Aleksander Wat und "sein" Jahrhundertby Matthias Freise; Andreas Lawaty

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  • Aleksander Wat und "sein" Jahrhundert by Matthias Freise; Andreas LawatyReview by: Joachim T. BaerSlavic Review, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 630-631Published by:Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1520357 .Accessed: 10/06/2014 19:57

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  • Slavic Review Slavic Review

    realities by rearranging categories of scholarly scrutiny. The appearance of this work is one more indication that the "aspects of a writer" routine in Slavic scholarship may have out- lived its usefulness.

    EWA THOMPSON Rice University

    Aleksander Wat und "sein"Jahrhundert. Ed. Matthias Freise and Andreas Lawaty. Ver6f- fentlichungen des Deutschen Polen-Instituts Darmstadt, no. 15. Wiesbaden: Harras- sowitz Verlag, 2002. 300 pp. Notes. Index. C24.80, paper.

    The present volume is a tribute not only to Aleksander Wat (1900-1967) but to the edi- tors and the German Institute of Polish Studies as well. Foundation support (Robert Bosch Stiftung) and the University of Leipzig Center for the History and Culture of East Central Europe aided in the publication of this volume. A number of texts had to be translated from Polish into German, and one text from Russian into German. This first-class publi- cation was assembled from presentations given at a conference on the one hundredth an- niversary of Wat's birth (2000) and on the occasion of the German edition of his "spoken memoir"-Jenseits von Wahrheit und Liige (Beyond truth and falsehood), M6j wiek in Polish (1977), My Century in English (1988)-and was prepared to coincide with the annual Frankfurt International Book Fair in October 2000, where Poland and Polish literature were given central focus.

    Collections of scholarly presentations of this type are difficult to review. It is impos- sible to mention and comment on each of the sixteen presentations, yet mentioning only a few has the appearance of bias. Even listing all the authors and the titles of their contri- butions would appear impractical. Some general observations will have to suffice. Follow- ing the preface by the editors (Matthias Freise and Andreas Lawaty), the essays are grouped into four sections: history, religion, poetry and identity, and avant-garde and modernism.

    One cannot say that Wat lived a very long life (he died a self-inflicted death at the age of 67, in 1967), yet a rich life it certainly was, richer in events than any person could have wished. The intensity and concentration of horror in Wat's life paralleled that of millions of human beings in central and eastern Europe in the twentieth century. Contributions to the section on history by Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, Witold Kosny, Leonid Luks, German Ritz, Walter Koschmal, and Hans-Christian Trepte open the reader's eyes to Wat's life and times.

    Born into a Polish-Jewish family, Wat (originally Szymon Chwat) was drawn toward the communists in his youth. As for many others, the communists in the early twentieth cen- tury seemed to have the answers to society's problems. Wat speaks of this in his memoirs. In November 1918, when Poland regained her national independence, Wat was young and impressionable, very gifted, with a pronounced literary interest; and the future to him seemed to be with the Russians who had just gone through their October revolution. Fu- turism was the new wave in literature, and Wat started writing in that vein. Somewhat later, he became the editor of a communist literaryjournal and lived as a litterateur up until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

    Escaping from the Germans with his family, he ended up in eastern Poland, as did many of his countrymen, then under Russian occupation. With his arrest in L'viv some months later began his odyssey and passage through hell. The reader will find detailed commentary and analysis in this section of the collected contributions. For a time, Wat was held in Soviet prisons, then he was released and allowed to live in exile in Central Asia (Alma-Ata). When he received permission to return to Poland after 1945, his faith in com- munism having been shattered, Wat believed in a new beginning for his country and the promise of a free and democratically run Poland. Iosif Stalin's plans for Poland, however, did not include democracy and personal freedom for its citizens. While in prison in the Soviet Union, Wat had had a mystical experience and had converted to Roman Catholi- cism, his Judaic beliefs never having been very strong. He resisted the required subordi- nation and the doctrine of socialist realism that the Polish communist state imposed on its writers after 1949. His health already ruined as a result of the deprivations suffered during

    realities by rearranging categories of scholarly scrutiny. The appearance of this work is one more indication that the "aspects of a writer" routine in Slavic scholarship may have out- lived its usefulness.

    EWA THOMPSON Rice University

    Aleksander Wat und "sein"Jahrhundert. Ed. Matthias Freise and Andreas Lawaty. Ver6f- fentlichungen des Deutschen Polen-Instituts Darmstadt, no. 15. Wiesbaden: Harras- sowitz Verlag, 2002. 300 pp. Notes. Index. C24.80, paper.

    The present volume is a tribute not only to Aleksander Wat (1900-1967) but to the edi- tors and the German Institute of Polish Studies as well. Foundation support (Robert Bosch Stiftung) and the University of Leipzig Center for the History and Culture of East Central Europe aided in the publication of this volume. A number of texts had to be translated from Polish into German, and one text from Russian into German. This first-class publi- cation was assembled from presentations given at a conference on the one hundredth an- niversary of Wat's birth (2000) and on the occasion of the German edition of his "spoken memoir"-Jenseits von Wahrheit und Liige (Beyond truth and falsehood), M6j wiek in Polish (1977), My Century in English (1988)-and was prepared to coincide with the annual Frankfurt International Book Fair in October 2000, where Poland and Polish literature were given central focus.

    Collections of scholarly presentations of this type are difficult to review. It is impos- sible to mention and comment on each of the sixteen presentations, yet mentioning only a few has the appearance of bias. Even listing all the authors and the titles of their contri- butions would appear impractical. Some general observations will have to suffice. Follow- ing the preface by the editors (Matthias Freise and Andreas Lawaty), the essays are grouped into four sections: history, religion, poetry and identity, and avant-garde and modernism.

    One cannot say that Wat lived a very long life (he died a self-inflicted death at the age of 67, in 1967), yet a rich life it certainly was, richer in events than any person could have wished. The intensity and concentration of horror in Wat's life paralleled that of millions of human beings in central and eastern Europe in the twentieth century. Contributions to the section on history by Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, Witold Kosny, Leonid Luks, German Ritz, Walter Koschmal, and Hans-Christian Trepte open the reader's eyes to Wat's life and times.

    Born into a Polish-Jewish family, Wat (originally Szymon Chwat) was drawn toward the communists in his youth. As for many others, the communists in the early twentieth cen- tury seemed to have the answers to society's problems. Wat speaks of this in his memoirs. In November 1918, when Poland regained her national independence, Wat was young and impressionable, very gifted, with a pronounced literary interest; and the future to him seemed to be with the Russians who had just gone through their October revolution. Fu- turism was the new wave in literature, and Wat started writing in that vein. Somewhat later, he became the editor of a communist literaryjournal and lived as a litterateur up until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

    Escaping from the Germans with his family, he ended up in eastern Poland, as did many of his countrymen, then under Russian occupation. With his arrest in L'viv some months later began his odyssey and passage through hell. The reader will find detailed commentary and analysis in this section of the collected contributions. For a time, Wat was held in Soviet prisons, then he was released and allowed to live in exile in Central Asia (Alma-Ata). When he received permission to return to Poland after 1945, his faith in com- munism having been shattered, Wat believed in a new beginning for his country and the promise of a free and democratically run Poland. Iosif Stalin's plans for Poland, however, did not include democracy and personal freedom for its citizens. While in prison in the Soviet Union, Wat had had a mystical experience and had converted to Roman Catholi- cism, his Judaic beliefs never having been very strong. He resisted the required subordi- nation and the doctrine of socialist realism that the Polish communist state imposed on its writers after 1949. His health already ruined as a result of the deprivations suffered during

    630 630

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  • Book Reviews 631

    the war and his incarceration, and with the additional stress of fighting communist de- mands, his physical state declined even further. InJanuary 1953, he suffered a brain hem- orrhage, and he remained a sick man from then until July 1967, when he ended his life.

    With the liberalization in Poland following the events of 1956, Wat was allowed to travel to the south of France for his health. His status as a semi-exile from Poland ended during the summer of 1963, when he accepted an invitation to spend a year at the Uni- versity of California at Berkeley. There Czeslaw Milosz encouraged Wat to record his mem- oirs from the past fifty years on tape, prompting Wat and making occasional interjections. Thus, M6j wiek (My century) was created, published in 1977 by the Polonia Book Fund, London. (Both the English and German translations are abridgments.)

    Wat was a very complex human being and is a complex modern Polish poet. The re- ligious element is highly prominent in his poetry and is discussed in three contributions in the section on religion. Although Wat's attachment to Judaism had never been strong, he had a deep interest in the Old Testament prophets, and the two contributions to this section by Gwido Zlatkes and Slawomir Jacek Zurek make many insightful comments on this aspect of Wat's creative persona. Specialists in Hebraic studies and Jewish mysti- cism, Zlatkes and Zurek analyze Wat's curious affinity for bothJudaic traditions and beliefs (Hasidism) and Christian tenets (Kierkegaard). Ryszard Zajtczkowski examines Wat's other intellectual encounters, including with that eccentric Russian thinker, Vasilii Roza- nov (1856-1919).

    The final two sections focus on Wat's contribution and originality as a twentieth- century Polish poet. We have here very fine observations, comments, and references to other Polish poets and writers, such as Witold Gombrowicz, an extraordinarily brilliant writer, of a different background entirely, and certainly not a communist, but also a man of fragile health. Has not frailty in health often played a significant role in an artist's creative life? Krystyna Pietrych's contribution draws attention precisely to this complex of ques- tions. Tomas Venclova who has written the only monograph on Wat (Alexander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast, 1996) draws thoughtful comparisons between some poems by Wat and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Early in Brodsky's creative career, he was much drawn to Wat's artistic oeuvre, and he translated some of his poetry from Polish into Russian.

    The final essay by Wlodzimierz Bolecki on Wat's place in the context of postmodern- ism and modernism is a brilliant summary of Wat's contribution and place in twentieth- century Polish poetry. He stresses the self-destructive element in Wat's oeuvre. Wat's con- frontation with communism, his early belief in and later rejection of this ideology, was an open wound in his life. The figure of Stalin occupied a large role in his thought processes. A high-strung man, Wat had difficulty accepting himself the way he was. He saw commu- nism as a sickness in twentieth-century civilization. Bolecki speaks of this in connection with Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death," even though Kierkegaard's referent was certainly not communism. Yet, Kierkegaard's thought meant a great deal to Wat.

    The gracefully prepared text bears a photograph of Wat on the front cover, a photo- graph taken by the NKVD when Polish citizens in the Soviet Union were pressured into ac- cepting Soviet citizenship at the end of World War II. A compilation of commentaries on the tragic life and original art of one of Poland's significant twentieth-century poets, this volume will likely come to be recognized as an indispensable research tool by scholars in- terested in the poet's creative oeuvre and his "spoken memoir." Furthermore, much is to be gained from this volume for our understanding of the fate of Polish literature in the twentieth century in general.

    JOACHIM T. BAER

    University of North Carolina, Greensboro

    Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918-1992. Ed. Dejan Djokic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. xiii, 356 pp. Notes. Index. $55.00, hard bound. $24.95, paper.

    This valuable compilation of essays examines the history of the Yugoslav idea and Yugo- slavism from 1918 to the early 1990s. Though clearly written from the perspective of the

    Book Reviews 631

    the war and his incarceration, and with the additional stress of fighting communist de- mands, his physical state declined even further. InJanuary 1953, he suffered a brain hem- orrhage, and he remained a sick man from then until July 1967, when he ended his life.

    With the liberalization in Poland following the events of 1956, Wat was allowed to travel to the south of France for his health. His status as a semi-exile from Poland ended during the summer of 1963, when he accepted an invitation to spend a year at the Uni- versity of California at Berkeley. There Czeslaw Milosz encouraged Wat to record his mem- oirs from the past fifty years on tape, prompting Wat and making occasional interjections. Thus, M6j wiek (My century) was created, published in 1977 by the Polonia Book Fund, London. (Both the English and German translations are abridgments.)

    Wat was a very complex human being and is a complex modern Polish poet. The re- ligious element is highly prominent in his poetry and is discussed in three contributions in the section on religion. Although Wat's attachment to Judaism had never been strong, he had a deep interest in the Old Testament prophets, and the two contributions to this section by Gwido Zlatkes and Slawomir Jacek Zurek make many insightful comments on this aspect of Wat's creative persona. Specialists in Hebraic studies and Jewish mysti- cism, Zlatkes and Zurek analyze Wat's curious affinity for bothJudaic traditions and beliefs (Hasidism) and Christian tenets (Kierkegaard). Ryszard Zajtczkowski examines Wat's other intellectual encounters, including with that eccentric Russian thinker, Vasilii Roza- nov (1856-1919).

    The final two sections focus on Wat's contribution and originality as a twentieth- century Polish poet. We have here very fine observations, comments, and references to other Polish poets and writers, such as Witold Gombrowicz, an extraordinarily brilliant writer, of a different background entirely, and certainly not a communist, but also a man of fragile health. Has not frailty in health often played a significant role in an artist's creative life? Krystyna Pietrych's contribution draws attention precisely to this complex of ques- tions. Tomas Venclova who has written the only monograph on Wat (Alexander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast, 1996) draws thoughtful comparisons between some poems by Wat and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Early in Brodsky's creative career, he was much drawn to Wat's artistic oeuvre, and he translated some of his poetry from Polish into Russian.

    The final essay by Wlodzimierz Bolecki on Wat's place in the context of postmodern- ism and modernism is a brilliant summary of Wat's contribution and place in twentieth- century Polish poetry. He stresses the self-destructive element in Wat's oeuvre. Wat's con- frontation with communism, his early belief in and later rejection of this ideology, was an open wound in his life. The figure of Stalin occupied a large role in his thought processes. A high-strung man, Wat had difficulty accepting himself the way he was. He saw commu- nism as a sickness in twentieth-century civilization. Bolecki speaks of this in connection with Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death," even though Kierkegaard's referent was certainly not communism. Yet, Kierkegaard's thought meant a great deal to Wat.

    The gracefully prepared text bears a photograph of Wat on the front cover, a photo- graph taken by the NKVD when Polish citizens in the Soviet Union were pressured into ac- cepting Soviet citizenship at the end of World War II. A compilation of commentaries on the tragic life and original art of one of Poland's significant twentieth-century poets, this volume will likely come to be recognized as an indispensable research tool by scholars in- terested in the poet's creative oeuvre and his "spoken memoir." Furthermore, much is to be gained from this volume for our understanding of the fate of Polish literature in the twentieth century in general.

    JOACHIM T. BAER

    University of North Carolina, Greensboro

    Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918-1992. Ed. Dejan Djokic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. xiii, 356 pp. Notes. Index. $55.00, hard bound. $24.95, paper.

    This valuable compilation of essays examines the history of the Yugoslav idea and Yugo- slavism from 1918 to the early 1990s. Though clearly written from the perspective of the

    This content downloaded from 91.229.229.182 on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 19:57:31 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

    http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

    Article Contentsp. 630p. 631

    Issue Table of ContentsSlavic Review, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. i-xii+459-704Front Matter [pp. i-viii]Abstracts [pp. ix-xi]DiscussionWas the Soviet System Reformable? [pp. 459-488]The Soviet Union: Reform of the System or Systemic Transformation? [pp. 489-504]The Reform of the Soviet System and the Demise of the Soviet State [pp. 505-512]The Question of Questions: Was the Soviet Union Worth Saving? [pp. 513-526]Reform and Revolution in the Late Soviet Context [pp. 527-534]Alternative Pasts, Future Alternatives? [pp. 535-552][Discussion]: A Reply [pp. 553-554]

    Regulating Old Believer Marriage: Ritual, Legality, and Conversion in Nicholas I's Russia [pp. 555-576]How the Soviet Man Was (Un)Made [pp. 577-596]The Material Existence of Soviet Samizdat [pp. 597-618]Book ReviewsReview: untitled [p. 619]Review: untitled [pp. 619-620]Review: untitled [pp. 621-622]Review: untitled [pp. 622-623]Review: untitled [pp. 623-624]Review: untitled [pp. 624-625]Review: untitled [pp. 625-626]Review: untitled [pp. 626-627]Review: untitled [pp. 627-628]Review: untitled [pp. 628-630]Review: untitled [pp. 630-631]Review: untitled [pp. 631-633]Review: untitled [pp. 633-634]Review: untitled [pp. 634-635]Review: untitled [p. 636]Review: untitled [pp. 636-638]Review: untitled [pp. 638-639]Review: untitled [pp. 639-640]Review: untitled [pp. 640-641]Review: untitled [pp. 641-642]Review: untitled [pp. 642-643]Review: untitled [pp. 643-645]Review: untitled [pp. 645-646]Review: untitled [pp. 646-647]Review: untitled [pp. 647-648]Review: untitled [pp. 648-649]Review: untitled [pp. 649-650]Review: untitled [p. 651]Review: untitled [p. 652]Review: untitled [pp. 653-654]Review: untitled [p. 654]Review: untitled [pp. 655-656]Review: untitled [pp. 656-657]Review: untitled [pp. 657-659]Review: untitled [pp. 659-660]Review: untitled [pp. 660-661]Review: untitled [pp. 661-662]Review: untitled [pp. 662-663]Review: untitled [pp. 663-665]Review: untitled [p. 665]Review: untitled [pp. 665-667]Review: untitled [pp. 667-668]Review: untitled [pp. 668-669]Review: untitled [pp. 669-670]Review: untitled [pp. 670-671]Review: untitled [pp. 671-672]Review: untitled [p. 673]Review: untitled [pp. 674-675]Review: untitled [pp. 675-676]Review: untitled [pp. 676-677]Review: untitled [pp. 677-678]Review: untitled [pp. 678-679]Review: untitled [pp. 679-680]Review: untitled [pp. 680-681]Review: untitled [pp. 681-682]Review: untitled [pp. 682-683]Review: untitled [pp. 683-684]Review: untitled [pp. 684-685]Review: untitled [pp. 685-686]Review: untitled [pp. 686-687]Review: untitled [pp. 687-688]Review: untitled [pp. 688-689]

    Reference Books of 2002-2003: A Selection [pp. 690-696]Collected Essays [pp. 697-698]Books Received [pp. 699-702]Obituary: Reginald E. Zelnik, 1936-2004 [pp. 703-704]Back Matter

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