Gustaw Herling – Grudziński (1919-2000)

During „the year of Giedroyc”, the figure of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (1919-2000), the friend and collaborator of Giedroyc in Kultura, a writer of the highest rank who can be placed on the same level as Miłosz or Gombrowicz, should also be remembered. For years, he was one of the great forgotten, considered enemy number one in the PRL and always erased from textbooks and publishers’ plans. If one did not have access to underground publications, then one did not have any chance to come across his name. This prisoner of the Soviet camps, who also served as a soldier in Anders’ army, a hero of Monte Cassino who lived in Naples after the war, was sentenced to literary nonexistence in communist Poland. His reception in Poland after 1989 was all the stronger because his work appeared suddenly at full creative maturity and raised questions related to philosophy, art, religion, literature, and politics. One can divide his work into three different areas: testimony, fiction, and chronicle.

Gustaw Herling
Gustaw Herling

The publication A World Apart (Inny świat) is an expression of Herling-Grudziński’s testimony. The report from the Soviet camp in Jercew, where the young Herling spent several months after deportation, was written in 1952. Published in London with a remarkable introduction by Bertrand Russell, the book was quickly ignored, as the left wing establishment in France and Italy did not want to admit any thought that the book could be a realistic telling and not a literary construction written in the spirit of Orwell. This unusual book was read in Poland after 1989, when it was published by Czytelnik for the first time, in an edition of millions of copies; at once, the book was considered on the same level as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Today the book has become a classic of antitotalitarian literature, and the name of Herling-Grudziński will always be mentioned together with the names of the most famous writers who attempted to demask the ideological lies of the Soviet system.

Herling-Grudziński’s stories are small literary forms. They possess an unrepeatable mood, which is a cross between the surrealistic climate of the stories of Kafka and the delicacy and sad existential necessity of the stories of Camus. Above all, there is always present in them an element of humanity in its struggle with different forms of evil, dark forces of destiny, and powerful emotions that disregard common sense, along with the unavoidable, accustomed fate of the course history. However, there is always present some moral passion, an effort to limit and rein in the inexplicable and incomprehensible in favor of the individual, in service of the good and individual truth.  These stories do not leave the reader indifferent; rather, they force the reader to consider higher moral standards and, in a certain way, force us to forsake loneliness, despair, and evil for some transcendental hope and higher sense.

The chronicle of Herling-Grudziński is The Journal Written at Night (Dziennik pisany nocą). It is meant to be a record, an enduring memory of history and the tragic acts of life in a „cursed age”. It is also meant to be, in the intentions of the author, a continuation of Gombrowicz’s Diary. As in Gombrowicz, the appearance of reality was completely subjective, based on the horizons of one’s own „I”; in Grudziński, this horizon becomes completely objective, and the narrative proceeds in a non-engaged style, as if from the point of view of a spectator describing the craziness of an epoch playing out in front of him. It is difficult to write something wise about Herling-Grudziński’s diary in a few words. Better to simply read it, to immerse oneself in the richness of its contents and gain a complete picture of the author’s intellectual horizons. Everything is there – including penetrating remarks on themes in literature and art (especially painting), philosophical and religious commentary, and unusually sensible thoughts on Polish politics and Polish intellectual life.

The diary is – as the author himself calls it – an „intellectual portrait of the age”. The problem of the totalitarian experience of the twentieth century, and its effect on culture and literature, recurs often throughout the diary. situated in light of totalitarianism. Herling-Grudziński defends a lasting moral hierarchy against the relativism and humiliating compromises that led to the shameful „betrayal of the clerks” and the calculations of twentieth century intellectuals being favored over the honor and virtue of the „uncompromising prince”. Thanks to this attitude Herling-Grudziński remains for an entire generation of Poles the writer who not only best translated our reality but gave us courage and hope among the gloom and complications of history; he also taught us how to cope with, and to overcome, evil and suffering.

Ryszard Mordarski
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 12/2006