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The Autobiographical Triangle

Witness, Confession, Challenge


Małgorzata Czermińska

Critical revised edition and translation by Jean Ward

This book presents a universal theory of autobiography, defined as a "triangular" form of utterance involving three different stances. It is a personal testimony to experiences lived through, a confession of intimate inner experience and a challenge addressed to the reader to engage in dialogue, enter into an argument or join in a game. The stances of witness, confession and challenge are always present, though usually one of them overshadows the other two. Polish memoirs, diaries and letters, as well as novels of a clearly personal character, are interpreted here in the context of the most important autobiographical texts of European literature. In the background, also, the historical events which have powerfully stamped Polish culture in the last two centuries are discreetly shown.

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1. Autobiographical Places and the Topographic Imagination:

1.   Autobiographical Places and the Topographic Imagination: On the Relations between Place and Identity1

Autobiographical writing that takes the stance of witness reveals the person writing in the context of the external world, devoting attention in various proportions to events going on in historical time, to the social surroundings and to the topographical space in which the autobiographer functions. In the present chapter I shall concentrate on this last aspect.

Although the link between an individual’s identity with the place of his or her origin and the changes that accompany migrations is one of the most fundamental of anthropological problems, it is not one that we can discuss here. Nevertheless, one needs to keep this context in mind when examining the spatial references of autobiographical writing. These references are important for very many personal documents as well as for literary works that are deeply permeated by autobiographical elements, though not all the authors who write in various ways, open or camouflaged, about themselves, make mention of the topographical space which provided the background to the events of their lives. For writers to do this, the essential condition is the possession of a certain type of imagination, which I would call topographical. Authors endowed with this kind of writer’s temperament share a great sensual sensitivity and an interest in the wealth of the particular; they have a sense of the significance of the material detail. They are captivated by landscapes and objects; they are curious about the value and meaning that shapes and colours, sounds and smells, movement and light can conceal within themselves. They are fascinated by the visible world, which they interpret in all its variety, finding it either beautiful or bizarre and terrible. Or else they search for the hidden traces of the past that the world contains. This kind of imagination can be discerned, for example, in the work of writers who in other respects differ greatly from one another, such as Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, ←117 | 118→Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Konwicki, Miron Białoszewski and Adam Zagajewski. All of these writers created distinctive visions of their autobiographical places. Miłosz described the principle of the imagination’s topographical orientation both precisely and vividly, from the perspective of his rich and varied experience:

“Imagination, always spatial, indicates north, south, east and west from a certain central, privileged place, which, we may suppose, is the hamlet or local district of our childhood […]”2

Miłosz’s own work was an outstanding example of the practical fulfilment of this principle, partly in his poetry, but above all in such prose works as the novel Dolina Issy [The Issa Valley], the book-length essay Rodzinna Europa [Native Realm] and the diary Rok myśliwego [A Year of the Hunter], which are all permeated through and through with autobiographical experience.

The peculiar character of the topographical imagination is clearly visible when it is set against its opposite. The writer who possesses this kind of imagination can be compared to a painter who makes use of a rich palette of different colours. His antithesis would be the graphic artist or draughtsman, who can only operate in black and white, although his technique also offers a wealth of possibilities and can lead to masterly results. If in the poem “Kuźnia” [“Blacksmith Shop”],3 Miłosz twice repeats the word “patrzę” [“stare”] and concludes that he has been called “To glorify things just because they are [emphasis added]”, then the opposite pole of the imagination attracts writers who might describe themselves as being called to a study of ideas so penetrating that they might be trying to turn them inside out, as a tailor might do with some garment that is well worn, but still serviceable. And they behave like this simply because ideas are. Such writers on the whole do not possess any great sensitivity to the material stimuli of the three-dimensional visible world, though they are not necessarily only interested in their own inner life. Their attention may be drawn either towards abstract intellectual worlds or towards other people, their mental life and social relations. However, they are usually indifferent to the material background in which their heroes move, converse and act.

Such writers as Teodor Parnicki, Sławomir Mrożek, Aleksander Wat or Witold Gombrowicz, who were all privileged to live not only in the country of their birth ←118 | 119→and not only in Europe, but also on other continents, could not complain of a lack of stimuli from their external surroundings. They spent years in different countries and might all have become either bards of their own lost place in the world or travellers absorbing exotic impressions. But none of them considered topographical detail worthy of prolonged or concentrated attention. They did not create autobiographical places. To take one example: Parnicki, born in Berlin in 1905, spent his early childhood in Moscow, only to find himself while still a boy as far away as Vladivostok and later Harbin in Manchuria. Then, after spending not much more than ten years in Lwów (present-day Lviv),4 he was arrested after the outbreak of World War II by Soviet security services and deported into the depths of Russia once again, only later to join the II Corps of the Polish Army formed in the Soviet Union. With them he travelled via Jerusalem to London and finally to Mexico, where he settled as an emigrant for many years. Yet apart from geographical names, there are almost no spatial references in either the fictional threads of his historical novels or in their autobiographical allusions, which become increasingly dense as time goes by. Parnicki’s few mentions of the characteristic outlines of volcanos in the vicinity of Mexico City make this general lack all the more noticeable.

I propose to distinguish the category of autobiographical places as imaginative wholes which arise in relation to three frames: the writer’s work; the course of his or her life experiences; and real places in geographical space, considered along with their cultural symbolism. The phenomena involved here are situated on a border between literature and geography, and their description requires the simultaneous use of a variety of tools connected with literary studies, anthropology, cultural studies and humanist geography. To be more precise, we are dealing here with the points of contact between a given writer’s life and his or her work, the latter being understood broadly, as an assemblage of all the existing utterances of a given author, not only those pieces traditionally classed as literature, but also journalism, private notes, spoken utterances preserved in sound recordings or films, as well as works of other kinds of art, if the writer engaged in them. I still remain convinced that the hypothesis positing the existence of one collective, integrated subject uniting all the works of one author is ontologically justified and its application cognitively fruitful. The idea of distinguishing the autobiographical place as a category is based on precisely this assumption as to ←119 | 120→the author, with reference to his or her life and taking into account the geopoetic perspective. The elements that make up an autobiographical place may be concentrated in one work which is in essence devoted to the theme of localisation in space, but they may also be scattered over several different texts which successively complete or modify the vision of a place. In spite of the many possible literary shapes it may take, the autobiographical place is always related to a toponymically defined territory that is known from the life of the writer. It is of key significance that the reader may have his or her own access to this territory, independently of the vision created by a given author, since it has an existence outside words, as a geographical entity furnished with its own particular cultural symbolism.

The possibility of discerning and distinguishing the category of autobiographical places has come about mainly as a result of inspirations derived from the so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities, also known as the topographical turn. This development has enabled many scholars to find links between the lives and work of writers. The various possibilities that have emerged either directly from humanist geography (for example from the work of Yi-Fu Tuan5), or from attempts to modify it and apply it to literary studies, whether in the spirit of geopoetics, as proposed by Kenneth White,6 or under the banner of Bertrand Westphal’s geocriticism,7 are an encouragement to further study.

For a scholar interested in works with a clearly marked autobiographical stance, whether it is a case of literature of personal document in the strict sense or of texts in which the autobiographical is only one of the components, the perspective of geopoetics is an exceptionally valuable ally. It helps to counter the tendency to treat autobiographical writing as no more than a literary construct, a composition not essentially different from the free inventions of fiction. For some scholars, in their flight from over-simplified psychologizing and naïve understanding of representation in autobiography, have gone to precisely this extreme. Paul de Man, for example, by concentrating on the rhetorical character of autobiographical writing, created the neologism de-facement, punningly ←120 | 121→translated into Polish by the word od-twarzanie, which might mean “re-construct, re-produce”, “playback”, or “un-face”.8 In essence de Man’s theory aims to show that writing an autobiography depends on a process of depersonalisation of its author and hero, who loses his or her own face as the individual countenance dissolves into the linguistic material of tropes subject to the laws of rhetoric. Although the Polish translation of de Man’s title term creates the illusion that some game is going on between the two meanings of “od-twarzanie” (suggesting either being deprived of face, or re-construction as imitative action), de Man’s reasoning does not in fact suggest any such perspective. No counterweight to this tendency in literary studies, either, is provided by postmodern methodological quests in the study of history, since Hayden White, for instance, describes the work of the researcher in this field as historical writing, whose results are ordered according to the rules of literary genres and aesthetic categories such as tragedy and comedy. In contrast to these conceptions, humanist geography provides an impetus in the search for the frames of reference outside literature which are essential to the investigation of autobiographical writing, without at the same time catapulting the researcher back into naïve psychologising.

Individual Places of Memory

Of key significance in marking out the category of autobiographical places is the distinction between space and place made (or better, more precisely defined) by Yi-Fu Tuan. Put in the most straightforward terms, geographical space is simply a given, and as such constitutes the material object of research in the natural sciences. Place, in turn, is an isolated part of space, a part which we distinguish not only in relation to its material characteristics, but above all with regard to the cultural symbolism ascribed to it, which is created, passed on and modified in social tradition. It is important to remember that this understanding of place is close to a way of thinking that has functioned in culture since time immemorial, whether in primitive religious imaginaries in the form of the idea of the centre of the world and the distinction between sacred and profane space, or in ancient Rome in the shape of faith in the protecting spirit known as the genius loci, which watches over a given place and is treated in later cultural tradition as a way of symbolising the literary myth of place. Imaginaries of this kind took on new energy in modern times in the Romantic concept of local colour and later in the ←121 | 122→broader ideas of regionalism. The era of globalisation, in which the concept of glocality has arisen, has placed further challenges in the way of the idea of place.

The autobiographical place as a concept useful to the study of literature fits within Yi-Fu Tuan’s understanding of place as applied in humanist geography, yet it exists on another plane. It retains its essential reference to geographical place, but it is not a piece of physically existing, real space, not is it even an assembly of the cultural meanings and images associated with that space. Its two basic distinguishing features are its individual character and the fact of its being formed mainly in the material of works which can broadly be described as literary. The likelihood that autobiographical places could be satisfactorily identified in other art forms, too, especially in painting, photography and film, means that the proposed category could be transferred to the fields of cultural studies and art history. However, I shall not develop this thread any further here.

When we say that the inalienable attribute of the autobiographical place is its individuality, that is its reference to the individual person, we must of course remember that in very many cases the defined geographical place has its own cultural particularity, shaped over the ages into a distinct local myth. The examples of such ancient cities as Babylon, Jerusalem or Rome show this clearly. In modern times, the case is similar with the myth of Paris, as analysed for instance by Roger Caillois,9 and with St Petersburg as understood by Vladimir Toporov.10 The same phenomenon may also be observed in relation to chosen natural spaces, such as mountains, forests or steppe. In the case of places which already have their own distinct cultural symbolism, the image of a particular writer’s autobiographical place emerges in part out of existing tradition. In part, however, it also enriches and changes the received image, imparting its own, new tone to it, on a principle similar to that described by T. S. Eliot in his account of the relation between “tradition and the individual talent”. Regardless of whether this new, individual tone is really original, or simply rehearses known, stereotypical conceptions, it always adds something that changes tradition. Even an image of an autobiographical place that is not especially creative in the artistic sense contains by definition some elements that are connected exclusively with the fortunes of this and only this person.

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There are also writers who have founded a literary myth of place where there was earlier no clear feature to distinguish this place and nothing to allow it to be compared with the giants of age-old tradition. Bruno Schulz played this kind of role with respect to Drohobycz. One needs to remember here that the discovery by critics of an autobiographical place in Schulz’s stories, which do not contain real topographical names, was a relatively late one. The work of Jerzy Ficowski and Jerzy Jarzębski is particularly important in this context.11 Some of the writer’s drawings and engravings are also significant for his creation of an autobiographical place in relation to pre-war Drohobycz. Another example is the private mythology of Sanok and its surroundings, created in the poetry of Janusz Szuber in the context of his personal experiences of childhood and boyhood as well as of the past history of his family, neighbours and other inhabitants of the town.

If we refer to the category of a place of memory (lieu de mémoire), as distinguished by Pierre Nora,12 with respect to the past of some group, such as a nation, we can see that autobiographical places constitute an analogical category, an equivalent in the sphere of an individual’s existential experience. I would consider them to be individual places of memory. They require no social sanction and are not grounded in collective consciousness or mentality. While they quite frequently draw on collective images within which they then situate themselves, and while they can become an element that is present in the historical place of memory (for example in the case of an outstanding artist connected with a given place), they nevertheless possess their own peculiar autonomy as a result of being referred to the individual fortunes of a particular person and of existing in that person’s individual work. Their most important difference from places of memory as understood by Nora lies in their ontological status, for autobiographical places exist within the world of literature; they are images formed from descriptions, from topographical names mentioned in the text, from metaphors and literary allusions. Yet they also frequently have objective, material, topographically located equivalents: museums set up in a writer’s former home; statues; memorial plaques; tourist trails which pass through areas associated ←123 | 124→with the writer’s life and/or the setting of his or her work. Compilations such as guides and maps, which show the rootedness of a literary autobiographical place in geographical space, also forge a link between literary depictions and the real places to which they relate; and this link suggests an association with the historical place of memory as Nora conceives of it. Examples of this link are to be found in guides to James Joyce’s and Leopold Bloom’s Dublin, to Miron Białoszewski’s Warsaw, or to Paweł Huelle’s or Stefan Chwin’s Gdańsk. Other examples are town plans and maps with tourist trails marked, such as the Mickiewicz trail in a region of today’s Belarus, which takes in both places where the poet lived and the supposed prototypes of places that he described, especially in Pan Tadeusz. Quotations engraved on plaques and placed on the entities to which they refer have a similar function; one instance is the series of plaques relating to “Gdańsk writers” which were once placed at various points around the city, such as the wall of Oliwa station, where at one time there was an extract from a description of this building in a text by Stefan Chwin. Even fictional situations and characters from novels have come to be localised in real space, as has happened in Warsaw with respect to Bolesław Prus’s novel Lalka [The Doll]. Plaques inform passers-by where the fictional Wokulski kept his shop (by the Castle Square) or where he lived (on the street called Krakowskie Przedmieście). This was only possible because of the precision with which Prus wrote the adventures of his invented hero into the map of the real city.

It is also worth confronting the category of the autobiographical place with the findings of the French anthropologist Marc Augé, who identified a new spatial phenomenon, the “non-place”, which he considered to be characteristic of the most recent phase of Western culture, named by him “supermodernity”. In Augé’s view, stations, airport lounges and supermarkets, with their complete lack of individuality, or hotels maintained in the uniform style of a worldwide chain, are examples of such anonymous non-places. These are “spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike in Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position”.13 We find one example of the creation of a non-place in Polish prose of the early twenty-first century in the international airports where the narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s Bieguni [Flights] spends her time. I apply the concept of autobiographical places to contemporary literature, in which they have ←124 | 125→an anthropological character; they are “relational, historical and concerned with identity”,14 as Augé writes. They constitute the antithesis of the non-place. The literary autobiographical place is a meaningful, symbolic equivalent of an authentic geographical place and the cultural images and notions associated with it. It does not refer to a geometrical space that is universal and empty, but is always connected with something topographical, material and particular, even if it remains subject to the literary re-shapings proper not only to realistic description, which may make use of metaphor, but also even to texts which operate according to the laws of dream and fantasy.

The Topographic Imagination

For an autobiographical place to come into being, the writer needs not only to be inclined to take an autobiographical stance, but also to possess a developed topographic imagination. We find the elements that constitute an autobiographical place both in texts whose nature is evidently that of personal document, such as autobiographies, diaries, memoirs and recollections or correspondence, if a given author created such texts, and in fictional narrative texts, poetic works, essays, literary critical writings, commentaries by the writer on his or her own work, interviews and so on, though of course in all cases we must take account of the conventions governing these different kinds of utterance. At the same time we make use of published biographical information not only in textual but in visual form. This includes photographs (along with signatures recording dates and places) which contain significant topographical elements, such as background details that help us to identify the place or characteristic accessories visible in the photograph. In a word, we take everything into account which allows us to re-create the spatial setting of events from the writer’s life and which can provide a context to facilitate understanding of elements that appear in his or her literary work, such as details of regional colour or allusions to defined cultural phenomena. For instance, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s photographs, especially those of Zakopane and the Tatra mountains, as well as the countless photographs that present the writer himself in these surroundings, cast an additional light on certain details of scenery in his novels, as well as underlining the autobiographical elements present in them and Witkiewicz’s use of techniques typical of the roman de clef.

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In examining autobiographical places, it is important to pay attention to the varied circumstances and places which make up the writer’s existence: place of birth, childhood home, places associated with school and student years, places of work, places connected with travel or movement or encountered on journeys, as well as changes in place of residence which have left significant traces in the writer’s work. Most literary creations of personal territory of course relate to the surroundings of birth and childhood, and here an archetypal subtext is usually at work, a peculiar kind of atavism connecting the identity of the individual with his or her birthplace. But there are also exceptions. Zofia Nałkowska lived all her life in Warsaw, but the autobiographical place created in Dom nad łąkami [The House in the Meadows] referred to her parents’ summer home in Górki in the countryside outside the city. Adam Zagajewski, besides his imagined Lwów and remembered Gliwice, devoted his fullest attention to Kraków, which he came to love when he was a student and in which he settled for good when he returned from emigration. For Ryszard Kapuściński, the countries that he most often visited led him to make of Africa an autobiographical place alongside his lost homeland of Pińsk; of the latter, indeed, he did not in the end manage to write fully, leaving only plans and sketches. The most obvious raw material for an autobiographical place, however, is provided by permanent, lifelong residence in one place, as in the images of Warsaw presented by Miron Białoszewski or Małgorzata Baranowska.

In examining autobiographical places, we need to consider not only the given writer’s own literary texts, but also other textual and visual materials (such as photographs and pictures) which provide evidence of interest in other people’s descriptions of the writer’s place or region and knowledge of its tradition and mythology, its “spirit of place”. For the creation of an autobiographical place does not rely solely on one person’s own existential experience, but involves coming to know the tradition of a place and participating in it – even if the links with other people’s testimonies are hidden and merely allusive. Often, however, precursors’ texts are not only recalled as a source of knowledge of a writer’s own place, but are also cited and incorporated into that writer’s own text, as for example with the ancient documents from the days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the footnotes to Miłosz’s long poem Gdzie wschodzi słońce i kędy zapada [From the Rising of the Sun to its Setting].

It is also important to take account of evidence of a writer’s interest in other people’s descriptions (and visual representations) of journeys to places either chosen by him or her or imposed by fortune, places which are re-shaped as the writer’s own, but in a manner that is nevertheless inlaid with intertextual ←126 | 127→allusions. One example here would be the countless references Iwaszkiewicz makes to descriptions of travels in Italy – a canonical element of European literature – as well as to the oral tales of Karol Szymanowski, who instilled a fascination with Sicily into his younger cousin. Another example would be the many traces of a deep knowledge, drawn by the author from history books, of the affairs of the Bernese region in Jerzy Stempowski’s essays on this subject. Mediation of this kind plays a significant role in familiarising a foreign territory and re-shaping it into a writer’s own autobiographical place. The predecessor who introduces a writer to knowledge of a place, or whom the writer himself or herself discovers while looking for suitable reading material, is an aid in the process of making a new territory one’s own, acting as a guardian spirit, familiarising the new arrival with the spirit of a given place. In this way we examine not only the individual relation between the work of the writer who interests us and other authors who are important to him or her, but also the shaping of a holistic cultural symbolism of a defined topographical area.

Types of Autobiographical Place

In surveying the variety of types of literary autobiographical place, I discern in the background the outlines of a dichotomy between settledness and mobility, a dichotomy that points us to basic distinctions known from cultural anthropology. The distinction between autobiographical places that are stable and those that are disturbed is of fundamental significance. Stable places are places in which a person is rooted, native places in which one remains all one’s life, observing only the passage of time. All other places are migrant places, grasped from a distance, seen after displacement. Stable places have the character of a given, of something in a certain sense inherited, whereas disturbed ones are connected with going out into the world, travelling a road and perhaps reaching some other point where movement stops. This is the situation of what is chosen, acquired or imposed; to live in it is thus completely different from living in the original place, which one simply has, in which one simply is. We also need to refer to one other distinction, between the spatial literary topoi of home and road, which is linked with the distinction between closed and open space and which we know from the methodologically varied but cognitively fruitful semiological, phenomenological and mythographical research on which the most recent cultural studies draw (without always acknowledging that they have done so). In turn, we find in the social sciences a basic distinction that is relevant to the subject of our interest, between closed, settled societies (originally usually agricultural) and open, mobile ones (originally nomadic or pastoral, or occupied with trade ←127 | 128→and consequently often with ships and the sea).15 Thus from the point of view of human ways of relating to space, two fundamental possibilities emerge: settled life and life in motion. Movement may take three basic forms: it may be a matter of leaving (even repeatedly) the point of permanent settlement and returning to it (travelling); or of removal to another point (re-settlement); or, finally, of continual re-settlement (nomadism). All these three forms are known to literature.16 Movement never ceases to be a way in which human beings relate to space and we must bear it in mind in reconstructing literary autobiographical places.

With respect to the biographical situation from which localisation in space results, and in connection with the way of telling chosen by a given author, a series of types of autobiographical place can be distinguished. I identify the following: native, remembered, imagined, transferred, elective and visited.

The native autobiographical place is shown in the perspective of the HERE and NOW, or possibly the HERE and THEN, but in any case without spatial distance, without remoteness. The subject is in principle always there at this moment in his or her real surroundings, viewing them day by day and creating their literary image while actually living in them. He or she writes of the place from the standpoint of one constantly present in it, usually with a feeling of permanent rootedness, most often also as one born in it and settled in it throughout a lifetime.17 Model examples of this in post-war prose are Miron Białoszewski’s and Małgorzata Baranowska’s Warsaw and Paweł Huelle’s and Stefan Chwin’s Gdańsk. These are settled places, taken for granted as one’s own; they are the diametric opposite of the migrational situation. Yet the unease of the epoch of migrations and historical upheavals made its mark also on such places of permanent, settled habitation. The Warsaw presented by Białoszewski with such striking precision and in such detail is a place that has been gashed through and through by forces of destruction, so that the appearance, fate and character of the city as it was before the Warsaw Uprising have been cut off once and for all from its present ←128 | 129→state. In the daily trivia, among the “denunciations of everyday life”,18 or among the recollections of ancient children’s toys, for example in the theatre set up by a boy in the kitchen of a pre-war apartment on Leszno Street – at every step one hears echoes of that watershed time of the Uprising, as for instance in the grotesque piece of gossip about some old women living a buried life in a cellar, who for several decades failed to realise that the war was over. They fed on the fungus growing on the walls and turned a mangle to kill time. Zawał [Heart Attack], an autobiographical tale of heart disease and a stay in hospital in 1974, casts a new light on Białoszewski’s Pamiętnik z powstania warszawskiego [A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising], written fifteen or sixteen years earlier, revealing the latter as a tale of the “heart attack” suffered by the city. Warsaw has moved not horizontally, on the surface of the earth, but vertically, for it has given way (its heart has given way); it has collapsed (into ruins).

Gdańsk, as the place of their birth and childhood which forms the autobiographical, allusive background to the novels and stories of Huelle and Chwin, allows them to acknowledge the palimpsest text of this city, with its complex and many-layered history, as their own, accepted place. However, a significant constitutive element in their image of places, though created in the perspective of the here, is their emphasis on the fact that they are only the first generation of permanent inhabitants. The recollective perspective of the previous generation is also present in their writing, which contains the memory of the fate of their parents – migrants who were forced to leave Vilnius, Lviv or Warsaw after the destruction following the Uprising, and who were unable to accept Gdańsk fully as a place that was really and truly theirs.

All the other types of autobiographical place besides the native are disturbed in the sense that they are directly marked by the situation of migration. Remembered places are native places that have been lost. Once they seemed to be something permanent, a once-and-for-all given, but they had to be left behind, most often as a consequence of exile or flight. The remembered place is usually the place of birth and childhood, sometimes also of youth; the place of happy, once settled life, forcibly abandoned in the historical catastrophe of the mass resettlements from east to west after World War II. In the image of the remembered place, use is made in various ways of the Mickiewicz model, recalling a lost idyll, a model continued by Sienkiewicz in “Latarnik” [“The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall”] and brought up to date again in 1942 by the editors of a ←129 | 130→collection of recollections by wartime emigrants whose title, Kraj lat dziecinnych [The Land of Childhood Years],19 unambiguously recalls this tradition. Though wide open to stereotypical treatment, as evidenced by much popular literature of recollection, the model has proved extremely robust; one example of its vigour is the parodic, subversive response that it provoked in the work of an author descended in the third generation from post-war migrants. I am thinking here of the long poem by Tadeusz Różycki entitled Dwanaście stacji [Twelve Stations] (a clear allusion to the twelve volumes of Mickiewicz’s romantic epic). Despite the ironic, mocking perspective adopted by this young poet at the beginning of the twenty-first century, under the amusingly ribald surface there is an undercurrent of nostalgia. The recollection model of the autobiographical place, most extensively represented – though certainly not inevitably stereotypically – in literature on the borderland theme, which is the subject of the next chapter, goes back as far as the direct aftermath of World War I, with images ranging from Iwaszkiewicz’s Ukraine to Melchior Wańkowicz’s vision of his childhood on the family estates in today’s Belarus, presented in his book of recollections Szczenięce lata [The Puppy Years]. After World War II, continuations appear in Stanisław Vincenz’s Hucul region, as well as in the Vilnius locality of Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Konwicki and Zbigniew Żakiewicz, the Podolia of Zygmunt Haupt and Julian Wołoszynowski, and the Dniester valley and Volhynia of Jerzy Stempowski. This is to name only some of the many examples. They are certainly of crucial interest to our subject, but I mention them only in passing as they are too well known and too well described in countless monographs and articles to merit any further attention in the present context.

Interestingly, one writer who attempted to create a remembered place of his own was Ryszard Kapuściński, a writer whose topographic imagination was directed towards movement in space rather than towards images of settled life. Perhaps there is something significant in the fact that he did not manage to bring into being the repeatedly promised book about his native Pińsk in Polesie. The remembered autobiographical place of this journalist is present in no more than a loose assembly of sketchy fragments: the first documentary in Busz po polsku [Nobody Leaves]; the beginning of Imperium; the documentary film of his travels with Anders Bodegård; and some of his remarks in interviews from various occasions.

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In the creation of autobiographical imagined places, that is formed in relation to a geographical area that the writer does not know personally and in which he or she has never had the opportunity to be, a key role is played by the tradition passed on by previous generations for whom it was a native place. Genealogy, which is important for remembered places, becomes quite simply essential to the construction of imagined ones. This applies above all to second and third generation migrants, for whom the past is not accessible through their own memory, but only through an imagined rootedness in an inaccessible space, whose image emerges from the operations of a familial and cultural myth, without being confronted with personal, non-verbal experience. Imagined places arise perhaps more in a manner similar to the methods of archaeological research, for they belong more to genealogy than to autobiography in the strict sense; and because they are created in a sense as a counter to the reality of migration, they are perhaps more prone to being idealised than the remembered places created through the work of memory of first-generation migrants. The most important example in this context is to be found in the image of Podolia in Włodzimierz Odojewski’s novel cycle, as well as in some of his later short stories and in episodes from the novel Oksana, although it is known that this image is based to some degree on the writer’s recollections of one short journey in his boyhood. Another example is the world of the great-grandfather in Anna Bolecka’s Biały kamień [The White Stone], a novel that is distinctly marked by an autobiographical context, in which, however, a rather uncertain and incomplete knowledge of authentic genealogy mingles openly with free invention.

Adam Zagajewski’s Lvov (Lviv), as presented in his essay “Two Cities” (in Two Cities: On Exile, History and the Imagination) and his poem “To Go to Lvov”, clearly belongs to this type, especially to the time of the writer’s first visit to the city, when the imagined place shaped over decades was confronted with the personal experience of staying in the real one. However, Zagajewski’s Lvov does not assume the features of a remembered place. The image of the city is considerably enriched by a sketch asking the question “Should we visit sacred places?” (Obrona wrażliwości [A Defense of Ardor]), written after Zagajewski had spent some time in the city, and it might seem that this would be the end of the subject in his work. Yet Zagajewski’s later book, Lekka przesada [Slight Exaggeration], continues his reflection on the imagined Lvov as a place recollected by his parents’ generation. Here there is a new element, in that the role of his father, as one of the more important heroes of the personal narrative in this book, becomes highly significant. Like the earlier volume W cudzym pięknie [Another Beauty], Slight Exaggeration is not only a book about poetry; it is also ←131 | 132→about the poet, and not only about the poet in general, but about the one particular poet who is Adam Zagajewski. For the autobiographical element becomes increasingly strong in his essays, though it remains within a framework of intellectual, spiritual autobiography. Slight Exaggeration even invokes the patron of this formula of personal writing: Henryk Elzenberg, as the author of the philosophical diary discussed in Part Two of this book: Kłopot z istnieniem [The Trouble with Existence].

The transferred place appears when an emigrant finds some kind of “second homeland” in which he or she settles and which he or she accepts, at least in so far as to find in it a place for his or her work. Quite often (though not always) this is accompanied by the creation of a remembered place which was once native. This is how I see the case of Jerzy Stempowski as the author of Ziemia berneńska [The Bernese Land], a volume of essays devoted to the landscape surrounding the Swiss capital, in which the writer finds traces of the history and culture of the region, interpreting it through his wealth of knowledge of European literature, philosophy and painting. His Listy z ziemi berneńskiej [Letters from the Bernese Land] and some of his Eseje dla Kasandry [Essays for Cassandra], for example “Nad wodospadem w Szafuzie” [By Schaffhausen Waterfall], also fit into this picture. Stempowski tells little directly about the events of his own life, presenting himself instead as merely the person speaking in the text, a participant in the shared heritage of Europe who sees himself as an inhabitant both of Switzerland, where he studied before the war, and of his ancestral Ukrainian homeland where he spent his childhood and youth. He sketches an image of the latter as a remembered place in such texts as “W dolinie Dniestru” [In the Dniester Valley], “Esej berdyczowski” [Essay after Berdichev], “Bagaż z Kalinówki” [Luggage from Kalinówka] or “Dom Strawińskiego w Uściługu” [Stravinsky’s House in Ustyluh]. Possibly also one might discern the presence of a transferred place in Miłosz’s Widzeniach nad Zatoką San Francisco [Visions from San Francisco Bay], as well as in some parts of A Year of the Hunter and in the allusions to the landscape of California scattered through his poems. In his essay “Noty o wygnaniu” (dated Berkeley 1975), cited earlier in the context of defining the personal spatial reference point that is crucial for orientation and grounding in a settled life, Miłosz also defines the situation that I call transference: “Though it is common, the literature of yearning is only one of the variant ways of dealing with being cut off from one’s own country. The new point which organises space in relation to one’s self cannot be eliminated, in other words one cannot abstract oneself from physical presence in a defined place on Earth. This is what gives rise to the strange phenomenon by which two centres, and the two spaces created ←132 | 133→around them, overlap with each other, or – and this is a happy solution – grow together into one”.20

The situation pondered with so much effort and at such existential cost by Herling-Grudziński appears not only in countless entries in his Diary, but also, even more obviously, in a series of stories whose background is the scenery of Naples and its surroundings: from “Pieta dell’Isola” of 1959, through “Most” [Bridge], “Gruzy” [Rubble], “Cud” [Miracle], “Dżumę w Neapolu” [Plague in Naples] and many others, to “Podzwonne dla dzwonnika” [Death Knell for the Bell-Ringer], completed in 2000. In one interview about life in the “city on a volcano”, the writer explained that the choice of Naples as a place to live after his marriage to Lidia Croce (Germany might also have entered into the calculations) was dictated by the desire for at least one of the spouses to be at home rather than living in emigration. Over many decades, he wrote of not feeling accepted by the Neapolitans, and perhaps it was only at the end of his life that he came to acknowledge the little house in Dragonei near Naples, where his study was, as his own place on earth. But this was not before he had achieved great success among readers in Poland and had made a visit to his own country. For his work, in turn, the Naples region and a few other chosen places in Italy, with their landscape, history, customs, folklore and various peculiarities, became an inexhaustible treasure-house of themes and ideas. Given Herling-Grudziński’s vision of human existence, it is perhaps not entirely appropriate (for various reasons) to speak of the situation as a “happy solution”, but from the point of view of his writing, his discovery of a second homeland, and one that provided highly fertile ground for the imagination, was undoubtedly felicitous. In turn, we also know this author’s remembered place thanks to a penetrating interpretation by Włodzimierz Bolecki in the study Ciemna miłość [Dark Love]. Making use in the title of Mickewicz’s description of the country of his childhood, Bolecki brought together a series of small and scattered, but moving and extremely meaningful references in Herling-Grudziński’s Diary to his original homeland, near Suchedniów21 in central Poland. Another example of a transferred place ←133 | 134→is the place of asylum that Andrzej Bobkowski created for himself, writing of Guatemala as the place he discovered to live and write in after consciously and decidedly abandoning Europe.

In the next generations of emigrants, nostalgia mingles with a quite different feeling. This can be seen in the work of those fugitives from the Polish People’s Republic who “chose freedom” in the West in various different periods, like the Poles of Jewish origin who left the country because of antisemitism in 1968, or those of the post-Solidarity wave who left in the 1980s because of martial law. In the case of both these groups, the removal to another place involves a sense of loss, but one which is also strongly mixed with feelings of rebellion and anger towards the rejected world of the People’s Republic. Now seen as foreign and deceitful, in these writers’ work that world has at least partly lost the character of the native place that grounds identity.

Elective places differ from transferred ones in that they are places of temporary rather than permanent habitation. They are chosen because of something of value that they are perceived to possess, but for various reasons it is not possible to settle in them for good. They need not in principle be connected with migration in its most painful form, that of exile, though in twentieth-century Polish historical and social circumstances it was generally in this context that they were discovered and chosen. However, they may also simply be an outcome of travel. An elective place may be a temporary sanctuary for a migrant, which existential circumstances prevent from being a place of permanent residence, but in which he or she may from time to time find a world that is better and more beautiful than that of the everyday lot. It is usually travel-lovers who find such “homelands of the soul”, and while they describe a variety of interesting corners of the world, they also have their favourite spots, places to which they keep returning and which they present with special care, making them part of their lives and work. For Iwaszkiewicz, it was Italy and Sicily (and on a smaller scale, Sandomierz, on the banks of the Vistula) which had this kind of significance, as elective autobiographical places. He made various parts of his chosen Italy and Sicily the subject of his work in travel writing and poems, and they afforded the background to events in his stories and novels (in his series of “Italian novellas” and in Sława i chwala [Fame and Glory]). But he also made them part of his life, frequently writing and spending time there. Although the texts penned in Italy were generally not thematically linked with the country (“Panny z Wilka” [The Maids of Wilko], for instance, is dated “Syracuse, April 1932”, while “Cienie” [Shadows], on the events of the 1917 revolution in Ukraine, is signed “Rome, May 1963”), nevertheless the provision at the ends of these texts of information on the place and time of writing builds a link between the literary order and the ←134 | 135→factual order of Iwaszkiewicz’s life. In Stawisko near occupied Warsaw, he wrote of Venice, Florence and Sicily; while in Rome and Syracuse before and after the war, he created pieces whose heroes inhabit the scenery of Mazowsze or Ukraine. In this way Iwaszkiewicz binds into one peculiarly complex knot his own, presently observed or remembered autobiographical place, and the autobiographical place of his choice, the “homeland of the soul” that he can only sometimes visit. He also reinforces the link between his own life, shaped by him, and the untrammelled world of literary imagination.

In the poetry, essays and letters of Zbigniew Herbert, Greece is treated similarly. Herbert singles her out particularly in his image of the Mediterranean “garden” visited by the “barbarian” from the North. To begin with, and for many years, this choice of Greece was a matter only of imagination and reading, but later it came to involve the museums of France and Italy, until finally the time came for Herbert’s first encounter with Magna Graecia in the Doric temples of Paestum. It was only after this that the poet had the opportunity to travel to Athens, to the Peloponnese and the islands of the Aegean Sea, journeys which bore fruit in the pieces that we know from Labirynt nad morzem [Labyrinth on the Sea] and Król mrówek [The Ant King]. Drawings and sketches made by the poet while travelling also contribute to Herbert’s creation of his elective autobiographical place.

Since it might sound odd to describe the whole of one huge continent as a “place”, let us say that over a period of many years, Ryszard Kapuściński gradually came to discover Africa as his own elective autobiographical territory. He emphasises, of course, that there is no such thing as one Africa, for this vast land contains a whole host of different countries, landscapes and peoples, all thoroughly dissimilar. Yet though he travelled to other continents, it was this one that attracted Kapuściński above all. He returned to it many times and wrote several books connected with it, of which the summa of his African experience, the novel Heban [The Shadow of the Sun], deserves particular mention. He knew Africa incomparably better than the parts of the world presented in other of his books, such as Szachinszach [Shah of Shahs], Imperium or Wojna futbolowa [The Soccer War]. This is also confirmed by his last book, Podróże z Herodotem [Travels with Herodotus], which is an autobiographical account of the story of his professional calling, and from the point of view of defining autobiographical places tells the story of his life’s journey to Africa. His photographs, too, alongside his writing, contribute to his creation of that continent as an elective autobiographical place.

Finally, the visited place is one that is also known through travel, but only in passing. It is a place that is merely touched on, so to speak, perhaps even visited ←135 | 136→only once, yet in some way and for some reason it is perceived as worthy of attention, and the writer commits its name to memory along with its characteristic objects and details. Descriptions of these things may then appear not only in diaries, travel letters, documentaries or memoirs, but also in literary pieces, in which they are incorporated into the writer’s own creative work. A visited place has not yet been transformed into an elective one, a place to which the person who chooses it keeps returning; but it has been noted and has come to exist in the writer’s work.

It is in this way that we might define, for example, the image of Switzerland in Zofia Nałkowska’s work. In her diary, this writer noted a series of observations from her stay in a mountain sanatorium from February to April 1925. Two years later, she published Choucas, subtitled “an international novel”.22 Here she presents her own personal drama, involving the first symptoms of ageing, and the tensions being played out in an international society that includes patients from various countries of Europe after World War I – all against the background of an Alpine winter that is melting into spring; and she imparts an intrinsic value to her observations of nature and the life of the mountain-dwellers. In this novel, the local colour of an Alpine health-resort is recreated, and when we compare it with the episode as described in her Diaries, we see that Nałkowska’s stay in this out-of-the-way corner of Switzerland has left significant traces in her life and work, making a particular mark on the development of her style. Through several of the figures of patients in Choucas, the novel touches on the subject of the Armenian massacre carried out by the Turks in 1914, and thus a decade before Nałkowska’s stay in the Swiss sanatorium. Her way of writing of these events seems to foreshadow, for the present only as an early possibility, that reserved style, all the more shocking because of its simplicity, which the writer was to bring to perfection after World War II in Medaliony [Medallions].

In the life and work of Miłosz, the fenland region of Żuławy acquired the rank of a visited place, though encountered only briefly through the link with his mother, who came to live there as a result of the post-war resettlement from Wilno (Vilnius), and who died there in 1945. The image of this low-lying plain under a cloudy sky recurs several times in poems dated by the poet, written in America at various stages of his work: “Grób matki” [My Mother’s Grave] (1949), “Żuławy” (1950), “Z nią” [“With Her”] (1985). This last has a decisive significance with respect to the autobiographical place, because the death of his mother ←136 | 137→in a village near Gdańsk is recalled on the poet’s own birthday. A prose note to the poem (in the original) recounts the circumstances of Miłosz’s mother’s death (she contracted typhus from a lonely old German woman whom she cared for in her illness). Miłosz also referred to this many times in letters and interviews, most extensively in a conversation with Krystyna and Stefan Chwin in Kraków in 1992.23 The context which reveals the village of Drewnica as one of Miłosz’s visited places is presented in a book on this episode in the poet’s life, Miłosz na Żuławach. Epizod z biografii poety.24

In the case of the place visited by Herling-Grudziński in the story “Wieża” [The Tower], the incident we are dealing with cannot be so clearly distinguished as an individual drama as the death of Miłosz’s mother can. Instead, the situation is made up of several factors: the unexpected discovery of Xavier de Maistre’s tale, The Leper of the City of Aosta, in the mountain home of Benedetto Croce (the writer’s father-in-law), the fact of reading it amid Alpine scenery permeated through and through with powerful symbolism, and then the connection between the existential problems involved in the Savoyan writer’s tale and the real life experiences of the Polish author, who had been a prisoner in one of the Soviet GULAG camps. Herling-Grudziński’s story has an extremely subtle Chinese box composition. The summary of Comte de Maistre’s story is enclosed within the frame of events that were played out in the Aosta Valley towards the end of the Second World War.

The ground for Herling-Grudziński’s description of an autobiographical visited place is the extraordinary impression made on him by reading the Count’s story of the loneliness and suffering of a leper imprisoned in one of the towers of Aosta’s medieval walls. Even after forty years, this author speaks of the book he found in that mountain home not so much as a writer speaks of a work by another writer, but almost as an adherent of some religion speaks of its founding holy text. He speaks of it as something to which he constantly returns in his effort to understand the phenomenon of exclusion and the ultimate loneliness symbolised by leprosy.

The tower described by Comte de Maistre and then by Herling-Grudziński has a real topographical existence; it has its own address on Via Torre del Lebbroso, and is marked on the town plan. Two plaques attached to the tower, which ←137 | 138→provide information about the two stories and their authors, give additional cultural significance to this material place. At the same time, it has acquired an intertextual existence through being described in two interconnected pieces. Herling-Grudziński gave it the status of an autobiographical visited place that left an unusually permanent trace, and that not only on his writing, but through his writing also on the space of Aosta.

In Ryszard Kapuściński’s work, all the countries of the world in which he spent time, incorporating these travels into his own life experience and describing them in a personal way, have the character of visited places. With the exception, of course, of Africa, which, as I have already said, over the years gained the status of an elective place.

Migrational situations, which are typical of contemporary civilisation, contribute to the fact that in creating their autobiographical places, writers are usually not content with one model alone. One model would be enough in the stable situation of a settled life, though it does also happen, especially among authors of the emigration generation of World War II, that writers who have been deprived of this security become obsessed with the creation of a one-and-only lost and remembered place. Frequently, however, movement and change incline writers to reach for different ways of presenting their placement in the world. Within one writer’s work and life a hierarchy usually forms: a certain model dominates, while others are subordinated to it and complement it or compete with it. I have tried to show this in my account of the work of the writers discussed above. Here there is no longer any rule that can be theoretically grasped; there are only the individual decisions of particular writers.

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1 Translator’s note: A translation of a version of this chapter, entitled “Autobiographical Sites. A Proposition within Geopoetics”, translated by Jan Szelągiewicz, appeared in a special issue of Teksty Drugie 2014. 2: 55–74. The text as presented here is an entirely new translation from a revised original. The key concept rendered as “site” by Szelągiewicz is here translated as “place”, because of the author’s allusion to Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinction between space and place, as well as to Marc Augé’s concept of the non-place.

2 Cz. Miłosz, “Noty o wygnaniu” [Notes on Exile], Zaczynając od moich ulic (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie ,1990), 49. The English collection of essays with the same title, Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), does not contain this essay.

3 Cz. Miłosz, Selected and Last Poems 1931-2004 (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 213.

4 Translator’s note: The present-day city of Lviv in Ukraine was known to the authors discussed here as Lwów, and where it seems appropriate to the material, the latter form is used in this book.

5 Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).

6 See K. White, Geopoetics : Place, Culture, World (Glasgow: Alba Editions, 2003), in which the author discusses various aspects of his understanding of geopoetics, which in his view is not so much an investigative method as a kind of philosophy of life, a cultural practice and literary programme.

7 B. Westphal, ed. La géocritique. Mode d’emploi (Limoges: Presses Universitaire Limoges, 2000).

8 P. de Man, “Autobiography as De-facement”, Modern Language Notes 94 (1979): 919–930.

9 R. Caillois, “Paris, mythe moderne”, Nouvelle Revue française, mai 1937: 682–699.

10 See , for example, the discussion of Todorov’s myth of St Petersburg and his concept of the Petersburg text of Russian literature in: Julie A. Buckler, Mapping St Petersburg: imperial text and cityshape (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

11 J. Ficowski, Regiony wielkiej herezji i okolice: Bruno Schulz i jego mitologia (Sejny: “Pogranicze”, 2002). The very rich iconography of J. Jarzębski’s book Schulz (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1999) presents the real topography of the town which in Schulz’s stories is reshaped as an entirely mythical space. See also J. Jarzębski, Prowincja centrum: przypisy do Schulza (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2005).

12 P. Nora, “Mémoire collective”, in Faire de l'histoire, ed. Jacques Le Goffand (Paris: Gallimard, 1974).

13 Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, second edition, trans. John Howe (London and New York: Verso, 2008), 63.

14 Augé, 63.

15 See the now classic synthesis by Howard Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, Social Thought from Lore to Science, 1938.

16 See J. Abramowska, “Peregrynacja”, in Przestrzeń i literatura, ed. M. Głowiński and A. Okopień-Sławińska (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1978).

17 Vasiliy Shchukin used terms inspired by humanist geography in his study of classic Russian literature, in which he analysed the settled place lived in for generations as a typical myth of the gentry tradition. Original 1997, translated into Polish by Bogusław Żyłko, Mit szlacheckiego gniazda. Studium geokulturologiczne o klasycznej literaturze rosyjskiej (Kraków: Universitas, 2006).

18 Translator’s note: This phrase alludes to the title of one of Białoszewski’s works, Donosy rzeczywistości.

19 Kraj lat dziecinnych, ed. Mieczysław Grydzewski and Ksawery Pruszyński (London: M. I. Kolin, 1942); second edition edited by Z. Czermański et al. (London: Puls, 1987).

20 Cz. Miłosz, “Noty o wygnaniu” [Notes on Exile] in Zaczynając od moich ulic, 49. A wider context for this method of self-identification, which is expressed by Milosz’s figure of the new arrival who possesses the ability to make himself at home in a new place, is presented by R. Nycz: Osoba w nowoczesnej literaturze: ślady obecności, in his Literatura jako trop rzeczywistości. Poetyka epifanii w nowoczesnej literaturze polskiej (Kraków: Universitas, 2001), 73–77.

21 Włodzimierz Bolecki, Ciemna miłość. Szkice do portretu Gustawa Herlinga-Grudzińskiego (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2005), 141–165.

22 This novel has been translated into English by Ursula Siebenschusch (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014).

23 Transcript of this conversation in Miłosz. Gdańsk i okolice. Relacje, dokumenty, głosy, ed. K. Chwin and S. Chwin (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Tytuł, 2012), 361.

24 Miłosz na Żuławach. Epizod z biografii poety, ed. M. Czermińska and A. Kasperek (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego, 2013).