Literackie (Literary News). Wazyk's brother Saul kept their Jewish surname Wagman and wrote poems as well-Zionist poems.
The Polish futurists enjoyed far less popularity among the reading public than did the Skamander poets. This was largely of their own doing, the result of their efforts to transgress all boundaries of propriety. Polish futurism as a semicoherent endeavor materialized in 1918, when Bruno Jasienski and two other poets organized a futurist club in Cracow. Jasienski himself had only arrived there recently, after graduating from a Polish secondary school in Moscow in the spring of 1918. Of all of them, it was Jasienski who had been closest to the Russian Revolution. He was also the most elegant, and the most pointed cultivator of dandyism, with his top hat and gaunt figure cloaked in black. To some he seemed very self-controlled, closed unto himself, as though he had inside him some obsessive thought that he chose not to share with anyone. Such a demeanor could be off-putting, but also seductive; it did not escape Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz that "schoolgirls went crazy when they saw him." Jasienski drew the attention of his male classmates as well: "I would see him almost every day in front of the main building, with a monocle on his eye: his huge tie suggested the Romantic era, bygone nineteenth-century elegance, and this almost theatrical accessory seemed all the more flagrant on a writer who, in all other respects, had broken with the past and with tradition." The following year, in 1919, the Cracow futurists' Warsaw counterparts Aleksander Wat and Anatol Stern made their debut with a poetry reading titled "A subtropical evening organized by White Negroes." The number of Polish futurists was small, but not without interlocutors, including Witkacy and the avant-garde theater director Leon Schiller, as well as Cracow avantgardists Julian Przybos and Tadeusz Peiper. It was Peiper who proclaimed the slogan of "the metropolis, the masses, the machine." Wat's circle, whose own attitude towards civilization was far more ambivalent, exalted in the revelation of the materiality of language and the liberation of language from representation. For Wat it was this freeing of words that was most essential: "You see, that slogan, the idea of words being liberated, that words were things and you could do whatever you liked with them, that was an enormous revolution in literature; that was a revolution like, let's say, Nietzsche's 'God is dead.'" While Wat credited Marinetti with imbuing him with the idea that words could be liberated, Anatol Stern credited his mother. It was she who taught him to have faith in words, a faith that now set him "ablaze like a live torch!"
Excerpted from Caviar and Ashes by MARCI SHORE Copyright © 2006 by Marci Shore. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Abbreviations||xv|
|Cast of Characters||xvii|
|Introduction: When God Died||1|
|1||Once upon a Time, in a Cafe Called Ziemianska||10|
|2||Love and Revolution||33|
|3||A Visit from Mayakovsky||52|
|4||A Funeral for Futurism||70|
|5||Entanglements, Terror, and the Fine Art of Confession||90|
|6||Autumn in Soviet Galicia||153|
|7||Into the Abyss||194|
|8||Stalinism amidst Warsaw's Ruins||257|
|10||The End of the Affair||330|
|Conclusion: Does History Go On?||366|