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  • A Time of Great Biographies—Gombrowicz and HerbertThe Year in Poland
  • Paweł Rodak (bio)
    Translated by Alessandro Malusà

The past several years in Poland have been a time of monumental biographies of Polish writers, beginning in 2010 with Artur Domosławski's Kapuściński non-fiction, a 605-page biography of Ryszard Kapuściński, world-renowned reporter and essayist. A 959-page biography of Czesław Miłosz, laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, appeared in the following year, penned by Andrzej Franaszek. A common feature of these biographies is not only their considerable size but also a new way of describing the lives of outstanding figures, in which unknown or little-known facts from both their public as well as private lives play a crucial role, which in the case of Kapuściński's biography even led to a lawsuit by the reporter's family. In 2012 and 2017 two volumes (totaling 1320 pages) of Radosław Romaniuk's biography of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, one of the most important figures of Polish literary life in the twentieth century, were published. In 2014, the publishing house Czarne launched a new publishing series, Biographies, within which fifteen books were published over four years. One of the latest publications in this series, published in 2017, is Klementyna Suchanow's Gombrowicz: Ja, Geniusz, a two-volume biography (totaling 1184 pages) of novelist and playwright Witold Gombrowicz (1904–1969). A few months later another biography came out, written by Andrzej Franaszek, a two-volume work totaling 1820 pages, describing the life and work of poet and essayist Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998). It is these two last biographies that I wish to examine more closely, because they concern two of the most famous Polish writers in the world.

I will start from the end of both books, from the bibliographies. Both biographies, which consider the life and work of two eminent writers, were written on the basis of an impressive number of sources. In both cases these were both print and [End Page 111] non-print sources: works by Gombrowicz and Herbert, edited studies, and archival documents. Klementyna Suchanow and Andrzej Franaszek prepared their respective biographies over many years, visiting both public and private archives worldwide. This effort was necessary because both writers spent a large part of their lives outside of Poland and because of the character of Polish culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was essentially an émigré culture. This is why archives important to this culture are found today not only in Poland but also in the United States, France, Great Britain, and other countries. The Gombrowicz Archive is held in the Beinecke Library in New Haven, Connecticut, while the Zbigniew Herbert Archive is located in the National Library in Warsaw. Both authors of the biographies decided to base their work not only on existing sources, but also to create the sources themselves by talking to dozens of people who knew Gombrowicz and Herbert, of whom the two most important are the widows of both writers, Rita Gombrowicz and Katarzyna Herbert. Suchanow and Franaszek use both published as well as unpublished materials to a great extent. In the case of Gombrowicz's biography, these comprise primarily his literary Dziennik (Diary) and Testament (A Kind of Testament), in which he recounts his entire life and work, and which were published a few years ago under the title of Kronos, a very intimate chronicle of life. Meanwhile, in the case of Herbert it is the notebooks he kept throughout his life. These, however, were not so much intimate records of Herbert's experiences, but scholarly and educational writings, and they also contain draft versions of many of his poems. It is worth noting that both biographers treat photographs as important biographical sources. Both books not only include large numbers of photographs, which play an integral part in themselves, yet in both the authors also directly refer to many photographs depicting the lives of their protagonists. In Suchanow's biography of Gombrowicz, photographs even comprise the main motif of two chapters, including the concluding chapter of the book, discussing the last months of Gombrowicz's life...


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pp. 111-118
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