Category Archives: Polish

Olga Tokarczuk’s Storytelling

Aleksandra Majak is currently working on her DPhil in English and Slavonic literature of the twentieth and twentieth-first century. In her project she looks on how the influx of Central Eastern European poetry in translation has galvanized a new, more ‘direct’ mode of poetic expression in the Anglo-American lyric of late modernism. In this post she shares some thoughts on the work of the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk.

Poster: Bartek Bałut
Photography: Łukasz Giza

‘Literature is built on tenderness toward any being other than ourselves,’ said Olga Tokarczuk in a deep, calm voice as she addressed the audience during her Nobel acceptance speech. In 2018, the Swedish academy honored her work for ‘a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life’. That – after Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska – made Tokarczuk the fifth Polish author to receive Nobel Prize in literature, and quite possibly the coolest one.

Tokarczuk is a feminist, activist and ethical vegetarian. Still, the most intriguing thing about this author is the way her at once intricate and disturbing books encourage readers to consider the boundaries between the real and the imagined; how, perhaps somewhere on the verge of both, we live in the world of stories yet untold. Indeed, she believes that ‘a thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes’. Much of her work muses on an ostensibly simple but ultimately rather complex question: why does storytelling matter?

Since her 1993 debut, The Journey of the Book-People, Tokarczuk’s works have explored stories of borderlands; often occurring at the intersections of languages, flowing between literary genres, and taking place botheverywhere and nowhere at once. Early responses to Tokarczuk’s work often focused on its peripheral status vis-a-vis more mainstream tendencies within Polish mid-1990s fiction, until her Primeval and Other Times (1996) – in which a fictitious village evolves into a microcosm of turbulent twentieth-century history and the lives of its eccentric characters intertwine – became her first widely appreciated novel.

Olga Tokarczuk and translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones during New Horizons festival, Wrocław, 2018, Photo: Maciej Kulczyński 

Written in Polish, her books have been translated into over 37 languages, each translation offering a subtly new interpretation of the original. Here, meaning is not – as Robert Frost’s oft-quoted line asserts – ‘lost’ in translation. Instead, it is through translation that literature otherwise ‘foreign’ to some audiences comes to matter. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, an alumna of MML at Oxford and now an award-winning translator of Polish literature into English (including Tokarczuk’s novels), sees a rising interest in contemporary literature in translation but also hopes to see more lost or forgotten classics revived: ‘postwar Polish literature is full of neglected gems.’

So what exactly do critics – most of whom read Tokarczuk in languages other than Polish – have in mind when they esteem the writer for her ‘narrative imagination’ and ‘crossing the boundaries as a form of life’? Part of the answer has to do with the writer’s fascination with the possibilities of telling the same story in multiple ways. Her most complex novels are narrated with unusual ease but in purposefully fragmentary threads – told by unreliable or eccentric characters, or emerging in moments of narrative breaks and silences.

In fact, the author’s keenness for decentralised, maze-like, and box-within-a-box plotlines took is rooted in her interest in psychology, which she went on to study at the University of Warsaw. The novelist once told The Guardian that reading Freud in her youth was her first step towards becoming a writer. Exploring his works on psychoanalysis brought her to the realisation that there are countless ways to interpret our experience – that storytelling, akin to the human psyche, is made up of constellatory rather than linear structures. This excerpt from the English translation of her Nobel lecture captures her desire to challenge narrative linearity (this is at 48:08-50:09 of the online recording of the lecture):

I keep wondering if these days it’s possible to find the foundations of a new story that’s universal, comprehensive, all-inclusive, rooted in nature, full of contexts and at the same time understandable.

Could there be a story that would go beyond the uncommunicative prison of one’s own self, revealing a greater range of reality and showing the mutual connections? That would be able to keep its distance from the well-trodden, obvious and unoriginal center point of commonly shared opinions, and manage to look at things ex-centrically, away from the center?

I am pleased that literature has miraculously preserved its right to all sorts of eccentricities, phantasmagoria, provocation, parody and lunacy. I dream of high viewing points and wide perspectives, where the context goes far beyond what we might have expected. […]

I also dream of a new kind of narrator―a “fourth-person” one, who is not merely a grammatical construct of course, but who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time.

In all its contradictions, the concept of ‘a fourth-person narrator’ is both odd and fascinating. It combines as well as transgresses the well-known forms of narration that we first got to know in school: first or third person narrator; omniscient or limited perspective; direct address or the detached observer. Here the dream for ‘a fourth-person’ narrator, imagined as a tender and curious observer, is not only about the actual narrator but about the dream itself. Its potency, rhetoric, and creative power is able to transcend all the boundaries of traditional narrative. And if the project is intentionally left unfinished, why do you think that might be?

Her polyphonic vision of narration is also important if we consider the political situation of contemporary Poland. In this climate, literature has had a long-standing patriotic obligation towards promoting a monolithic idea of the country and its culture, which – as the noted historian Norman Davies, who works on Central Eastern Europe, has remarked – allows ‘myth to flourish’. Many of these myths have left their mark and much of the Anglo-American accounts of Poland became homogeneous in responding to this.

When the popularity of translation increased rapidly in the mid 1960s, commentaries promoted a naive belief that East Central European literature might be characterised by a few political clichés, prizing its universal aesthetics, and offering the reader an interpretation typically full of loose references to turbulent history or the poetry of witness or survival. It would be tempting though ultimately trite to look on the phosphorescent structures of Tokarczuk’s plots as a counter-balance to the daily reality of a country now overshadowed (and gradually damaged) by the politics of the ruling homophobic Law and Justice (PIS) party.

Tokarczuk’s polyphonic narration resounds ever more meaningfully in the growing popularity of autobiographical writing, particularly the type of one-season celebrity-authored work which has little to offer beyond self-promotion. One of Tokarczuk’s concerns about today’s printing market is the dominance of tales that ‘narrowly orbit the self of a teller who more or less directly just writes about herself and through herself’, thus creating an paradoxical and alienating opposition between the ‘I’ and reality. For Tokarczuk, this presents yet another potentially fruitful opportunity for her to cross the boundary.

Still, if reading Tokarczuk is an exercise in boundary-crossing, it is not without a certain paradox, for to cross the boundaries is to admit that they do exist. The author references this contradiction in a scene from her untranslated book Final Stories (2015), where one of the characters tells the story of an undefined borderland moved during the night to some entirely different place, leaving the people ‘on the wrong side’; as the speaker adds with irony: ‘as humans cannot live without borders, we set off to find one’.

Other than readily available online resources, such as the full version of her Nobel acceptance speech, for a first read of Tokarczuk’s somewhat challenging work I would recommended Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of a Dead in the translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. This riveting novel toys with the genre of crime-fiction in its witty but dark quest to solve a mystery troubling the local community. Comparing the narrative to its film adaptation Spoor (2017) directed by Agnieszka Holland might spark a fruitful debate, especially in considering how the atmosphere and humour of the novel is translated into the visual language.

by Aleksandra Majak

Studying Russian and other Slavonic Languages: New Videos

Recently we held an online open day for potential applicants interested in studying Russian and other Slavonic languages here at the University of Oxford. If you were unable to attend but would like to know more, we are delighted to share a playlist of videos with more information about our undergraduate courses. You can view the videos on our YouTube channel here.

Literatures of Multilingual Europe: Polish

Oxford is one of the few British universities where Polish can be studied to degree level. For more information, see here. Application is open to beginners as well as existing speakers of Polish, including those with Polish A-levels. Polish language and literature are also available as optional subjects to students of Modern Languages other than Polish, notably Russian and Czech, as well as to undergraduates in Linguistics.

If Polish piques your curiosity, you might like to begin exploring literature written in Polish. This post originally appeared on the Taylor Institution Library’s blog, as part of a lecture series on ‘Literatures of Multilingual Europe.’ Here, Dr Kasia Szymańska gives us an insight into Polish literature in a piece written to accompany the webinar of her lecture. We are grateful to the Taylor Library and Joanne Ferrari for allowing us to reblog this post here.

You can view the webinar of Kasia’s lecture by clicking the image below or following this link.

The lecture series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, most of which took place in the course of Michaelmas (autumn term) 2018 came at a very significant time. As we were giving our talks at the Taylorian, we could hear the almost imperceptible sound of the Brexit time-bomb ticking towards its final countdown like the calm before the storm. How ironic to introduce ‘lesser-known’ European literatures such as Scandinavian, Irish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Modern Greek, and Yiddish to -our English-speaking audience at a time when we could not even take an interest in the more mainstream ones for granted? This thought kept nagging away at the back of my mind as we discussed the rather flimsy position of translated literature in the UK and the US during our introductory panel.

2018 was a particularly successful year for Polish literature and film in the UK. The Man Booker International Prize was awarded to Polish contemporary writer (and later the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature) Olga Tokarczuk and her American translator Jennifer Croft for Flights (Fitzcarraldo). This happened only the year after yet another Polish author, Wioletta Greg (based in the UK), made it onto the longlist alongside her translator Eliza Marciniak for Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books). In 2019, Tokarczuk was shortlisted again with her other translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo). Some might call it a literary hat-trick, others might see it as a positive trend for the British reception of Polish works. In other news relating to the visual arts in 2018, the UK-based and Oxford-educated Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, known for his previously Academy-awarded Ida (2014), created another black-and-white masterpiece entitled Cold War. The film earned him the Best Director prize in Cannes and three nominations for the Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film.

Wioletta Greg ; translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak. London : Portobello Books, 2017.

While this was clearly a reason to celebrate the significance of Polish artistic output in the UK, it still felt like a parallel universe somewhat disengaged from everyday problems. Polish is currently the second most widely spoken language in the UK after English and, on a wave of anti-EU sentiment, the Polish minority in the UK has been subject to a range of xenophobic assaults, including verbal and physical violence such as hostile graffiti, offensive messages and gang attacks. Of course, there have been strong moves to commemorate the presence and contribution of Poles in the UK way before 2004 (e.g. the Chopin statue in Manchester, the Joseph Conrad bike tour, Polish ENIGMA code breakers in Bletchley Park, the statue of war hero General Maczek, the statue of Wojtek the Bear, and the Great Polish map of Scotland, to mention a few).

However, it is very difficult to bring the two divergent worlds together, when there is so little academic interest in Polish literature and culture. Whilst the study of the history, economy, and politics of the country is also crucial, elevating and re-evaluating the status of Poland’s vibrant literary and cultural activity across the centuries might be a more promising way of changing the way it is perceived ‘under Western eyes’. This was partly the intention of the introductory talk which I gave for the series. In addition to serving as a taster of a lesser-known literature and highlighting the Bodleian and Taylorian’s collection, the talk was meant to condense the long rich history of a literature which represents Britain’s ‘invisible minority’. This literature perhaps remains overshadowed by the stereotyped view of a community which is thought of as just another Eastern European country supplying the UK with skilled manual labour.

2018 was also symbolic for another reason: it marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after more than a century of being partitioned between three empires (those of Prussia, Austria, and Russia). These partitions took place at the end of the eighteenth century, after hundreds of years of a prosperous Kingdom of Poland and later a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and exerted a stranglehold over Polish life and culture throughout most of the nineteenth century up until 1918. It is towards the end of this tumultuous period interspersed with failed uprisings and frustration that anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski and writer Joseph Conrad (or more accurately: Józef Konrad Korzeniowski) arrived in London at the heart of the British Empire. It is also half way through this period, in 1850, that the Bodleian Library purchased a large collection of early Polish books known as Libri polonici (see Stone 2005), which would become one of the major collections of the kind in the West. This repository includes less than two thousand items such as printings of sixteenth-century literature, a unique copy of the first Polish newspaper dating back to 1557 and material related to Polish Arianism in the age of Reformation.

Libri polonici (Polonica from the Bodleian’s pre-1920 catalogue), entry on different printings of the work by Mikołaj Rej (1505-69), one of the founders of the Polish literary language.

Fifteen years later, in 1865, the Earl of Ilchester, a friend of the Polish prince and statesman Adam Czartoryski, endowed the University of Oxford with a substantial sum to encourage ‘the study of the Polish and other Slavonic languages, Literature, and History’. He made it explicit in his will that priority should be given to Polish over any other Slavonic language. However, most likely following the advice of an amateur philologist, Lord Strangford, Convocation breached the agreement. Instead, the University funded the study of Russian, the language of one of Poland’s imperial occupiers at that time (see: Stone 2005). Taking this backstory into account, there are few places where the celebration of Poland’s regained independence from imperial forces could have been felt more powerfully so many years later than here in  Oxford.

When preparing for the talk and asking our Library Subject Specialist Nick Hearn for books to be displayed, I came to realize that the collections of both the Bodleian and the Taylorian were far more diverse and rich in Polish sources than I could ever have foreseen. As part of Libri polonici, the Weston Library holds quite a number of early seventeenth-century printings of the work of Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski (1530–84), including his cantos, epigrams (fraszki), threnodies (treny), and elegies, both  in Polish or Latin. In my talk, I introduced his cycle of threnodies or lamentations entitled Treny from 1580, movingly rendered into English by Seamus Heaney and Stanisław Barańczak, among others. In particular, I briefly discussed Kochanowski’s ‘Lament 7’:

‘Tren 7’ by Jan Kochanowski, Kraków 1639, Weston Library (Libri polonici).

The holdings of the Taylor Institution library were in particular a great surprise to me. As part of the series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, we hosted Professor Bill Johnston from Indiana University. Bill returned to Oxford after decades (he read Modern Languages at University College in the early 1980s) to read from his newly released Guggenheim-funded translation of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Originally published in Paris in 1834, Pan Tadeusz [Master Thaddeus] comprises twelve books in verse and is sometimes considered the last great epic poem in European literature as well as the Polish national epic. How excited we were to see that the Taylorian was actually in possession of the first edition!

Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, Paris 1834, Taylorian collections.

With their worn-out edges and dog-eared pages, library holdings like this one contain whole different universes and bygone worlds, which have sadly sunk into oblivion and remain unexplored. They could almost stand for the “empty frames” in the hall of mirrors from this passage in Bill’s translation of Pan Tadeusz (p. 52):

These memories had clearly left him pained,

He wished them gone. Upstairs they came at last

To a great room that had been in the past

A hall of mirrors; now all you could see

Were empty frames and windows. A gallery

Overlooked the gate. Gerwazy hid his eyes

In his cupped hands, head bowed in thought. His gaze,

When he looked up, showed grief and hopelessness.

Dusting off some of Bodleian and Taylorian’s impressive holdings and revisiting their stories seemed like giving them a new lease of life. To speak about them to the Oxford public was an act of filling these empty frames again with some colours and reflected images. Perhaps, some other generation of readers, students, and scholars will also come to look into all these mirrors, and hopefully, they will find and recognise themselves in their reflections, too.

Dr Kasia Szymańska

Former Junior Research Fellow in ML, Oxford; Thomas Brown Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin.


Polish literature bibliography

Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855 : selected poems, editor: Clark Mills (et al.) New York: Noonday Press, 1956

Foer, Jonathan  Tree of codes London: Visual editions, 2010

Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Kraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 2010

Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke  Translated by E. Mosbacher, London, 1965

Greg, Wioletta  Swallowing mercury  Translated by Eliza Marciniak  London: Portobello books, 2017

Kochanowski, Jan  Laments Translated by Seamus Heaney and  Stanisław Barańczak,

Kochanowski, Jan Treny Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1986

Krasicki, Ignacy  Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki Warszawa: Książka, 1947

Krasicki, Ignacy The adventures of Mr Nicholas Wisdom Translated by Thomas Hoisington Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992

Krasicki, Ignacy Monachomachia ; Antymonachomachia Warszawa : Książka i Wiedza, 1988

Krasicki, Ignacy Myszeidos pieśni X Wrocław : Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1986

Lem, Stanislaw  Solaris  Warsaw: Agora, 2008

Mickiewicz, Adam  Ballady i romanse Lipsk, 1852

Mickiewicz, Adam  Forefather’s Eve Translated by Count Potocki of Montalk  London: Polish cultural foundation, 1968

Mickiewicz, Adam  Dziady  Wrocław, 1864

Mickiewicz, Adam  Pan Tadeusz, or, The last foray in Lithuania: a story of the gentry from 1811 and 1812: comprising twelve books in verse Translated by Bill Johnston  New York: First Archipelago Books edition, 2018

Mickiewicz, Adam  Pan Tadeusz, czyli, Ostatni zajazd na Litwie : historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812, we dwunastu ksiegach, wierszem Paris, 1834

Miłosz, Czesław The History of Polish Literature  Berkeley : University of California Press, 1983

Peterkiewicz, Jerzy, Five centuries of Polish poetry, 1450-1950; an anthology London: Secker & Warburg, 1960

Prus, Boleslaw  The doll Translated by David Welsh  New York: New York Review, 2011

Prus, Boleslaw  Lalka: powieść w trzech tomach  Warsaw: PIW, 1972

Schulz, Bruno  The street of crocodiles  London: Pan books, 1980

Schulz, Bruno  Sklepy cynamonowe ; Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą    Translated by Celina WieniewskaKraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 1994

Tokarczuk, Olga  Flights  Translated by Jennifer Croft  London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018