“My childhood was quite sad. There were nine of us children. I had seven sisters and I often hid amongst them because we were subjected to the harshest discipline by our god-fearing parents. Our father was implacable, punishing our childish indiscretions relentlessly. I was terrorized by fear and the uncertainty of my lot . . .but yet, fascinated with the outside world… My existence was bleak, surrounded by poverty and harshness with only hard work to look forward to each day…”
Such are the memories of the earliest years of our celebrated novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont.
He was born on May 7, 1867 in the village of Kobiele Wielkie near Radom. His father was an organist and a secretary in the parish office and his mother was a housewife. Shortly after his birth, his parents moved to the outskirts of Lodz, taking up residence at their own farm, where Wladyslaw spent his childhood.
He was not a particularly good student in elementary school and his parents decided that he had to learn a trade. They dispatched him to the care of his oldest sister whose husband owned a tailor shop in Warsaw. Training to be a tailor held no interest for the future writer however, and at the age of 18 he joined a theatrical group. Thus began a very difficult period, but by no means a waste of time in the life of the future novelist. He quickly gained tremendous experience and knowledge from life’s cruel lessons, often suffering hunger and cold on top of many disappointments and just plain hard luck.
Not endowed with great acting talent, he returned to his parents’ home and through his father’s efforts, obtained a job as a laborer on the railway linking Warsaw to Vienna. The low pay did not suffice to cover even his most basic needs, and he soon left the railroad, returning to the theater, only to fail once again.
The next phase of his life sees the awakening of a hidden talent as the writer emerges. He begins to look at his world from an author’s point of view. Engaging in the everyday activities of his life, he observes, noting details and impressions, and he writes. Reymont’s first works were poems, short stories and novellas, entitled: “Christmas Eve” “Death” and “The Bitch”, followed by a short story, “The Comedienne” in 1895, and within two years, “Ferment”. It’s likely that during this time, the writer changed his name from Rejment to Reymont.
The Promised Land, a novel appears in 1898. A major work, complex and almost cinematographic in scope, it presents a panoramic view of the world of the bankers and industrialists of Lodz. But as quickly as it captures the attention of literary circles, the czar’s police take note as well. The content of the published book is heavily censored and the author is forced to flee the country for his own safety.
After his return to Poland in 1900, Reymont suffers serious injury in a train wreck. The subsequent settlement allows him to gain some financial independence.
After signing a publisher’s agreement to write a book about the lives of Polish country folk, he begins working on Peasants, which takes several years to write. With the author’s realistic point of view and his precise observations, an accurate picture of village life throughout four seasons emerges. The author paints a compelling picture of life in the countryside, with its complex social structure, conflicts with landowning nobles and the moral fabric of its peoples. The novel is not only fascinating because of the adventures of it’s characters, but because it is also a treasure trove of information about Polish traditions and customs. To this day, Peasants is an important reference for research by sociologists, historians and geographers.
Peasants establishes without a doubt, the major status of Reymont as a writer. He meets with contemporary Polish literary giants – Konopnicka, Zeromski, Orkan, Orzeszkowa and attends international conferences and meetings on contemporary Slavic literature. He becomes president of the Warsaw Committee for Financial Assistance to Authors and Journalists.
Wladyslaw Reymont visited the U. S. twice, first in 1919 after being appointed a delegate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with the support of Ignacy Paderewski, the first premier of the newly formed independent Poland. Reymont met with Polish American groups to gain their support for the new Polish government. The author traveled to Chicago, New York, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, attending banquets, assemblies and meetings where he was very moved by the hospitality, sincerity and patriotism of Polish emigrants in the U. S. His second trip to the States was also of an official nature, to encourage Polonia to buy bonds to help finance the new government.
Reymont achieved the pinnacle of success and international acclaim when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924 for Peasants. He vied for the prize with such major literary figures as Maxim Gorky, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zeromski. Sadly, he was not able to attend the ceremonies because of failing health. He died just a few months later, on the 5th of December 1925 and was buried in the Powazkowski Cemetery. His heart was interred in a pillar in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw.
In his autobiography, Reymont wrote, “. . .not through ambition can you covet fame . . .. I became a writer out of necessity, forced into it by love and hate. A writer I must remain to the end . . .
Providence afforded that he did not become a tailor, or an actor. Wladyslaw Reymont, born a realist and a master of observation, focused on life’s truths as the author of one of Poland’s greatest and mostly widely read epics.
translated by Sophia Wisniewski