Żeromski the Magnificent!

The novelist who captured Polish life even as it was changing

HUMANITIES, January/February 2012, Volume 33, Number 1

Not every great writer is blessed with an international reputation. Stefan Żeromski, who lived and wrote in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Poland, created superb novels and yet is little known in the English-speaking world. His limited reputation can partly be attributed to the unsettled times in which he wrote. Modernism and symbolism were shaking the foundations of his country’s Romantic tradition. Partisans of every stripe were hotly debating new visions for an independent nation. Major powers were fading: The Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, and the Hohenzollerns were all headed toward the historical dustbin. Poland itself, already something of a mystery to many readers, may seem doubly remote in this period. But Żeromski offers generous rewards to the reader who bothers to make the trip.

During much of the nineteenth century and some of the early twentieth, Warsaw fell within the Russian Partition, but in 1919 it became the liberated capital of the independent Polish Republic. At the time of his death in 1925, Żeromski (pronounced Zheh-ROHM-skee) was being hailed as the “conscience of Polish literature.” He had few admirers abroad, but one of them was ex-compatriot Joseph Conrad, who supported his candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature — an honor, alas, that Żeromski never received. Bill Johnston’s recent translation of his final novel, The Coming Spring, fortunately, gives contemporary readers a long-overdue chance to judge for themselves the value of this peculiar and gifted novelist.

Black and white photo of armed Polish volunteers marching through Warsaw.
Photo caption

Polish volunteers march through the streets of Warsaw, preparing for the Battle of Warsaw against the Bolsheviks in July 1920.


Within his stories, Żeromski refused to take sides in the grand debate over Poland’s future, but he created high-minded characters passionate about reform. Their ideas, feelings, and milieus he wrought in passages of such beauty and complexity that they beg to be savored. Johnston notes that the Polish word that serves as the novel’s title, Przedwiośnie (pronounced Pshed-VIOHSH-nyeh) doesn’t have a true English equivalent. It refers to the time of the year when winter is over once and for all, but spring hasn’t gotten started—in other words, a time of bleak transition, of barrenness.

The novel starts on a harsh note: “It’s not a question here—dammit—of a coat of arms!” So says the narrator about Cezary or “Czaruś” Baryka, denying the traditional significance of lineage, which, in his case, can barely be traced back beyond his parents. Cezary’s mother married a successful businessman, a Pole who returned to Poland to find a wife, and took her to Russia, where she birthed and raised Cezary but never felt at home: “She heard in the depths of her mind the rumble of a train’s wheels and saw the immeasurable expanse of the fields, wilderness, and pastures of this immense land—Russia—which was
her prison.”

In grimy, refinery-riddled Baku (today in Azerbaijan), the family achieves relative comfort supported by Cezary’s merchant father until he is called to fight in World War I. Cezary becomes unruly and, when the October Revolution comes, he begins to run with a gang of friends and stops attending school. He embraces the tenets of Bolshevism, but the violence it gives rise to thoroughly tests his new convictions. Driving an arba, a two-wheeled cart, collecting cadavers for the new powers that be, the adolescent is scarred by the sight of a young woman at the bottom of a heap of dead bodies: “Thrown on her back, she hung over the left wheel. It seemed as if, just as in life, she was breaking free in her girlish way from the closeness of alien bodies and corporeal embraces.” Cezary’s mother, meanwhile, having dealt heroically with the crushing poverty brought on by the revolution, has less and less strength to fight with suspicious Bolsheviks every time she buys a turnip. She dies, and only then does Cezary realize how she had sacrificed in order to keep them both alive. Without her, his circumstances become increasingly dire.

Cezary’s fate takes a surprising turn one evening while warming himself by a fire in his work camp. In a scene that could bring a tear to the eye of Stalin himself, Cezary is distracted at first, and then somewhat annoyed, by an old man in rags who incessantly repeats two notes as he wanders through the camp, always within earshot of the young man. After weeks, it dawns on Cezary, who had also been called Czaruś, that the two notes are that second name of his—Czaruś—repeated over and over as musical notes—a signal—and that the “holy fool” is in fact his father, long presumed to have perished on the front. The ruse works, and the two go undetected by the Bolshevik authorities, who would have summarily executed the elder Baryka if his identity and former class status were discovered. Father and son quickly plan an escape to Poland—then begin an excruciatingly long train ride with many stops for “repairs,” when conductors would shake down passengers for valuables.

During one pause in their journey, the elder Baryka tells Cezary of an entrepreneur who, along Poland’s Baltic coast, devised an ingenious method for manufacturing durable glass from the vast reserves of pristine sands that had lain for eons beneath coastal peat fields. By a massive Rube Goldberg-type arrangement of channels and a creative method for harnessing the westerly winds (the storytelling here is a literary engineering feat in itself), an incursion of the sea provides power for converting the extracted sand into glass. From this vitreous wonder substance, prefabricated houses of glass are built inexpensively. The houses are strong as steel, hygienic, and easy to heat in winter and keep cool in summer. Whole villages are built with houses of brightly colored glass. Life becomes less of a struggle for mere existence, more civilized, and without the need to toil incessantly. People eat less meat or no meat at all, and begin to revere farm animals as sacred beings. For the reader, the digression serves to freshen the mental palate. For Cezary, however, the story is altogether beguiling, raising the utopian prospect of a more wonderful life, reunited with a homeland that might have been his to begin with and a father he has just rediscovered. Shortly after its telling, however, during another interminable train stop for repairs, his father dies.

Żeromski’s subtle hand draws out the complexities of human nature tugged in different directions, capturing Poland at a historical crossroads between a mystic past and a technological future. This heartfelt concern for Poland’s inability or unwillingness to let go of its Romantic past is a recurring lament in The Coming Spring. When he finally arrives in Poland, Cezary notices immediately that there are no glass houses. But he remains an idealist, and, like the young men of his adopted country, it takes only a glimpse of Polish infantry marching to inspire him to join the army, to fight for the common man and against the Bolsheviks.

He participates in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw (often referred to as the “Miracle on the Vistula”)—an amazing battle on which Żeromski hardly dwells. Even so, it sparks interest. The use of cavalry instead of mechanized vehicles seems like a throwback to the age of chivalry. And Poland, in spite of overwhelming odds, wins. Żeromski describes some of Cezary’s heroics in vicious fighting against his erstwhile comrades. He saves the life of Hipolit, a young nobleman who had been bayoneted and bludgeoned and left for dead. Cezary’s reasons for being in the war at all, though, were driven as much by curiosity as by chivalry:

The . . . motor that propelled him was the enthusiasm that was everywhere. Everyone . . . was joining the army. It was as if it were a grand ball or a day trip to the country. He had never seen anything in his life like the enthusiasm of the Poles. One day, on the ruined iron bridge over the Vistula he heard the workers and their political leaders making speeches in which they appealed for a life-and-death struggle, but not with the bourgeoisie, as was always the case in workers’ speeches, but with the invader, who was coming to pillage and bring destruction along with his red banners. He had seen underage boys breaking free from their mothers’ grip, and had read accounts in the newspaper of how they had died heroic deaths. He wanted to see with his own eyes this cause for which all the men and youths were going to the field to risk their necks—were going calmly, cheerfully, amid the beating of drums. He wanted to see what really lay at the heart of their enthusiasm, what fundamental ideal, what power, what inwardly coiled spring was unwinding and impelling them to this deed. And also what that power was worth.

The consummate insider at the time he wrote The Coming Spring, it is interesting that Żeromski so dramatically chose an outsider as the novel’s hero. This ploy is especially effective in the sprawling middle part of the novel, Nawłoċ (pronounced NAHV-wotch), named after a country estate. Eternal Poland is evoked here almost with every paragraph. The setting is in the vicinity of Częstochowa, a region not too distant from Żeromski’s birthplace, a provincial city named Kielce, where a great many people were executed or exiled during the January Uprising in 1863, which was sparked by Russian conscription of Polish soldiers into the czar’s army.

This part of the book is thoroughly Byronic, idyllic and desperate by turns. Life at Nawłoċ during Cezary’s visit there with Hipolit sweeps the reader away with its heady doses of wine, women, song, and horses. Particularly memorable is a ride at breakneck speed Hipolit and Cezary take, sitting back to back with arms locked, over narrow country roads on a delicate spider-shaped wagonette hitched to a spirited sorrel. But the new, more desperate age that’s dawning is ever-present. Soon after his arrival on the estate, with its fiercely loyal house servants and its peasant laborers in the field, Cezary grabs a sugar bowl off a sideboard and, referring to the loyal retainers and laborers on the estate, advises Hipolit:

Be on your guard, my friend! Keep your eyes open! For that silver cigarette case of yours alone, for the sake of a few silver spoons, those same people, believe me, . . . they’ll drag you out into the garden and cut your head off with an ax. Believe me! I know. Big, savage soldiers will stand you against the wall. . . . Their hands won’t even tremble as they take aim! All for the sake of this silver sugar bowl alone! Believe me, Hipolit! I’m begging you. . . .

Żeromski, master of the social novel, knows how to maintain the light touch, though. A priest and bon vivant, Father Anastazy, who at times sounds like he’s just stepped out of an Oscar Wilde play, happens to be nearby and overhears, or half overhears and half understands: “What does he want? . . . The silver sugar bowl? Take it, Czaruś my friend—take it! Put it in your pocket! I only hope it’s not too big!”

Cezary gets his real comeuppance, though, when he mentions to Hipolit that he would like to work as a humble bookkeeper in a mill. This, Cezary believes, would enable him to live among all sorts of people, talk with them, and learn from their diverse experiences. Hipolit responds bluntly: “Here in Poland . . . you simply can’t do that, because our people would just laugh at the idea. It’s Tolstoyan or whatever—a pose, a stratagem, humbug—there was a lot of humbug in all those renunciations of Tolstoy’s. . . . It’s like something from the cabaret. . . . There’s something false about it. We Poles are an ancient race: we won’t tolerate any of those Russian experiments, their falsehoods, their discoveries and their humbug. We had our own Tolstoys—but true in spirit.”

Estates like Nawłoċ speak to a core feeling about what was essential in Polish civilization: the architecture, the manners, good relations—though inflexible—between landowners and farm workers. Hipolit’s remark can be seen, not as a universal Polish jab at Tolstoy or Russia, but as a typical sentiment of the Polish upper crust.

More significant is how Cezary gets on with three women he meets. Two of them—Miss Wandzia and Miss Karolina—live on the estate and the third, Laura Kościeniecka, a widow, owns adjoining property. Cezary often sneaks into the large house of Mrs. Kościeniecka, after her fiancé leaves for the evening, for a night of passion; he stays on the qui vive for any chance to steal kisses with Miss Karolina at Nawłoċ; and all the while remains oblivious to Miss Wandzia’s growing passion for him. Ultimately, Cezary remains alone and isolated, though, driven more by a passion for action than by romance. He disappoints all three women, withdraws from Nawłoċ to a nearby estate, where he throws himself into understanding every detail of farm management, and finally returns to Warsaw. This characteristic of Żeromski’s male protagonists—to engage in dalliances or even meaningful relationships with women only to retreat into what they deem their true life’s work—has its own term: Żeromszczyzna (pronounced Zheh-rohmsh-CHIZ-nah).

Akin to the fighter who goes it alone in Żeromski’s fiction is the noble intellectual. Such is Szymon Gajowiec, who much more than Cezary resembles Żeromski himself. In the novel’s final part, The Wind From the East, Gajowiec, for whom Cezary does research, often discusses the intellectual life of Warsaw. Gajowiec admires leaders of a generation that Żeromski himself knew well—naturalists, university professors, historians, essayists, bibliophiles, philosophers, and sociologists. He tells Cezary that they “lived in the crowd and . . . went unnoticed and unrecognized. Just like Greek slaves. These people were of the kind who can vanish in a throng, just melt away, but who infuse a whole generation with their selves. From these people we—that is, my generation—drew everything by which we still live today.” Cezary, the new Pole, admits that he had never heard of any of them.

Poland is fragmented, and so is Żeromski’s novel. Cezary himself is a man of parts. While still at Nawłoċ, he is regarded as a Russian in the midst of the Polish gentry, and in The Wind from the East, set in Warsaw, he is never quite in accord with the ideas swirling around him. In talks with the well-versed Gajowiec, Cezary’s comments fall flat, while at a socialist party meeting that Cezary attends with a radical classmate, his opinions seem inappropriately tame.

Cezary is nevertheless ready for action. In the novel’s concluding scene, workers are marching toward a confrontation with the authorities at the presidential palace. Cezary, slowly, with resolve and determination, finds his way to the front line of marchers and moves on alone “toward the gray wall of soldiers—at the head of the haggard crowd.” And there Żeromski leaves him.

What to make, then, of the work as a whole? Unremittingly harsh and pessimistic or lightly accented with a note of optimism? As the title itself suggests, nothing has taken root yet. The irony for most English-language readers of The Coming Spring, a social novel penned by a 1920s Warsaw equivalent of an inside-the-Beltway guy, is that they are outsiders like Cezary. And where they stand on Żeromski’s novel may be determined by where they stand on Poland itself.

Allowing for some of its complexity and foreigness, a reader can revel in its wild admixture of ideas, characters, and a wonderful nation in transition. And yet its foreignness is significant. Edmund Burke once quipped that Poland “must be regarded as situated on the Moon.” The Moon is isolated and mysterious, it’s true, but on a cold, clear night—approaching springtime, perhaps—quite beguiling and lovely.