Saturday, 9 April 2011

Literary flavours of PRL

I'm currently reading (and greatly enjoying) Z Głowy by Janusz Głowacki, a Polish author, playwright and screenwriter; a very funny and insight-laden book. Below: a photo of Głowacki (circa 1985; Miami Vice style-white jacket with rolled-up sleeves over T-shirt), currently on display on Al. Ujazdowski, part of an exhibition of portraits of Poles who became famous in America.

I find Głowacki at his best describing the middle period the the communist years, from the mid-60s to the late 70s. As well as the acerbic observations into everyday life of that period, Głowacki's autobiography gives some poignant insights about the moral decisions made by creative people when facing the all-powerful censorship apparatus of the totalitarian state.

The Regime needed talented writers yet talented writers were well aware of the brutal absurdity of the Regime. But talented writers needed the Regime to get to reach their audience, so an uncomfortable accommodation was reached, with authors' self-censorship balancing the censor's judicious application of a blind eye. Głowacki describes many encounters with the censor (and other filters along the way - editors, publishers, directors). Criticism of the system had to be allowed - but only that criticism which the system deemed to be Constructive.
"In [communist] Polish theatre, there was never any good Comedy. Things that you were allowed to laugh at, no one found amusing. And things that did make people laugh, would never get past the censor. It was even worse with Tragedy."
Some writers, editors, publishers and directors were more pliant vis-a-vis the Regime; the more unruly ones were pushed to the far fringes and would often leave Poland to write abroad. Głowacki found himself in London when Martial Law befell Poland, and then moved to New York where he lived and worked until the fall of communism.

Głowacki describes the writer's block he experienced in New York City when, free of the censor, he could write anything he wanted. At first, he found he couldn't. His mind had been so conditioned to finding ways of smuggling messages around the censor. Freedom, when first sampled, was a heady wine.

His portrayal of life in New York for Polish immigrants was uncompromising. Their families back home imagined them to be living the lives of millionaires, while the reality was holding down two poorly-paid jobs and sleeping on a mattress in a tiny room in a cockroach-infested flat in a bad part of town. And yet the family in Poland would demand money; the immigrant would send it to show how successful he or she was, having made it in the American Dream. Greenpoint, the Polish district of New York is shown as a hopeless place.

The chronology of the narrative switches from 1980s USA to his childhood; as a six year-old he was caught up in the Warsaw Uprising; cutting backwards and forwards to ensure that contrasts within the rich life he led are prominently exhibited. But he is in his element among the low-life and literary elite in various Warsaw bars and restaurants; the ever-present informants, children of top politicians and semi-legal entrepreneurs, secret policemen, ladies of easy virtue and clients of the Regime. Spicy anecdote follows spicy anecdote (many of which have had the effect of making me laugh out loud on buses and trains). He portrays himself as a hard-drinking Jack-the-Lad type, equally at home with famous writers and actors as with dodgy types from Bazar Różyckiego.

Leopold Tyrmand, whose Dziennik 1954 r. (Diary for 1954) and Zły I read, also captures those same flavours of PRL-era seedy night-life centred on bars and restaurants. The drink of choice here is usually the seta (augmentative form of setka, 100g of vodka - a quadruple measure by UK pub standards). If this is not enough, there's the lorneta (lorgnette), consisting of a pair of sety, together looking like opera glasses. And for a bigger session, a połówka (half), being a half-litre bottle of vodka, typically to share with some down-on-his-luck literary type. And when Głowacki's down on his luck, an author whose star is in the ascendant will no doubt get him drunk. He describes in great details the dives and drinking-holes where the once-famous or soon-to-be-famous borrowed money off him or bought him beers.

To give you a flavour of his style, I've translated a paragraph, at random (the current position of my bookmark...)
"From my student days I'd been trying to wangle [kombinować] a way out of my parents' flat on ul. Bednarska. I wanted my own flat, but never had the money to buy one. I belonged to a housing cooperative and waited, as did everyone, for decades. I submitted numerous applications. Once, attempting to gain the sympathy of the city authorities, I wrote that I live with an alcoholic mother and a mentally-ill father. My mother was indignant, because she couldn't stand alcoholics, and ordered me to change it so that she was mentally ill, and my father the alcoholic. When a committee came round, my mother played the part well. "It's a scandal," she ranted, "that a young writer should not have a flat of his own!", so they believed that she was mad. But my father, for whom I bought a half-litre of Żytnia vodka, even drank some, but then refused to lie on the floor singing. And so the processing of my application for a flat of my own was not speeded up."
If I have one serious criticism of Głowacki's autobiography, it is that there's almost no discussion of the creative process; it's a though one night he gets very, very drunk with assorted ne'er-do-wells in a dodgy establishment on Lower East Side, then the very next morning tosses off a play that gets directed by Arthur Penn and stars Christopher Walken. But what about the endless hours of writing, re-drafting, searching for the right bon mot or delicate allusion, forceful punchline or hilarious gag? Not a bit of it. Like a grade 'A' pupil who tells his less gifted and lazier classmates that he never revises ahead of all those exams, Głowacki suggests that his path to literary success was effortless, all inspiration, no perspiration.

But then all autobiography, there's a fair element of self-mythologising here; Głowacki likes to present himself as a hard-drinking, hard-loving bon viveur and man of letters. Showing the workshop side of creativity would not sit comfortably with this image.

A priceless book for anyone who missed out on life in communist times; a translation into English would be useful - though an incredibly difficult challenge to catch the humour in the language.

This time last year:
The drug of the nation

This time two years ago:
Needs and wants

This time three years ago:
On the road from Łódź

This time four years ago:
Aerial views of the ground


Chris said...

It's worth to say that after the first print of Tyrmand's "Zły", the "propaganda sukcesu"-regime (how to translate it properly, could you?) banned all re-editions of this book, because it did not fit into the "thriving and prosperous country" Party line. I'm not really sure if the same thing happened to the "Dziennik 1954 r.", I'll look it up.

Anonymous said...

It's extremely funny (given your previous post) that you just failed to notice "The Creative Process". Yes, it took place over the pół litra.

basia said...

My copy of the book is in the hands of a girlfirend whose brother just returned from PL.
Looking forward to reading it.
I'll let you know what I think once I'm done.