Gustaw Herling-Grudziński writes about fundamental things that determine the human condition: good and evil, love and hate, the yearnings and limitations of existence. The material for his reflections are significant examples from literature, history, art, and contemporary social and political life. The essay, with its formal flexibility, seems the best genre for both his unrestrained thinking and his eloquent style. The voice of Herling- Grudziński the essayist can be heard even in some of his short stories and in his famous novel A World Apart (1951; Inny świat), a retelling of his own experiences and observations in the Soviet labor camp Ertsevo, where he spent almost two years (1940– 42). Conversely, Herling-Grudziński’s eminent talent for storytelling is the moving force behind some of his essays. His affinity for mixed literary forms led to the unique Dziennik pisany nocą (Journal Written at Night), composed of essays, short stories, book reviews, and comments on political and cultural events and published in the Polish émigré monthly Kultura in Paris from the 1971 onward, and in six separate volumes so far.
After World War II Herling-Grudziński lived and published in Rome and London.
From 1948 to 1952 he was a contributor to the London-based Polish weekly Wiadomości Literackie (Literary news). In 1955 he settled in Naples, and has since been a regular contributor to Kultura and the Italian monthly Tempo Presente. Although a polyglot, Herling-Grudziński writes mainly in Polish and addresses himself to Polish-speaking readers. During the 1980s Herling-Grudziński was one of the most populr émigré authors in Poland, a moral authority in the Polish effort to abolish the communist system.
Beginning in 1988 his books were officially published in his native country, and he has gained the reputation of being a brilliant and original Polish essayist.
Herling-Grudziński is a real “devourer and masticator of books,” as Jerzy Paszek (1992) describes him. He has published insightful essays on the works of Kafka, Camus, Dostoevskii, Pasternak, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Babel’, Simone Weil, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. To highlight the uniqueness of each author, Herling-Grudziński often compares the approaches of two or more authors to the same question. In “Dwie świętości” (1949; Two sanctities), which is devoted to everyday human heroism (a favorite theme), he contrasts Graham Greene’s appreciation for Catholic sanctity with Camus’ recognition of laic sanctity: “Between the theological abstraction, which commands us to suffer in silence for reward in heaven, and the humanist abstraction, which commands us to die and kill in the name of utopia’s mirage, there is and will always be room for the laic sanctity, which commands us to fight against despair for one reason only: to relieve human suffering.” In “Sąd ostateczny” (1957; Last judgment), an essay on “the adventures of the soul in its quest for grace,” the kinship and the polemics between Kafka’s and Camus’ novels—seen as ethical and metaphysical treatises—are traced. Through a comparison between Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Dostoevskii’s Crime and Punishment (“W oczach Conrada” [1957; In Conrad’s eyes]), Herling-Grudziński elaborates on the secrets of the persuasive power of fiction. He is a profound reader and interpreter of Solzhenitsyn’s “polyphonic” novels (“Jegor i Iwan Denisowicz” [1963; Egor and Ivan Denisovich]; “Realizm rosyjski” [1968; Russian realism]; “Godzina prawdy” [1968; The hour of truth]) and Boris Pasternak’s poems and Doctor Zhivago (“Zwyciestwo Borysa Pasternaka” [1957; Boris Pasternak’s victory]; “Wielka Ksiazka” [1958; A great book]).
Herling-Grudziński’s critical commentaries on contemporary Polish literature have been highly influential in creating the modern Polish literary sensibility.
Herling-Grudziński’s essays on painting display a similar humanistic interpretive approach. His reflections on the famous works of Correggio, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Ribera reveal his intuitive perception of particular pictures as well as his expertise in this field. Animated by HerlingGrudziński’s imagination, the artists’ personalities loom large behind the paintings discussed.
A characteristic of Herling-Grudziński’s essays is the depiction of the individual at a dramatic moment of history as a way of particularizing the human condition. The author’s own experience of the turning points of 20th-century history has given his observations worldly wisdom and understanding. Whether he writes on the plague in Naples in 1656 (“Dżuma w Neapolu” [1990; The plague in Naples]) or on the martial law in Poland, whether on the idea of revolution (“Wiek rewolucji” [1952; The age of revolution]) or on the Holocaust (“Demon naszych czasów” [1963; The demon of our time, a brilliant essay on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem), Herling-Grudziński is always concerned with the eternal problem of good and evil and the individual’s responsibility in choosing between them.
Riddles of the past fascinate Herling-Grudziński. A few of his masterpieces are accounts of his own investigations into an object, a story, or a figure from the past (“Srebrna szkatułka” [1994; The silver casket]; “Monolog o martwej mniszce” [1991; A monologue about the dead nun]; “Dżuma w Neapolu”). The essay “Siedem śmierci Maksyma Gorkiego” (1954; The seven deaths of Maksim Gor’kii) is exemplary of Herling-Grudziński’s special interest in the history of communist Russia and in the totalitarian mechanisms of falsifying reality, a phenomenon he closely analyzes in A World Apart.
Suspicious of generalizations, Herling-Grudziński has developed a sharp sense of the importance of the concrete. By exploring the fate of the individual he unearths truths about human hope and despair, about the moral dimension of human life. In his ethical judgments, however, Herling-Grudziński is not a moralist; the hierarchy of moral values that he has adopted from the “laic saint,” along with his civil courage, have earned him devoted readers, who belong to different social and professional groups but share the belief that literature, art, and culture as a whole unavoidably reflect the human condition and are, therefore, a source of knowledge about humankind.
Born 20 May 1919 in Kielce. Studied Polish literature at the University of Warsaw, 1937–39; editor, Orka na Ugorze (Plowing the fallow field) weekly. Following the 1939 September campaign at the beginning of World War II, he organized the anti-Nazi underground group PLAN and the newspaper Biuletyn Polski (Polish bulletin), 1939–40;
deported to a Soviet labor camp near Archangelsk, 1940: released, 1942, and joined the Polish forces fighting on the side of the Allies against the Germans in Italy. Literary editor, Orzeł Biały (White eagle), 1945–47; frequent contributor to the Paris-based Polish émigré monthly Kultura, from 1947, and associated with the group of Polish émigré writers based around it, including Czesław Miłosz, Witold Gombrowicz, Józef Czapski, Jerzy Stempowski, Konstanty A.Jeleński, and Marek Hłasko. Lived in London and worked for the émigré weekly Wiadomości Literackie, 1948–52. Moved to Naples, 1955;
contributor to the Italian monthly Tempo Presente. Visited Poland, 1991.
Awards: honorary degree from the University of Poznań.
Essays and Related Prose
Zywi i umarli, 1945
Drugie przyjście oraz inne opowiadania, 1963; as “The Second Coming,” translated by Ronald Strom, in The Island: Three Tales, 1967
Upiory rewolucji, 1969
Dziennik pisany nocą, 6 vols., 1973–93; part as Volcano and Miracle: A Selection of Fiction and Nonfiction from the Journal Written at Night, translated by Ronald Strom, 1996
Godzina Cieni, Eseje, edited by Zdzisław Kudelski, 1991
Wyjścia z milczenia, 1993
Sześć medalionów i srebrna szkatułka, 1994
Other writings: the autobiographical novel A World Apart (1951; pub. in Polish as Inny świat, 1955), short stories (some translated in The Island, 1990), and literary criticism.
Collected works edition: Pisma zebrane, 1994– (in progress).
Kandulski, Henryk, “O Herlingu-Grudzińskim,” Arka 18 (1987): 30–3
Kudelski, Zdzisław, Pielgrzym Świętokrzyski: Szkice o HerlinguGrudzińskim, Lublin: Fis, 1991
Nycz, Ryszard, “Zamknięty odprysk świata,” Teksty Drugie 1–2 (1991):35–46
Paszek, Jerzy, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Katowice: Slask, 1992
Pomian, Krzysztof, “Herling-Grudziński: Emigracja heroiczna,” Kultura 12 (1981):82– 86
Przybylski, Ryszard Kazimierz, Być i pisać: O prozie Gustava Herlinga-Grudzińskiego, Poznań: Wydawnictwo A5, 1991
Wysłouch, Seweryna, and Ryszard Przybylski, editors, Etos i artyzm: Rzecz o Herlingu- Grudzińskim, Poznań: Wydawnictwo A5, 1991
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