Warsaw, Poland – In 2019, Olga Tokarczuk became the sixth Polish writer in history to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. How well do you know Poland’s most celebrated writers on the world stage?
Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905)
Born in 1846 in Russian-ruled Poland, Henryk Sienkiewicz was the first Polish author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and was mostly known for his historical novels stressing the Polish people’s struggle for independence. Journalist and novelist, Sienkiewicz published his first novel, In Vain, in 1872, followed by a series of short stories and other novels, including An Old Retainer (1875), The Lighthouse Keeper (1882) and Bartek the Conqueror (1882).
Co-editor of the daily newspaper The Word (Slowo) in the 1880’s, he later emigrated to Switzerland at the outbreak of World War I and was an outspoken advocate of Polish independence during the war. His most famous book to date is Quo Vadis (1896), an epic historical novel set in Nero’s Rome, several times adapted on the big screen, including in the 1951 Hollywood production directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov, and with the now famous musical score by Hungarian-born composer Miklós Rózsa.
He also published a widely recognized trilogy of historical novels in the 1880’s and 1890’s describing Polish heroic struggle against foreign powers in the 17th century: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Pan Michael.
Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905, Sienkiewicz said: “It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph […] Before the eyes of the world homage has been rendered to the importance of Poland’s achievements and her genius”.
He died in 1916 in Switzerland, a few years before Poland regained its independence in the aftermath of World War I. He remains, to date, one of the world’s most famous and translated Polish authors. To better understand the impactful legacy of Sienkiewicz, you can read our own analysis of his life and work.
Władysław Reymont (1924)
Born in 1867 in the small village of Kobiele Wielkie in a part of Poland that was then under Russian rule, Władysław Stanisław Reymont was the second Polish writer to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Having only received basic schooling, Reymont occupied a varied string of professions in his youth – including actor, railway worker, lay brother in a monastery and shop apprentice.
Some of his early writings include the Lodz-based Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land, 1899), the novel Komediantka (The Comedienne, 1896) and its sequel Fermenty (The Ferments, 1897). His short story Pielgrzymka do Jasnej Góry, published in 1895, is his account of his 11-day pilgrimage in the city of Jasna Gora, one of Poland’s holiest destinations.
Written almost entirely in peasant dialect and largely inspired by his own, largely rural and deeply religious upbringing, his 4-volume Chłopi (The Peasants, 1904-1909) is what landed him the Nobel Prize many years later, in 1924, and made him a prominent figure of the Naturalist movement in literature.
Often compared to Orwell’s Animal Farm, his last book Bunt (Revolt, 1922) depicts animals up in arms to take over their farm and is largely seen as a metaphor of the Russian revolution of 1917.
An avid traveler albeit regularly lacking the fortune to indulge in his meanderings, he often traveled throughout Europe, including in Italy, Berlin, London and Paris. He died in Warsaw in 1925, one year after being awarded the Nobel Prize over other prominent contenders such as Thomas Mann or George Bernard Shaw.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978)
We’ll have to wait more than 50 years to see the next Polish laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Isaac Bashevis Singer, born in 1904 to a rabbi father in Radzymin in the Russian-controlled area of partitioned Poland, was a Jewish, Polish-born American Yiddish-language author.
His writing, often focused on Jewish populations’ life in Poland and the United States, has a distinctive touch of irony, often touching upon the nostalgic recollection of the lost world of Polish, and more broadly, Central and East European Jewry as it existed before World War II and the Holocaust.
After receiving a traditional Jewish education in a Warsaw seminary, he made his debut in literature with Af der elter (In old age), published in 1925 under a pseudonym, followed by his first novel, Der Sotn in Goray (Satan in Goray), which went public in 1935 shortly after he emigrated to New York to escape the looming threat of Nazi Germany. Building a career as a professional journalist and translator, he was granted U.S. citizenship in 1943 and, apart from the Nobel Prize, received numerous US literary awards throughout his career.
Although originally written in Yiddish, most of his major works and novels published throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s became known in their English translation, and were often serialized in the Yiddish newspaper the Forverts. These include The Magician of Lublin, The Slave, The Manor, The Estate, as well as an important amount of short stories.
One of the most prominent literary voices of the Jewish-European diaspora in the United States, Isaac Bashevis Singer passed away in Florida in 1991.
Czesław Miłosz (1980)
Only two years later, Polish-American writer, poet and diplomat Czesław Miłosz became the fourth Pole to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. One of the most respected figures of 20th century poetry in Europe, Czesław Miłosz was born in Šeteniai in modern-day Lithuania in 1911.
After completing his studies in Wilno (Vilnius, then part of Poland), he published his first book of poetry, Poem of Frozen Time, in 1933 at the age of only 21, a striking and ominous warning of the devastation World War II would bring a few years later.
During the war and Nazi occupation, Miłosz became an active member of the resistance, edited and published clandestine works of verse and, as soon as the war ended, joined Poland’s diplomatic service.
Working as a diplomat and cultural attaché in Washington, New York and Paris, he eventually demanded political asylum in France in 1951 to escape the Communist regime and emigrated to the United Sates in 1960, where he taught Slavic languages at the University of California at Berkeley for many years. Ten years after establishing himself in America, he was naturalized as a US citizen in 1970.
During all this time, Miłosz continued to write and publish a fascinating amount of poetry books, notable for their mixture of aesthetic, political, historical and philosophical topics and today gathered in several volumes available in English translations, as well as prose works, including The Issa Valley (1955) and Private Obligations (1972).
His essays, most famously the 1953 charge against the Polish intelligentsia’s failure to condemn communism and explanations for his defection The Captive Mind, also largely contributed to his fame and standing in the literary world.
Although he lived in the United States for the remainder of his life, he acquired a notable fame in Poland, where secret editions of his poems often circulated in the underground movements. When Miłosz received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, the communist government of Poland found itself forced to authorize the publication of his poems. He died in Krakow in 2004 at the age of 93.
Wisława Szymborska (1996)
Born in 1923 in a small town near Poznan, Wisława Szymborska was the first Polish woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 in recognition of her poignant poetic and philosophical exploration of ethical topics and everyday life.
After moving to Krakow with her family, she studied at the Jagiellonian University in Poland’s former capital and published her first poem in 1945, I Seek the Word, which appeared in a local newspaper. It was followed several years later by her first volume of poetry, That’s why We are Alive (1952) – highly influenced by the codes of socialist realism, which she later repudiated with her second volume, Questioning Yourself.
Throughout the following decades, she worked for weekly cultural magazine Literary Life, became known for her translations of French poetry and wrote for several underground and foreign magazines.
Other noteworthy poetry volumes she published include Calling out the Yeti (1957), No End of Fun (1957), Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems (1981) and View with a Grain of Sand (1995), possibly her most popular and well-known work. Her last volume of poetry, Enough (2012), was published posthumously.
Famous for her dislike of public appearances and media coverage and her attachment to protect her privacy, she died in Krakow, where she resided most of her life, in 2012 at the age of 88.
Olga Tokarczuk (2018)
Last but not least, Poland’s newest and only living Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Olga Tokarczuk, recipient of the 2018 award – received belatedly in 2019.
Born in 1962 in Sulechów, Olga Tokarczuk has long been a popular and commercially successful author in her native country, but mostly gained international fame after winning, along with her translator Jennifer Croft, the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for her critically-acclaimed novel Flights (2017).
When studying psychology at the University of Warsaw, Tokarczuk became heavily influenced by the writings of Carl Jung. After briefly working as a clinical psychologist in Poland and being employed in a string of odd jobs in London, she returned to her native country and published her first notable works, including a book of poetry in 1989 and her first novel The Journey of the Book-People (1993).
Her following works cemented her status as one of the most talented Polish authors of her generation, including with Primeval and Other Times (1996), House of Day, House of Nights (1998), Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) and The Books of Jacob (2014).
Olga Tokarczuk is also a prominent intellectual public figure in Poland, known for her activism in favour of feminism, veganism and progressive liberal views, and an outspoken critic of the PiS government. To learn more about her fascinating literary universe, you can read Kafkadesk’s article about Tokarczuk’s work.
Main photo credit: Nobel Media/Alexander Mahmoud
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