Nalkowska, Zofia (1884–1954)

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Nalkowska, Zofia (1884–1954)

Polish novelist and a leading member of the "psychological school" in interwar Polish literature, who presided over a preeminent literary salon in Warsaw. Name variations: Zofja; Zofia Gorzechowski-Nalkowska; Zofia Rygier-Nalkowska; Nalkovskoi. Born in Warsaw, Russian Poland, on November 10, 1884; died in Warsaw on December 17, 1954; daughter of Waclaw Nalkowski (1851–1911, a geographer and publicist); married Leon Rygier.

Zofia Nalkowska was a major figure in Warsaw's intellectual life in the first half of the 20th century. Active in both the arts and politics, she was a leader of Poland's literary under-ground during the German occupation (1940s) and supported the creation of a Socialist society in Poland after 1945. Born in Warsaw in 1884, she grew up at a time when Poland was under foreign rule. Of the three occupying powers—Austria-Hungary, the German Reich, and Russia—Russia was the harshest, and Warsaw was under its jurisdiction. Zofia's father Waclaw Nalkowski was an esteemed geographer and publicist, and many of Warsaw's foremost intellectuals visited her home where the ambience was typical of the Polish intelligentsia; her family was extremely nationalistic and devoted to artistic and moral ideals. Her father, who divided his energies between his scientific pursuits, journalism, and Polish nationalist activities directed against the repressive Russian occupation regime, was a bold thinker and strongly influenced Zofia. Her intellectual talents revealed themselves in her early years. Unwilling to attend Russian-controlled schools, at age 15 she took classes at one of Warsaw's illegal "flying universities," institutions that were organized by Polish intellectuals in defiance of tsarist bans on the teaching of the Polish language, history and literature. In her youth, the attractive Zofia was reputed to have had many love affairs and to have enjoyed flirting with poets, such as Ludwik Licinski, who were said to be hopelessly infatuated with her.

Nalkowska made her literary debut in 1898, when she had barely entered her teens, by publishing verse in the influential modernist periodical Chimera. Starting in her 20s, she published a series of novels, including Kobiety (Women, 1906), Rówiesnice (Contemporaries, 1909), Narcyza (Narcissa, 1910), Ksiaze (The Prince, 1910), and Weze i róze (Serpents and Roses, 1915). Along with the collections of stories entitled Koteczka, czyli biale tulipany (Pussycat, or the White Tulips, 1909) and Lustra (Mirrors, 1913), these technically accomplished volumes all analyzed female personalities from the perspective of two literary and philosophical luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche. Nalkowska's writings from these first decades are suffused with an often self-conscious spirit of modernism centered on an individualism that virtually ignores society's impact on specific members of the community. In all of these works, the psychology of love is examined in almost clinical detail. Nalkowska's lyrical style makes great use of symbolism and is characteristic of the writing of the Young Poland movement.

After the tragedies and privations of World War I, the achievement of Polish independence in November 1918 brought little if any euphoria to Nalkowska and most of her contemporaries. From its birth, the Polish Republic was plagued by problems. Poverty, both rural and urban, was widespread. The number of non-Polish minorities—Belarussians, Germans, Jews, and Ukrainians—comprised one-third of the population, and they voiced countless grievances against the ruling Poles of the new state. Exploited industrial workers and landless peasants also demanded major social reforms. Illiteracy marred the social landscape (by 1931, according to the official census of that year, 23.1% of the population, or 8 million, were unable to read and write). By the late 1930s, the situation had worsened. The regime, which in 1926 had become a virtual dictatorship headed by Marshal Józef Pilsudski, responded to the nation's problems with inaction, suppression of dissent, and, after Pilsudski's death in 1935, anti-Semitic demagogy and disastrous concessions to Nazi Germany.

The trauma of war and the disillusionment that accompanied the achievement of Polish independence resulted in a new direction for Nalkowska's writing. In 1920, she published Hrabia Emil (Count Emil), a novel set in wartime which contrasts an individual's moral conscience with the cruelty of a collective under stress. In her next novel, Charaktery (Characters, 1922), Nalkowska's protagonists were more rooted in real life than those of her earlier works.

In 1922, she moved from Warsaw to the border town of Grodno (now in Belarus). There Nalkowska became aware of the poverty in the town and the surrounding rural region. These oppressive conditions reached their nadir in the Grodno jail, where inhumane conditions were imposed upon both common criminals and political prisoners who opposed the Pilsudski dictatorship and the exploitation of the poor by the local szlachta (nobility) landowners. Incensed, Nalkowska took up her pen to appeal to the consciences of her fellow Poles. Writing extensively about conditions at the Grodno jail in articles and pamphlets, she depicted in stark prose the plight of the town's political prisoners; their situation was symbolic to her of the socially and economically oppressive regime which controlled Poland.

Determined to write psychological novels that explored good and evil as well as the ways in which people's personalities are colored by history and by the time in which they live, she pleased critics and readers alike with her 1923 novel Romans Teresy Hennert (Teresa Hennert's Love Affair). Triggered by the dramatic changes in her life, Nalkowska adopted a style grounded in critical realism in order to present her readers with examinations of authentic, recognizable moral issues.

After her experiences in Grodno, Nalkowska was active in organizations protesting the police-state tactics of the Pilsudski rule. She played a major role in organizing Polish writers, whose economic status was often precarious. She was a co-founder of the Zwiazek Zawodowy Literatów Polskich (Trade Union of Polish Writers) and was active in lobbying for the law guaranteeing authors' copyright, which was passed by the Polish Sejm (parliament) in 1926. Nalkowska was one of the most dynamic members of the literary association PEN in Warsaw from the time of its founding in 1924 until the German invasion of 1939. This club was a meeting place for most of Poland's recognized and aspiring authors, and it hosted gatherings for visiting literary personalities. Maintaining contacts with foreign PEN clubs, she visited the Czech PEN in Prague (1930), among others. Nalkowska's fore-most contribution to Poland's literary profession during the decades between the two world wars was Warsaw's most important literary salon, over which she confidently presided. Here the nation's distinguished writers, artists and political leaders met in an atmosphere of brilliance and innovation.

In addition to her involvement in Poland's political and intellectual life, Nalkowska continued to perfect her craft. In 1925, she published the novel Dom nad lakami (The House Beyond the Meadows), and she ruffled feathers in Warsaw's

conservative literary and political circles with her 1927 novel Choucas (Choucas), an angry, uncompromising protest against all forms of nationalism and militarism. Her novel Niedobra milosc (The Wrong Kind of Love, 1928) is more centered on the dilemmas of individuals. Nalkowska also wrote two plays during this period, Dom kobiet (A House of Women, 1930) and Dzien jego powrotu (The Day of His Return, 1931). Directed by Marie Przybylko-Potocki , Dom kobiet was presented to receptive audiences at Warsaw's Polish Theater in March 1930.

Generous in her support of young talent, Nalkowska lobbied on behalf of one of interwar Poland's most gifted writers, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Jew who would later die in the Holocaust. Schulz taught in a gymnasium in Drohobycz, and in the 1930s, when visiting Warsaw to confer with a publisher, he stayed with Nalkowska. By this time, she had been divorced from her second husband, and a brief affair took place between the older, successful author and the young literary hopeful from the provinces. As both Schulz's lover and patron, Nalkowska was able to bring his writings to the attention of Warsaw's all-decisive literary circles. Details of their intimate relationship will probably never be known; Schulz's side of their correspondence was destroyed during the Holocaust, and her letters too have vanished, possibly burned by her before she died.

In 1935, Nalkowska published what would be one of her most important novels. Granica (The Border) chronicles the life of Zenon Ziembiewicz, a character who summed up the profound disillusionment the author and many of her contemporary artists experienced during the "somber '30s." Ziembiewicz symbolized the evolution of many Poles, from student radical to an official of the unpopular Pilsudski regime. As governor of a city, he orders the shooting of protesting industrial workers. In his private life, too, Nalkowska depicts him as trapped in a moral quicksand of his own making. At the end, he becomes a victim of an enraged woman whom years before he had seduced and abandoned. Polish critics regard Granica as an indictment of the Sanacja ("Sanitation") military and political clique that (mis) governed Poland from 1926 through 1939, and the work has stood the test of time as a major achievement of 20th-cen-tury Polish literature.

In 1939, Europe hovered on the brink of war. That year, Nalkowska published the innovative novel Niecierpliwi (The Impatient Ones). Her existential novel Wezly zycia (Knots of Life), an even more sophisticated experimental work, was completed at this time but would not appear in print until 1948, three years after the end of World War II. The war was an unmitigated catastrophe for the Polish nation and people. More than six million Poles—half of them Jews—died in combat, of hunger and torture, and in concentration and extermination camps. No longer young, Nalkowska somehow survived in German-occupied Warsaw.

With the end of the occupation, she became one of the leaders of Poland's intellectual reconstruction. Although she had never been a Communist and never joined the Polish United Workers Party, the postwar party of the new Soviet-approved regime, Nalkowska realized the dictates of the historical moment, namely that Poland had to accept a subordinate role as part of a region in which Moscow, the victor over Hitlerism, was the dominant force.

Her first postwar book, Medaliony (Medallions), was published in 1946. This indictment of German Nazi inhumanity took the form of an anthology of recollections of German atrocities which she collected from war survivors. To underline the seriousness with which she under-took this assignment, she also served as a member of the Glowna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich (Main Commission for the Investigation of German War Crimes). She accepted election as a deputy to the Sejm, which—although as much if not more of a rubber-stamp parliament than it had been previously—nevertheless represented a tenuous link to the past that Nalkowska, a willing part of the new Poland, did not wish to sever completely.

Despite her advancing years, Nalkowska remained active in Polish literary life. She served on the editorial board of one of the most influential of the postwar literary weeklies, Kuznica (The Forge). In 1953, she was awarded the State Prize of the Polish People's Republic. That same year, she published a book for young readers, Mój ojciec (My Father). On December 17, 1954, Zofia Nalkowska died in a Warsaw reborn from the rubble of war. At the time, her desk was filled with a number of unpublished manuscripts which would be printed over the next years. In 1957, a volume of essays and sketches appeared, Widzenie bliskie i dalekie (A Close and Far View), followed the next year by a nonfiction book on individuals she had known, Charaktery dawne i ostatnie (Old and Last Characters). Of great importance for students of Polish literary history was the publication in stages, starting in 1970 and finally ending in 1988, of her extensive set of diaries. Covering her adult life, from 1899 to the years before her death, these volumes—unfortunately not yet translated into English—document the growth of a major writer's skill and provide both casual readers and scholars with a panoramic view of modern Polish history.

Zofia Nalkowska was for many decades one of her nation's major literary figures. Not only a brilliant author, she was also an irresistible personality whose intelligence, charm, and moral authority enabled her to preside over a salon which, for more than a decade, was held in awe as the undisputed site of encounter for some of Poland's most brilliant talents.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia