photo: Martyna Urbanek

Bedside table #63. Mariusz Urbanek: Facts are not everything

Mariusz Urbanek, writer, columnist, and author of widely read biographies, talks about a pistol duel, the myth of the Second Republic of Poland, literature that has not grown old, his fascination with the works and figure of Gałczyński, as well as his work as a biographer.

Before you started writing, you graduated from law school. Did you work in the profession?

I didn’t, not even for a moment. I am a believing, non-practising lawyer. I already knew at the end of my second year of university that this was not the profession for me. But I am a Silesian, so I finish everything I start. I finished my law degree, too. I wrote my master's thesis on the history of law, and, with minor revisions, it became my first book.

Polska jest jak obwarzanek ("Poland Is Like a Bagel") was its title.

This is the story of a particular piece of a legal act from April 1938 - "The Act for the Protection of the Name of Józef Piłsudski". The act was short, barely three points long, but it threatened anyone who insulted the memory of the First Marshal of Poland with five years in prison. There was a lot of things going on around it that I love to talk about. The whole story began with Melchior Wańkowicz denouncing docent Cywiński, who called Piłsudski a poseur. There was a lot of noise about it in the press, Stanisław Cat-Mackiewicz argued with Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, Jan Sztaudynger and Ferdynand Goetel quarrelled at the Congress of Writers, and Wańkowicz fought a pistol duel with the philosopher and poet Paweł Chojecki. There was also a great deal of emotion during the passing of the law in parliament, and today's parliamentary polemics are like a kindergarten compared to those times. It all adds up to the so-called "social side of the story", which is what I like best. And besides, it was a story about the difficult history of an era I liked very much.

Indeed, why the Second Polish Republic?

Because in the People's Republic of Poland, in the mid-1980s, when I was finishing my studies, the Second Republic appeared to us as an Arcadia of freedom and democracy, obviously in comparison with what surrounded us in the country of the so-called socialist democracy. Later, as I delved deeper into the story, this turned out to be not quite true or even quite untrue. The year 1938 was already a very sad time, when Poland embarked on the road to authoritarianism, practised in addition by uninteresting people lacking Piłsudski's charisma. This was the time of the ghetto benches, Bereza Kartuska prison, and the imprisonment of the opposition. But when I started university, that world still seemed colourful, free, beautiful, and desirable. And then there was martial law, when we didn't really know whether that gloomy, sad time would ever end. Against this background, the Second Republic was alluring.

This was difficult to predict in 1983 or 1984.

We idealised that era to such an extent that even reading critical books about Marshal Piłsudski could not spoil it. We were, of course, familiar with the books of Professor Andrzej Garlicki, an excellent historian who did not, after all, glorify that time. But we only took from these readings what suited us. The same was true of the books on Piłsudski published in exile by Władysław Pobóg-Malinowski, which at the time could only be read in London or underground publications. But without this fascination and without the first book I would not have written the biography of General Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski, because it was while working on that act that I got heavily into reading about Piłsudski, and I saw that there was this fantastic, colourful figure next to him who was given a dark legend.  And after Wieniawa came a fascination with the creative circles of the Second Republic.

With special admiration for Galczynski.

This is an exceptional case, because the poetry of Julian Tuwim, for example, does not seduce me as much. I am convinced that every country has its Słowacki, Mickiewicz, and Tuwim, but to my knowledge, it is much harder to find someone like Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński. I can return to his poetry always, every day. It sits on a shelf by my bed and when I need to reach for something to smile about in the middle of the night, I read a piece of Porfirion Osiełek or an excerpt from Zielona gęś (“The Green Goose Theatre"). And it's already fine.

What about the prose of that era? Have you tried reading pre-war novels?

I read, of course, Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, who described that time perfectly. I feel that Dołęga-Mostowicz has survived in the collective memory not only because his novels have been adapted to film many times, but his books simply continue to read well. The prose of Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski, on the other hand, is the language of another epoch, especially in comparison with Dołęga-Mostowicz, who was a very modern writer for his time, and this was also the basis of his success. He was free from the patriotic duties that weighed mercilessly on Kaden-Bandrowski.

Which books would you recommend to someone who wants to learn something about the Second Polish Republic and not get tired of the archaic style?

Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy (“The Career of Nikodem Dyzma”), of course, but also Doktor Murek (“Doctor Murek”). Although very different, they both show the reality of the Second Republic very well. It can be seasoned with two great diaries from the period - and they are best read simultaneously: Maria Dąbrowska’s and Zofia Nałkowska’s. Apart from the two women mischievously pecking each other, which is always good to read, there's also a chunk of reality in their diaries.

There is also a wealth of journalism from that era, such as newspaper columns.

Archival issues of Wiadomości Literackie (“Literary News” - a socio-cultural weekly published between 1924-1939) are a remarkable read. Just like Antoni Słonimski's columns and theatre reviews published there. An absolute classic and school of writing. However, sometimes the need for a mischievous joke triumphed over a reviewer's duties, for example when he wrote about Sardou's comedy A Scrap of Paper: "It was a roll". Apart from literature, there is also plenty of journalism to give you an idea of what was really important in the Second Polish Republic.

What do you think is compulsory reading for understanding the era of the Polish People’s Republic?

From titles written at that time, as if on an ongoing basis, it would of course be Leopold Tyrmand's Dziennik 1954 (“Diary 1954”), Stefan Kisielewski, of course, mainly columns from Tygodnik Powszechny magazine and diaries, not so much fiction, and of course Marek Hłasko. From novels - Tadeusz Konwicki and Kazimierz Orłoś. There is another book that says a lot about the People's Republic of Poland, although not so much about the socio-political reality, but about the cultural and social layer. It is Agnieszka Osiecka's Szpetni czterdziestoletni (Ugly Forty-Year-Olds”).

When did you come across Tyrmand?

I became acquainted with his work during my university years. It was then that underground editions of Diary appeared, which was not published in London until 1980 and could not be printed in the official circulation in communist Poland because too many people about whom Tyrmand wrote badly were at that time stars of communist television or, on the contrary, opposition authorities. After Diary 1954 and Zły (“The Man with the White Eyes”), there was Życie towarzyskie i uczuciowe (“Social and Emotional Life”) and then Filip. Then there were the texts he printed in Kultura magazine, such as the now legendary Fryzury Mieczysława Rakowskiego ("The Hairstyles of Mieczysław Rakowski") or Cywilizacja komunizmu ("The Civilisation of Communism"), published in English as The Rosa Luxemburg Contraceptives Cooperative.

Zły Tyrmand is a different book from your other biographies.

Because this is not a biography. In its first edition, this book was much thinner than the recent reissue. It is a reporter's book which is somewhat of a reverse of Diary 1954. Reading Tyrmand's notes, I opened my eyes wide with amazement, not only because of his opinions on communism, which were after all formed a quarter of a century earlier, but I was equally fascinated by the stories of the people whose books I read and whom I watched on television. For example, Tadeusz Konwicki, whom I adore for his books and films, while Tyrmand describes him in his diary as a “pimpled” communist who praises noble UB officers (UB – the Ministry of Public Security which was the secret police, intelligence, and counter-espionage agency in the Polish People's Republic – translator’s note) and criticises, at party meetings, writers whose literature does not quite burn with love for the system and the party.

Who wasn’t described there... There is Osiecka, Kisielewski, Zygmunt Kałużyński, Bohdan Tomaszewski, Zbigniew Herbert, and many others.

I made a list of the names of people described in the Diary 1954 who were still alive, I was acquiring phone numbers and went door to door. Also to people from the business underworld of Warsaw at that time, who would find a way to make money in any system... They told me about Tyrmand, who was not THAT Tyrmand at the time, but their friend at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) hostel where he lived. My book, therefore, tells the story of this particular moment in Tyrmand's life that resulted in Diary 1954, abruptly interrupted on 2 April 1954. The following day, Tyrmand began writing The Man With White Eyes.

Before writing, a biographer must first read a lot. How not to get bogged down in it?

I usually start writing in the middle of the documentation. Before this happens, I read everything I can read on the subject I am about to tackle. And at the same time, I collect all the material. Today, it's so much easier because a lot of things are digitised and available on the internet.

Do you read strictly scientific studies, i.e. literary analyses?

Yes, of course. I know how not to write thanks to this. It is a joke, of course. But seriously: I read it, but I do not invoke or quote these studies. This is a conscious choice; in my books, I do not want to digest what was written by someone who did not witness the events described. I only cite the testimonies of those who knew my protagonists.

Let's assume you've already amassed a sizable library on your hero or heroine and you're wading through more sources. What's next?

The construction of a story about someone's life begins. Because facts are not everything, you still have to find a way to talk about them in a way that will interest the reader. How to ‘catch’ the reader, how to convince him or her that it is worth devoting a couple of hours, maybe a dozen or so, to the hero of the book, because they can learn something from his or her story. And where to start to make them want to read on. And once I have an idea of the structure, I try to fill in the holes in the story.

The biographer's work is a bit like detective work.

You have to look in a variety of sources. You know where the archives and manuscripts are - in literary museums, of course, the National Library, the Ossolineum Library in Wrocław, the Jagiellonian University Library. And you simply have to read, sometimes moving in the dark. Sometimes you find fantastic things in this way, and other times, you reach a wall. Then you have to turn back. Tough.

It takes a long time to dig through it all.

To make a selection of material, you have to have something to select from. In the case of the biography of Władysław Broniewski, I had access to a lot of material, collected in the Broniewski Museum. The villa in Stary Mokotow, the seat of the museum, was previously his private home, where the poet's wife had amassed a huge archive. All of this had to be reviewed and read, this is what honesty with the protagonist and the readers demands. Unfortunately, most of these collections are very ordinary things, everyday notes, letters that do not contribute much to the subject. But they need to be read. It was the same case with Kornel Makuszyński; his museum in Zakopane is also his last home, where a great number of documents remain. So, there are usually two scenarios: either you search in the dark with no guarantee of finding anything, or on the contrary - there is so much material that it is difficult to hack through it.

What is the next stage of work?

If it is at all possible, you should talk to real people. I care above all about the testimonies of those who knew my heroes. This is becoming more and more difficult, as my heroes mostly lived until the 1950s and 1960s. Stefan Kisielewski and Jerzy Waldorff lived longer, but they were exceptions. So, if I have the opportunity to talk to witnesses or family, I do. This worked very well for the three poets I wrote about: Tuwim, Brzechwa, and Broniewski. Books about them end with the transcript of long conversations with their daughters. But I only talked to these women about what they remembered from when their fathers were still alive. It is clear that they had their own vision of how their fathers should be assessed, but I was interested in the facts.

So, you treated them - let's stick to the detective metaphor - as personal sources. You want to know what they remember, not how they interpret the actions and lives of the protagonists.

That was our agreement. I did not need to know what a daughter thought of her father's literature or what she thought of those who thought badly of her father's political choices. I was interested in their relationship with each other. Therefore, these interviews are sometimes very dramatic, and I am very grateful to all the women for these meetings. Because, for example, Broniewski's foster daughter's story about the last years of her father's life and his alcohol addiction is really the story of the trauma she experienced and remembering it must have cost her a lot. Tuwim's foster daughter also told me about her childhood with a heavy heart. She loved her foster parents, she was grateful to them that they took her, an orphan of Jewish origin, who had never met her parents, from the orphanage and gave her a home. But at the same time, she did not hide a story that is hard to even imagine. The Tuwim family gave her back to the orphanage because they were leaving for Moscow for a few months. They promised - and kept their word - that they would come for her on their return, but could a girl of a few years, who did not even know her real name or date of birth, wait calmly? Sometimes, for obvious reasons, I can no longer ask my heroes or the people who knew them about anything, then I "ask" the archives. I want every fact I quote in the book to have the stamp of authenticity, to come from a witness to the situation.

A practical question - what do you do with all this documentation once the book has been sent to the printers? After all, these are cubic metres of paper.

After each book, a shelf filled with my protagonist's books and works about them remains in my house, and apart from that, usually two or three boxes of notes, photocopies, and printouts. Because, unfortunately, libraries are not open at night when I mostly write, so I have to copy a lot of material. I see it as a flaw, but I work best on a book at my own desk when the house is asleep and silence falls.

More than 20 biographical books, so that would be about 50 boxes.

The number of these boxes is growing, and the worst part is that I don't have a basement...  This documentation comes in handy once every few years, when someone asks me about a detail, and then I have to flip through several hundred, sometimes several thousand pages to find that detail.

You started the fashion for biographical books in Poland, and today you have many companions. Do you read the books of your colleagues?

It is always risky to say that you are following something closely, because then it is easy to get caught up in the fact that you have not read something or do not know something. But yes, I do try to read. Sometimes with jealousy, because sometimes I felt like writing about someone, and someone else pre-empted me.

For instance?

It was the case with Krzysztof Komeda, whose biography was written by Magdalena Grzebałkowska, and it is the same with Marian Eile, about whom my next book will soon be published, and another author's work devoted to him has recently come out. But there are also figures I want to write about, even though a few years ago somebody already published something, for example about Gałczynski. For the reason I have mentioned before. Galczynski is grand and does not age. I want to show how original he was, of course hiding nothing of the turmoil of his ideological choices, his moral choices - he returned from the Second World War to his wife with another woman and probably imagined they would live in a consensual love triangle - or his alcoholic choices.

I have the impression that many of your books have indeed come from fascination.

Yes, for example a book about Broniewski. I am from the generation that recited his poems during school ceremonies and sometimes, even though they are beautiful poems, we had enough of it. However, when I found out how much Broniewski's life story was falsified by propaganda and by the communist school, I knew I had to write this book. The Polish Majakowski, poet of the revolution, who, for his participation in the Polish-Bolshevik war, received the War Order of Virtuti Militari, the Cross of Valour four times, and became the youngest captain in the Polish Army, was imprisoned for a year and a half by the NKVD during the Second World War, and then wrote a poem in which he accused the Soviets of the Katyn massacre. At a time when even the English pretended to believe that the Germans were to blame. And then he wrote Słowo o Stalinie (“A Word on Stalin”). It is impossible to pass by such a biography indifferently. And on top of that, I really like Broniewski's poems, even the ones about bowing to the October Revolution, but in a Polish way, with your hat to the ground. It's just well written, although of course things like A Word on Stalin are ideologically repugnant. And it turned out that I am not alone in this fascination with Broniewski.

When did this love of biographies begin?

I have always enjoyed reading history books, but not those about the great mechanisms of history, party puzzles, or the successive splits in the labour movement; it bored me - and probably not only me - at school. However, as soon as the story had a face and a name, it immediately became more interesting.

Do you reach for fictionalised biographical novels?

I don't like them, and I don't think it's entirely fair to take a real person who has walked on this earth, loved, hated, was smart, was stupid, sometimes was a hero and sometimes a scoundrel, and, in such a fictionalised story, one begins to improve their life, sometimes hide something so that the character does not seem too awful, and if the life story is too boring, one ‘tweaks’ it. I think it is wrong to use the real name in such a case. If it is just a story inspired by someone's life - be my guest. But there are also books in which the author tries to add to someone's life story by guessing at the character's motivations and intentions. If they are honest about where facts end and conjecture begins, it is legitimate, otherwise – it’s not.

There is also a tendency in biography to fill in the blanks in life stories by examining the work of a given character. A kind of literary psychoanalysis.

Works can tell you a lot about a person, but you have to be careful. I have compiled a selection of Broniewski's works under the title Wierszem przez życie ("Through Life with Poetry"), and I think that his life story is visible there. Tuwim's Kwiaty polskie ("Polish Flowers") is very biographical, at times even journalistic, although these are actually the poem's weakest moments. Above all, however, it is possible to explain to the reader the choices of the person described by telling the story of the walls they faced and how they tried to break them down by banging their head against them. Take Tuwim and his, beginning in 1942 and 1943, at times idolatrous worship of the Red Army and Stalin. I tried to understand it, I wanted to ask the question: Mr Julian, what was it for? You were in America at the time, so you were not affected by all the demons that threatened the Jews in Europe. In addition, after twenty years of neighbourhood with Bolshevik Russia, it was difficult to have any doubts about which way all this was heading.

And you have finally found the answer.

For 20 years of the Second Polish Republic, Tuwim was brutally attacked by the extreme right because he was Jewish. He was described as a "hymie Mickiewicz" and "Jojne Tuwim" and kept being sent to the ghetto, where he was to put on a bekishe and a yarmulke, grow sidelocks and write in Yiddish, which he did not know. Only then, claimed the National Democracy newspapers, would he be in his place. After the kind of tough schooling he had undergone in pre-war Poland, when he found himself in the USA he was horrified to see that, although the ghettos created by the Nazis were operating in Poland and the Holocaust was taking place, the same anti-Semitic juices were still gushing out in the émigré press as it was before the war. As if nothing had happened. Not everyone could afford the attitude of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, who perpetrated some anti-Semitic texts before the war, but she would say during the occupation that the first Christian commandment is to love thy neighbour, so now those who are condemned to extermination have to be defended. The reckoning will come after the war. Tuwim was terrified and had the right to think that when the war ended and Poland was reborn, nothing would change in it. He recognised in 1943 that the only force capable of putting a dam to Nazism and anti-Semitism was communism. Because otherwise the world will be as the Nazis imagine it. Naïve, because it turned out that communism wasn't any better, but I'm sure that was his reasoning.

You, however, did not put this in Tuwim's mouth.

Because if I had done it, I would be an abuse. I have tried to put out to the reader what I myself think. To prove it, I have presented documents, described the events, and quoted witnesses. The readers can decide for themselves whether they agree with this interpretation.

Do you read foreign biographies?

I'm interested in biographies of Russians - a book on Mikhail Bulgakov, Biography of the Master, by Alexey Varlamov that came out in 2017 is fascinating; I received Okudzhava by Dmitry Bykov for Christmas. He is the bard of my youth; I was even lucky enough to meet him in person. I also enjoy reading biographies of Czechs, such as Alexander Kaczorowski's ones about Hrabal or Havel. Thanks to them, I can compare what communism looked like in countries that were theoretically similar, yet culturally and civilisationally very different. And what the clash of two worlds - pre-war and post-war - looked like in them.

The life of a man at the turn of an era - this is perhaps the best description of your books.

True, I am writing about people whose life stories span two different regimes, two world wars, two of the greatest totalitarianisms that have befallen humanity - Stalinism and Nazism. Most of my heroes lived and worked both in the Second Polish Republic and in the People's Republic of Poland. Some longer, others shorter. This also applies to the scholars I write about. And I find this description of life stories, which stood astride two completely different worlds, intriguing. I presumptuously think that I have the right to juxtapose and describe these two regimes, because I know a lot about the Second Republic from my reading, and I lived 29 years in the People's Republic of Poland, half of which, counting from the time I started high school, in a fairly conscious manner. That is why, on the one hand, I do not allow myself to be told the whopper that the People's Republic of Poland was a concentration camp which was impossible to live in. This was true in the first years after the war, when the civil war was going on, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Stalinism was flourishing, but not any more in my time, in the 1970s. Though of course there was martial law with all its tragedies. On the other hand, I do not allow myself to be sold the story that the People's Republic of Poland was a paradise for working people, who were taken care of by the state, which handed out jobs, flats, vouchers for cars and referrals to holidays in the Ciechocinek spa town. Each of these narratives is false. I know this because I have lived it myself.

Interviewer: Marcin Kube

Translated by Justyna Lowe