Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cramming preserves into a jar

The intriguing Polish writer Leopold Tyrmand died 30 years ago today. His youthful adult life was marked by the turmoil of the Second World War, after which he struggled, in his early writing career, through the years of Stalinism. Escaping to the US, he found some success, before again falling foul of the prevailing cultural and political climate. For three short months, after Stalin’s death and while still in Warsaw, he kept a very detailed diary. This was not published in English until 2014, but reveals Tyrmand had much to say about his own life - his politics, his relationships - as well about the very process of keeping a diary, which he likened to cramming preserves into a jar.

Tyrmand was born in Warsaw in 1920, the only child of a small-scale leather wholesaler and a mother known for her beauty. After leaving school in 1938, he travelled to Paris to enrol in the École des Beaux-Arts to study architecture. He was back in Warsaw, on a break from his studies, when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. Tyrmand fled east, like other Jews, ending up in Vilnius, where he joined the staff of a Polish-language newspaper published by the Soviets. His parents, meanwhile, were sent to the Majdanek Concentration Camp, where his father was murdered. His mother survived, and subsequently emigrated to Israel.

During the war, Tyrmand began to cooperate with the Polish resistance, but was arrested in spring 1941 by the NKVD secret police. On being transported to a Gulag corrective labour camp, his transport was bombed by the Nazis, and he managed to escape. With false papers, he returned to Germany where he worked in a series of menial jobs. In 1944, he secured a kitchen job on a German transport ship, intending to escape through a Norwegian port to neutral Sweden. He was captured, and spent the rest of the war in a camp near Oslo. He was back in Warsaw by mid-1946, and, later, made good use of his wartime experiences in his autobiographical novel, Filip, and several short stories. He also took a regular job as a journalist writing for Cut, a current events weekly.

During the years of Stalin’s growing influence in Poland, Tyrmand found his writing stifled, and work opportunities limited. It was not until after Stalin’s death, in fact, that he found some renewed success with Zły (published in English as The Man With White Eyes). He married a young art student, was responsible for organising jazz concerts, moved into a better apartment, and began to travel abroad. But, the relaxed cultural and political atmosphere did not last long, and again Tyrmand found himself at odds with the authorities, his activities repressed and his works censored. He got married again in 1959, to Barbara Hoff, an up-and-coming fashion designer. In the mid-1960s, though, he finally managed to get an export visa, first visiting Israel, and then the US, where he stayed.

Tyrmand struggled at first in the US, but, as a writer from behind the Iron Curtain, he was soon taken up by the New York Intelligentsia, and his writing was in demand from periodicals such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The American Scholar. But once again, with his insistent anti-communist stance and constant criticism of US political and cultural life, he began to find himself drifting out of favour. In 1971, he got married for the third time, to Mary Ellen Fox, and they had twins, a boy and girl. In the mid-1970s, he was invited to work with the Conservative Rockford Institute, editing the Chronicles of Culture magazine, and taking over as the institute’s director from its founder, John Howard. Tyrmand died on 19 March 1985. Further information is available from WikipediaNew Eastern Europe website, or a paper at

One of Tyrmand’s most significant literary legacies is a diary he kept for just three months at the start of 1954. This was first published in Polish in 1980 by the London-based Polonia Book Fund under the title Dziennik 1954. In keeping a diary at the time, full of political content as it was, Tyrmand was taking a considerable risk - Stalin was dead, but
 the official launch of a de-Stalinization policy was still a year or two away. 

The diary breaks off abruptly - in mid-sentence - on 2 April 1954, because, as Tyrmand explains in an afterword, he was about to sign a contract for a novel. The published diary also includes a preface written by Tyrmand. In this, he explains the genesis and subsequent history of the diary, and, to some extent, analyses its contents. The work was finally translated into English in 2014, by Anita Shelton and A. J. Wrobel, and published by Northwestern University Press as Diary 1954. Some pages can be read freely online at Googlebooks.

From the start of Tyrmand’s preface:

‘The facts are as follows:
- I wrote the diary over the first three months of 1954.
- For twelve years, the handwritten notebooks lay at the bottoms of rarely opened drawers.
- In 1956 (it’s obvious at what moment) the Universal Weekly published an excerpt from the diary - the only one that has appeared in print in Poland.
- In 1965, after years of futile applications for a passport, I was finally going to the West in an oldish Opel. I hadn’t decided to emigrate, but I took the manuscript of the diary with me, hiding it, with the help of a trusted mechanic, near the differential. It was an unnecessary precaution; what the customs officials at the border crossing wanted to know was whether my novel Zły was going to be reprinted. After that, their attention was drawn to an antique candlestick on top in the first suitcase they opened. They kept the candlestick and wished me a good journey.
- A few months later the notebooks were deposited at the editorial offices of the Parisian Culture, in Maisons-Lafitte, where they gathered dust for another four years.
- In 1968, when I chose freedom, the diary crossed the Atlantic and traveled with me from place to place for five years. Having settled down in New Canaan, Connecticut, I typed up the manuscript and prepared it for publication as a book.
- In 1974, the London-based Wiadomości (an émigré weekly) began to publish the diary in instalments; the last one came out in 1978. Around half of the full text saw the light of day in emigration in this way.
- The present book represents the entire diary, unchanged for editorial reasons, moral quandaries, political requirements, or concessions to friends and acquaintances.’

Right at the end of his preface, Tyrmand says this: ‘This diary, written in the prime of manhood, and reread at the twilight of middle age, brings me a feeling of fidelity to my own self - which has always seemed to me something desirable and worthy of sacrifice.’

Finally, here are a couple of extracts from the diary itself. Most of the entries are long, running to several pages of small typescript, but Tyrmand is always interesting, whether writing about his relationships, his city, politics or the act of keeping of diary.

5 January 1954
‘I thought that the notebook in which I am keeping this diary would last me for a few months, but now I doubt I’ll fit in all of January. And it devours energy and time. But it draws me in. [. . .]

I took a tram today across Leszno Street and Iron Street to the East-West Route. There, you can still see a good bit of old Warsaw from before the cataclysm. The ugly tenement houses from the turn of the century, so despised by the prewar aesthetes and social do-gooders dreaming of glass houses, have been burnished with a patina of charm by the passing years, sentiment, and ill fortune. They evoke the shoddiness of yesteryear which nostalgia has already ennobled. Especially since they are neighbours to the socrealism of the new Muranow housing estate, which looks like a group of cakes from a street peddler’s basket: small stucco tympanums stuck on as if by a confectioner over oblong windows straight out of primitive functionalism. Facades like dirty icing on a stale cake.

Supper at the Writers’ Club among the same faces, all reflecting the dullness of the choice they made. That’s what it seems like to me, but I may be wrong. Maybe they have sleepless nights, only I don’t know it. The atmosphere at the Club is like that of a prewar Jewish boarding house in Otwock, except that it’s more expensive here, and the food is worse. Everyone knows and dislikes everyone else.

In the afternoon my liver was aching. What’s that about? Hardly a drop of vodka passes my lips; I drink herbal infusions. Could it be that my health, which until now I have boasted about, and which has carried me so reliably through the war, camps, prisons, and private passions, has now been knocked out by infectious hepatitis? But no matter. I already have thirty-three years clocked. For my generation, that’s a ripe old age.

In the evening Bogna showed up, in a foul mood. I also wasn’t exactly in the pink, so there was tension in the air from the start. Getting undressed, she turned out the light, which she usually doesn’t do, and then in the dark she knocked over the humidifier hanging on the radiator, spilling water all over the freshly waxed parquet floor. Nothing sets me off quite like an attack on the shine of my floor, but we were already kind of down to fundamentals, and a fight about spilled water would have been farcical. Instead, when it was all over I just said, “Listen Bogna, I know that your sixteen years and my loathsome pedantry put together are pure surrealism. Isn’t it better to end it?” To that, Bogna, sated, calmly replied, “Uh-huh. You always talk like that when you’ve gotten off.” ’

8 January 1954
‘ “To thine own self be true. To thine own self be true - this above all!” cries Hamlet, as everyone knows. This is an apt bidding. Today it’s tormenting me more than usual. Because I am not myself. But who, then? The devil knows. I have been so determined to be seen as stifled and bypassed by the revolution, the historical moment, my society, and even my own self that I don’t recognise myself. Now I’ll probably never sort it out.

This diary is a substitute for creativity. It’s my justification of myself to myself, and not an independent construction, in and of itself legitimate and fully formed. And is this at all what I am? I always believed and judged that a man must express himself through action, I looked for the call to action, to do my duty - everything else is masturbation, and sooner or later it disgusts. I have been denied creation and action. By whom? It’s embarrassing to keep repeating it.

A diary somehow cannot accommodate what is to be told, what can be told only through creative work, epitome, and metaphor, which are literary devices. There’s always something in this text that doesn’t make it for me, doesn’t satisfy me. What? The right, or privilege to detach myself from the concrete, to cobble together my own law, in harmony with a wider law one must seek with one’s imagination. To be permitted, unrestrained by anything, my own composition of the detail. When I take the bus across Warsaw, my city, which I know better than most people, I can’t note everything faithfully and adequately or I’d fall into idiotic nominalism that would force me to fill up several dozen pages a day. Yet every morning I read my notes from the preceding days and something is missing, something it seems to me I failed to grasp: here, the period, there, insights, yet elsewhere, myself, and instead of them, there are trivialities and cliches, which I’ve already completely forgotten. What I wrote yesterday about McCarthy strikes me today as awkward and shallow. But is this diary supposed to serve as an outlet for someone whom communism has denied the right to have his say about America, who doesn’t have the right to publish what is of immediate value and should be read from day to day? [. . .]

While eating, conversing, touching Bogna, I think impatiently about what I must not lose, what must be captured and recorded. Cramming preserves into a jar, which may never be consumed. This raises the question: were Pepys, Chłędowski, and Gide also crushed by the elephantiasis of the writer’s imperative, or did they know how to confine their diary writing to the margins of their mental and manual effort, endowing it rather with the charm of an evening spent pleasantly jotting memoirs in one’s bathrobe?’

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