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In Memoriam: Zygmunt Kubiak

April 20, 1929 - March 19, 2004

Michael J. Mikoś

Zygmunt Kubiak, a distinguished Polish writer, essayist, and translator, died suddenly in his Warsaw apartment, leaving his wife Henryka, son Piotr, daughter Monika, their families, many friends, and countless readers to mourn his death but find consolation in remembering his life and his remarkable literary achievement.

Born in Warsaw where he spent his entire life, Zygmunt experienced early the horrors of war followed by the long years of Communist oppression. His formal schooling was interrupted, but he read voraciously and became fascinated with the ancient Greeks and Romans. From 1948 to 1952 Kubiak studied classical philology at Warsaw University. When his plans for an academic career were thwarted by the Communist authorities, he found employment with Tygodnik Powszechny where he was a staff member from 1951 to 1953. One of the few leading intellectuals who was always unyielding in his opposition to the regime in Soviet-occupied Poland, Kubiak was denied regular employment and for a number of years was unable to publish his writings.

He found spiritual and material support in the Catholic Church as a translator of Josephus Flavius’s Antiquitates Judaicae (1965, 1979, 1993). After the end of Stalinism he returned to Tygodnik Powszechny (1956-1959) and devoted himself to freelance writing and translating. He excelled as an essayist, reflecting variously on Homer and the Bible (Półmrok ludzkiego świata, 1963); his literary readings (Wedrówki po stuleciach, 1969), the European tradition in literature (Szkoła stylu, 1972); the Mediterranean cultural tradition (Przestrzeń dzieł wiecznych, 1993); Poland’s place in European culture (Brewiarz Europejczyka, 1996), and travels, including a trip to the United States (Jak w zwierciadle, 1985).

Many of Kubiak’s essays were inspired by his translations from Greek and Latin. He created a veritable canon of classical literature in Polish including The Greek Muse (1960, 1968, later published as Palatine Anthology, 1978, 1992), The Roman Muse: Poetry of Ancient Rome (1963, 1974, 1992); commentaries on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (1990); St. Augustine’s Confessions (1978, 1982, 1987, 1992; and Virgil’s Aeneid (1987), the last two considered his most important achievements. He crowned his lifelong communion with the ancient world with his bestselling Mythology of the Greeks and Romans (1997), Literature of the Greeks and Romans (1999), and History of the Greeks and Romans (2003). In his carefully honed, almost sinewy language he conveyed to his readers the spare simplicity of ancient Greek and Latin.

Kubiak also translated from modern Greek and from English. His two-volume Constantine Cavafy: Complete Poems (1995) combined a biography of the celebrated Alexandrian poet with the first comprehensive anthology of his poems. Kubiak’s 554-page anthology Twarde dno snu (1993) traced the Romantic tradition in the English language. The book, which features the poems of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Longfellow, Hardy, and others, elevated its author to the rank of a leading translator of English literature into Polish.

Kubiak had a special love for Polish literature. In sixteenth century Polish poetry he saw a rich repository of the classical tradition exemplified most clearly in the poetry of Janiciusz, a peasant’s son from Žnin who was crowned with poetic laurels in Italy; and Jan Kochanowski, a law-giver of the vernacular poetry, whose Latin poems Kubiak translated into Polish. He also extolled the classical heritage of such nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, and Bolesław Leśmian.

Kubiak’s literary and editorial achievements were recognized by numerous awards, including those of the Kościelski Foundation (1963), Polish PEN Club (1967, 1991), the Jurzykowski Foundation (1980); Authors’ Association ZAIKS (1981, 1987); Solidarity (1987); Premio Canaletto (1989)-the last two for his poetic translation of Aeneid. He also received the Stanisław Vincenz Prize (1995) and the Totus Award (2002) granted for special achievements in the Christian culture by the Polish Episcopate Foundation.

A tireless writer whose workday often extended to sixteen hours, Kubiak also loved to travel, especially in Greece, Italy, and the United States. He participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa (1975), was invited to lecture by the Kosciuszko Foundation (1976, 1978, 1987), and returned in 1996 to speak at several universities and at Polish American gatherings. He was a generous host and friend whose favorite pastime was to take long walks and talk, mostly about literature. A modest, soft spoken, and erudite man, Kubiak was nevertheless passionate about political issues. He often recalled a comment by his uncle, Dobiesław Damięcki, a respected actor and theatre director, about the eagerness of some of his colleagues to cooperate with the Communist regime: “Look, how they rush, how they push, how they declare their new views. I will tell you why. They are being chased by the Erinyes, because there are no zones of silence in their lives.” To the end of his days, Kubiak was concerned about the future of the Polish nation.

Kubiak admired Greece and loved Rome. For him, the Greeks lived in a world filled with dread and suffering, yet they faced death with unflinching resolution. They accepted their grim condition without illusions and found solace in the serene beauty of art and literature which they bequeathed to future generations. They also created democratic institutions, meditated on philosophy, and developed scientific thought. The Romans continued to build on these foundations. They also believed in their ability to cope with the existence of chaos, and confidently created an enduring civilization, the Pax Romana, and a powerful multinational empire-a forerunner of the European Union-until they were overcome by invading barbarians.

Kubiak viewed the twentieth century as the century of totalitarian regimes and genocide. He thought of historians such as Francis Fukuyama as “big children,” because they envisioned “the end of history” and believed that the forthcoming centuries would be guided by reason. He relentlessly reminded his compatriots of their Mediterranean heritage, taught them to cherish the enduring treasures of the past, and wrote of their responsibility to preserve the classical legacy for future generations in a world constantly threatened but illuminated by the glow of transcendence. It is fitting that Kubiak’s last endeavor was a translation of the New Testament from the Greek, the language that in his opinion had developed for centuries to become the “chosen vessel of love.”

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