Top 10 Polish Books in English

According to the author James Hopkins, writing in the Guardian newspaper Poland has made a significant contribution to world culture, not least in the field of literature. Hopkins first visited Poland in 1998 and was amazed by the reverence shown to writers and books – so much so, in fact, that he later moved here to write his first novel. Here’s his list of 10 ten Polish books translated into the English language. He says “you may have to hunt for one or two of the titles listed below but, believe me, you’ll be rewarded”.

“1. The Collected Poems, Zbigniew Herbert (coming in November from Atlantic Books)
Not only Poland’s finest poet but also one of the best of the 20th century – he died in 1998. Inexplicably overlooked by the Nobel Academy, who instead honoured two of his compatriots, Czeslaw Milosz (1980) and Wislawa Szymborska (1996), Herbert’s work draws on classicism and mythology, though often to lampoon any system’s claim to completeness. In 1981, he gave his voice to Poland’s nascent Solidarity movement. His wry poems are modern, European, mischievous and frequently breathtaking. He influenced my first novel and I returned the favour by pinching my subtitle – ‘Conversation with the elements’ – from a line in his wonderful poem, ‘A Journey’.

2. A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki (Dalkey Archive Press)
A classic, dark satire of communist times in which a struggling writer is asked to set fire to himself, by way of protest, in front of the hideous Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. In an ‘age of sorcerers and soothsayers dying away, all those prophets and messiahs who failed to save the world’, Konwicki steps in to offer a little magic, a little poetry and a little guidance in a grim totalitarian world.

3. Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz (Marion Boyars)
Susan Sontag described Gombrowicz (1904-1969) as “one of the super-arguers of the 20th century” and who are we to disagree? The undisputed master-stylist of Polish literature, Gombrowicz offers, in Pornografia, a novel of role-playing, voyeurism and (one of his abiding themes) the joys of prolonged immaturity. Only last year, his wickedly playful novels were removed from the school syllabus by the Polish minister of culture on the grounds that they were corrupting Polish youth. “Alas!” writes Gombrowicz. “After the age of 30 men lapse into monstrosity!”

4. The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (Abacus)
The story follows the arrest of Irma Seidenman, one of the last surviving Jewish women in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. With a fine balance between poetic tenderness and an unflinching account of the brutal realities of the day, Szczypiorski shows us the intertwining lives of the few Poles, Jews, and Germans who risk everything to save her. Szczypiorski himself fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, then survived Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His experiences are brought to bear with both shocking and heart-warming brilliance.

5. The Fictions of Bruno Schulz (Picador)
A self-confessed “parasite of metaphor”, Schulz treats us to a rich poetry of transformation. A magically-drawn panoply of characters range from an eccentric father in the attic, to Adele, the maid, for whom the narrator harbours a self-flagellating love. It’s a painstakingly vivid evocation of life in a cluttered shop threatened by the merchants along The Street of Crocodiles. One moment Schulz is darkly foreboding, the next he bursts into colour and flight. As he once explained, he writes of “the state of spellbound suspension within a personal solitude”. And you will be spellbound, too.

6. House of Day, House of Night – Olga Tokarczuk (Granta)
One of the leading lights of contemporary Polish literature, Tokarczuk was once a psychiatric nurse with a fondness for Jung. Her writing frequently investigates the borders between waking and sleep. This wise and moving novel is set in a town lying on a geographical border and steadily reveals the secrets and dreams of its disparate inhabitants, and was the winner of the prestigious Nike prize in Poland. Also worth discovering is Farewell to Plasmas (Twisted Spoon), a sharp and witty collection of vignettes by Tokarczuk’s friend, Natasza Goerke.

7. New Poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz (Archipelago Books)
The last living truly great Polish poet, and, like Herbert, unlucky to have been pipped tothe Nobel by two compatriots. New Poems translates the last two collections in Polish from this 86 year-old poet and playwright. A soldier in the Polish land army during the war, who had a brother murdered by the Gestapo in ’44, Rozewicz saw that ‘at home a task / awaits me: / To create poetry after Auschwitz.’ He accomplished this with unflinching wit, poignancy and elan.

8. Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk (Twisted Spoon)
Galicia was a district of the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassing southern Poland and western Ukraine, which Stasiuk recreates on his travels, encountering all sorts of fascinating characters on the way. Like Tokarczuk, the prodigiously creative Stasiuk likes to investigate the hinterlands and the rich seam of stories buried therein. He, too, is one of the forerunners of contemporary Polish literature, highly regarded in Germany as well as his homeland.

9. Castorp by Pawel Huelle (Serpent’s Tail)Taking Hans Castorp from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Huelle pictures the reluctant young scholar’s student days in Gdansk. Love and mysteries ensue, alongside a sly indictment of German colonialism. Gdansk-born Huelle is an internationally recognised author whose other novels translated into English include Mercedes-Benz, a charming homage to Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and Who Was David Weiser? which is fast becoming a modern classic.

10. Death in Danzig by Stefan Chwin
A magically melancholy (ie quintessentially Polish) novel, focusing on Hanemann, a German doctor, who remains in Danzig at the end of the war after most Germans have been expelled. A paean to the troubled history of Gdansk/Danzig, Chwin marvels at what endures though such turbulent times, from small personal triumphs to a range of bewildering, often talismanic objects, all beautifully evoked”.

I am an avid reader but have not read any of these…Here’s two questions – 1) Which one would you recommend, if any, that I read and why? 2) Are there any Polish books not on the list that I should read and why?

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8 thoughts on “Top 10 Polish Books in English

  1. scatts says:

    1/ Holy listmania batman!

    2/ Another one?

    3/ Shouldn’t we have a category called “lists”?

    4/ Put me off lists for life, this has.

    5/ How do you get any smiley other than the obvious ones?

  2. baduin says:

    1. Avoid Andrzej Szczypiorski. His books are written for Germans to give them frisson of feeling evil and elegant (but never as evil as dirty Russians, and anyway it was the fault of the whole European culture, Germans only expressed what everyone wanted). Kitsch and camp. One of the pioneers of Polish-German reconciliation; personally extremely odious. He, his father and his son were Security Service agents and were informing on each other. Heaviliy promoted by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, German critic and NKWD agent.

    2. Konwicki is cruelly funny.

    3. Herbert is very good in Polish; he seems easy to translate, but it can be deceiving.

    4. Bruno Schultz is very good and phantasmagoric. Very good stylist. Grabinski is a bit similar, but I think worse.

    5. Gombrowicz is a very good stylist and heavily postmodern. He was a nobleman (as most Poles, it would seem; but his family were landlords) , and his books are mostly subverting hierarchy etc. He lived in Argentine.

    6. I have not read the rest, but Stasiuk seems to be generally liked.

    The best Polish writer living is undoubtly Jacek Dukaj, but he has not been translated into English. He is writing mainly SF and fantasy, also alternative history. An animated film based on his short story has been nominated to Oscar:

    Stanisław Lem is also good. Czesław Miłosz is very good (but mostly his essays, eg “Land of Ulro”). There is a lot of other good writers, but mostly they are not translated. The same applies to poets, but squared. Additionately, translations of poetry are often not very good.

    Finally, Polish literature tends to be very political and esoteric, so it is not very accessible to foreigners.

  3. Gustav says:

    What, no Kapuscinski?

  4. Datblog says:

    Kapuscinski is certainly my favourite – btw my wife arranged for him to speak at a charity once – he was an inspiration…

  5. michael farris says:

    I seem to recall reading that one of the reasons Szymborska won over Herbert was that either she had a better Swedish translator or her poetry translated better into Swedish than Herbert’s.

    I’m not a poetry person but I like some of Szymborska’s stuff in Polish but the English versions I’ve seen are a little too twee.

    I haven’t read that much translated Polish literature (and what I did was a long time ago) and in Polish my taste runs toward the trashy (I’m a devotee of police novels from the 70’s and 80’s).

    Of the authors mentioned.

    Konwicki: I loved the Polish complex by Konwicki (which I read in English many years ago and finally managed to find it in Polish but haven’t got around to re-reading it yet).

    Tokarczuk : I’ve only read e.e. (translated yet?) which I enjoyed a lot.

    I also read and loved Andzrejewski’s Ashes and Diamonds in English a long time ago.

    I gave Lem a try (Eden in Polish which was very rough going). The really interesting ideas were bogged down by thickets of techniprose and a style I want to call …. leaden.

  6. Maciej says:

    Any polish books you should read that are not on the list???
    how could you omit Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novels(Ogniem i Mieczem, Potop, Pan wolodyjowski, Krzyzacy)???

    Honestly, they are the best of our literature!

    or are you only talking of modern ones???

  7. Dawid says:

    Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic Trilogy, which greatly influenced the Nobel Comitee’s decision to award him the Literature Prize, has been retranslated recently. It’s a riveting, beautifully written epic about the most fascinating period in the Polish history. Here you can read the first four pages:

    But if history is not your thing, you should rather try Tokarczuk or Stasiuk. Especially the later one gives his readers an unmatchable perspective on the nature of Eastern European countries (he travelled extensively to the Balkans etc.)

    It’s extremely difficult to recommend books to people whose literary taste you don’t know – still more difficult, when they are foreign. So I’ll stop here :)

  8. adamg says:

    The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman (the Polish title is Poczatek – The Beginning) by Andrzej Szczypiorski is one of the finest Polish novels written after WW2. And do not rust that bloke, “baduin”, who urges you to avoid that eminent author. He is a biased idiot and a Germanophobe into the bargain. Whoever has read the aforesaid novel will never forget its beauty…. And it is true that the book is also a great endevor to help the four feuding nations, Germans, Jews, Poles and Russians to find the common ground….

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