Siberian Spirit. Professor Bolecki about Herling-Grudziński - Muzeum Pamięci Sybiru

15 October 2022

Siberian Spirit. Professor Bolecki about Herling-Grudziński

As a writer, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński understood that in order to describe his borderline experience, he could not create a fiction independent of himself. In Another World we are dealing with a literary device that cannot be seen: the hero is a real character, he is the author, and the author is also the narrator. He testifies that it was him and it happened. This is not an anonymous or statistical story. That’s why we trust him — said Professor Włodzimierz Bolecki, an expert on the work of the author of “A World Apart” at the next meeting in the “Siberian Spirit” series.

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As the host of the meeting, Professor Krzysztof Czyżewski, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński and his works are extremely important in the research and writing activity of Professor Włodzimierz Bolecki. He published, among others “Another World by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński”, “Dark Love. Sketches on the work of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński” and conducted a number of conversations with the writer, which were published in the volumes “Rozmowy w Dragonei” and “Rozmowy w Napoli”.

— The opening of the Sybir Memorial Museum coincided with the critical edition of “Another World”, edited by Professor Bolecki, as another volume of Herling-Grudziński’s “Collected Works” — reminded Czyżewski. How did it happen that it was Herling-Grudziński who became such an important figure for a scientist who, after all, dealt with Mackiewicz, Gombrowicz, and Schulz?

— I met Herling-Grudziński both as a writer and as a person – replied the visitor. — In the People’s Republic of Poland, I tried to read all his texts that were available to us. Issued abroad, some of them legally reached the so-called restricted collections in scientific libraries, but many were confiscated – he said. High-ranking party members used these copies seized by the Ministry of the Interior. “Herling was quite well known, I think. When I was writing about Mackiewicz, one of my historian colleagues told me that General Jaruzelski read him, he was supplied with copies from these forbidden collections — said the professor.

I knew “A World Apart”, some of the stories, essays and what he published in “Kultura”. I knew that he was a writer of the greatest format in post-war literature. I know people who started reading the Parisian “Kultura” from Herling’s “Diary Written at Night”, a text astonishing in its richness, but also a reflection on the whole of Europe at that time, especially the situation that resulted from Yalta: the division between the free world and the world behind the Iron Curtain said the literary scholar.

“Herling was one of the most profoundly understanding and writing people about these matters. He was a writer different from the authors who also wrote about the Gulag. He was not just a chronicler of his fate. It was natural that people who survived the Gulag or German camps and wanted to leave a testimony wrote in such a way as to capture the detail, the concreteness, so that it would be a report of the importance of an individual testimony. Herling managed to combine an individual testimony with a reflection on the human situation in general, emphasized Professor Bolecki.

— In our conversations, he said: I am a writer of borders, border situations in the broad sense… That’s why I thank you for inviting me here, it’s a perfect address for such a conversation – prof. Bolecki turned to the interlocutor, referring to the Sybir Memorial Museum and the co-created by us with prof. Czyżewski of the Studio of Borderline Experiences “Siberian Spirit”.

As the discussants pointed out, in the 1990s Herling-Grudziński, who lived in Italy, was accused of excessive moralizing in Poland. They recalled the epilogue of “A World Apart”, in which the hero-narrator meets a former prisoner in Rome in 1946. The latter asks him to understand that in order to save his life, he denounced other prisoners, who were shot as a result. The hero listens to him, but remains silent. He turns and goes to the window. After a while, through them, he sees the interlocutor walking away, who “was like a bird with a broken wing”.

— In our books in the 1960s or 1970s, the hero’s refusal to accept someone who put innocent people to death was obvious, said Professor Bolecki. — I was shocked when I began to encounter statements that this ending of the book is proof of Herling’s soulless, ruthless moralizing, which refuses to understand other people — he admitted. — I have always wondered what these people have in their heads and where they get it from.

— But writing about it, I had to work out some formula. I want to say it strongly here: this attack on Herling, on the attitude of ethical purity, the unequivocal difference between good and evil … what is its context? It was a battle with lustration, it was at the same time. The Polish media was flooded with a wave of considerations about what harm is done to those who once broke down, reported, and now they are pulled out, and that it is better not to touch these people. Herling was hit because he was a public figure, a great writer, a great authority. Literature is not read abstractly, but some interpretation tricks come from reality. Herling in “A World Apart” considered the greatest crime that a man can commit against another man, denouncing, exposing him — especially to death. This is an unforgivable crossing of the line.

Later in the conversation, the subject of the writer’s mission and his obligations returned, as well as the question of the religious aspect of Grudziński’s writing. — In a borderline situation, people who managed to maintain the spine better were people of faith — said Czyżewski. — But Grudziński does not count himself among them.

— There is a chapter in “A World Apart” entitled “Passion for Faith” — replied prof. Bolecki. — It talks about Hungarian nuns, eventually shot, who passed through the camp the lightest because of their faith. Herling’s question is: What helps people survive a borderline situation? Shalamov, an agnostic, believes he has a soul. This is a secular interpretation of religion, but faith in values is the basis for opposing evil — he said.

After arriving to Italy, Herling, of ethnic Jewish descent, became fascinated by art, especially religious art. “His heroes are characters referring to Christianity, deeply religious people, priests,” — said Bolecki. — Herling turns out to be the most outstanding Christian writer, and he was not a religious writer. Christian in the Christological message, not Catholic. For him, the martyrdom of Christ is the universal sign of humanity. What people experienced in the 20th century is for Herling a sign of the divinity expressed by Christianity. In his work, there is an underground, intense polemic between Christianity and Judaism.

— This is written by a man who brought the soul, this spark, from the heart of darkness — Czyżewski noted – and tries to bear witness to it. Because the trap is that a civilization catastrophe happens and we start to think that everything has been ruined, questioned, since such evil was possible. You are heading towards nihilism and there is no chance for life. That is why, to Herling, the suicide of Tadeusz Borowski seemed to be a consequence of what he had learned from the experience of his borderline situation, commented the creator of the Pogranicze Centre. — Does Grudziński, read today, prepare us for what is happening today in Ukraine, in Putin’s Russia? Does today’s literature prepare us at all for what is happening? — asked Professor Bolecki.

— This opens another two hours of conversation … — replied the literary scholar. — I will change the language a bit, move away from interpreting values and change the language to a more political one. This is a question about the attitude of the free world to the war and Putin’s Russia. When it comes to the axiological side, Herling is very helpful here. But I will reach for “my” other writer, i.e. the works of Józef Mackiewicz. Well, in the light of Mackiewicz’s discourse on Russia and the Soviet Union, the current situation is a situation of a monstrous naming error. If something is misnamed, then you can’t get to the essential thing.

‘Mackiewicz,’ — Professor Bolecki continued, — ‘has been saying consistently since he started writing that there has been no Russia since the Bolshevik revolution, no continuity between Russia and the Soviet Union, contrary to many historians. Mackiewicz says firmly: there is no continuity, because Bolshevism, Sovietism, was primarily aimed at Russian culture and tradition. Autocracy was not Bolshevism. The world has not recognized totalitarianism. Mackiewicz’s language — there is no Putin’s Russia, there is the Soviet Union. Putin says directly: he identifies himself with the Soviet Union, and the fact that it ceased to exist is a catastrophe for him.

 — Referring to the language of Józef Mackiewicz, I would express it as follows – continued the expert on 20th-century literature. — Did you fight against Hitler during World War II in order to later make deals with the Third Reich and do business with it? No, Hitler was fought to destroy the system he had created. Ukraine was attacked by another mutation of the Soviet Union. If someone wants to talk to democratic Russia, do business with it, enjoy its presence in the community of European nations, Russia must be de-Sovietized. This must be done by the Russians themselves and it may take several decades. Which will be difficult, because a new man has been created who is imbued with the belief in the superiority of what is called Russia.

In the last part of the meeting there were questions and reflections from the audience. Professor Bolecki talked about interpreting “A World Apart” at school, he referred to the latest events recalled by the listeners, such as the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Russian Memorial, or the role of individual rebellion in Grudziński’s work. The numerous audience brought new threads and issues to the conversation.

All those who are interested in the subject of literature – not only labor camp literature — are encouraged to visit our museum shop, where you can find a valuable selection of publications, including a critical edition of “Another World” prepared by Professor Włodzimierz Bolecki.

We would also like to remind you that in November we will have another meeting in the “Siberian Spirit” series. The theme will be Siberia through the eyes of a child, and Krzysztof Czyżewski’s interlocutors will be Jurga Vile and Lina Itagaki. They are the authors of the book “Siberian haiku”, a graphic book addressed to children, telling the story of little Algis, deported by the Soviets to Siberia from Lithuania in June 1941. We invite you to follow our website and social media — we will post all the information there.

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