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A Memoir of my Life

Joanna Rostropowicz Clark

By Tadeusz Borowski. Translated and edited with an introduction by Addison Bross. East European Monographs, Boulder, CO and Maria Curie-Skłodowska University Press, Lublin, 2008. 468 pages. Index of names and of geographical locations. ISBN: 978-0-88033-638-3.

Tadeusz Bobrowski (1829–1894) owes his recognition by posterity to the role he played in the life of orphaned Joseph Conrad—his “beloved nephew,“ who dedicated his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, to him. This role, performed for thirty years, was that of a devoted guardian, a provider of funds that more than supplemented the young exile‘s earnings as seaman, and of unwavering encouragement combined with admonitions that clearly indicated true fatherly affection. Sensitive, prone to depression and, in his youth, to reckless behavior, Conrad did not underestimate the uncle’s concern for his well-being. His letters to Bobrowski perished in the 1917 incendiary fire of the family manor in Kazimierówka (a loss that can be counted among the most lamentable blows that Polish culture suffered from the Bolshevik revolution), but the mutuality of the emotional bond is well reflected in the uncle‘s side of their voluminous correspondence. Upon receiving the news of Bobrowski’s death, thirty-seven-year-old Conrad wrote to his confidante Margueritte Poradowska: “It seems as if everything has died in me, as if he has carried away my soul with him” (Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, 190).

In his“Introductory Essay“ to Tadeusz Bobrowski’s A Memoir of my Life, Addison Bross rightly assumes that the book would find its primary audience among admirers of Conrad interested in the writer’s extraordinary biography and wishing to learn more about his familial background. Those who are already aquainted with Conrad’s biographies, most of which portray Tadeusz Bobrowski as a conservative Polish squire who pragmatically accepted as unshakable the Russian rule over Poland (an appeaser, as Zdzisław Najder calls him)—will be inclined to correct that view. In finding complexity in Bobrowski’s arguments against military risings against Russia that include his despair over the futility of the bloodshed and take into account the common hostility of peasants toward Polish landowners (particularly in the multiethnic eastern borderlands where the Bobrowskis and the Korzeniowskis resided), one will attain a broader understanding of the moral anguish so characteristic of a Conradian hero. Bobrowski’s unsympathetic opinions of several of the freedom fighters, among them Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, are modified both in the memoir and the letters, by admission to his own shortcomings; to being a “doctrinaire” and a cold rationalist. Yet this generally perceived “coldness” did not diminish Bobrowski’s steadfast support for the family “enthusiasts,” that is, all his siblings, mother, uncles, his brother-in-law, Apollo, and, last but not least, his distant nephew. If he scorned the warriors, he carried the wounded, in accordance with his notion of the Polish szlachcic’s sense of honor. Such lessons—of honor, of the misleading nature of appearances, of self-control in the face of personal and communal disasters—were not lost on Conrad the writer.

A Memoir of my Life also contradicts the perception of Bobrowski as a provincial conservative. It describes in great detail progressive landowners’ efforts to abolish serfdom, either by granting to peasants the right to rent, or to own the allotted parcels of farmland—the latter was Bobrowski’s viewpoint. These efforts were complicated by resistance from some szlachta, mindful of the threat to their volatile financial situation; and by deceptive maneuvers by the Russian authorities, ever intent on weakening the economic base of the Polish segment of the population, and on inciting Ukrainian peasants (who generally did not like kacapy, as they called the Russians) against the Poles. Hence the appeal of A Memoir to another category of readers, scholars and students of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, and of the period’s colonialism as it was practised there by the Russian Empire: by imposing economic hardships, outright persecution of dissent, and policies aimed at uprooting the Polish presence in multi-ethnic territories.

Bobrowski’s vigorous presentation of the conflict between proponents of accommodation-cum-social reforms, while waitng for the propitious political circumstances to bring liberation, and supporters of armed resistance resonates with the continuous debate in respect to more recent and present events. To the Polish reader, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising is first to come to mind, but others may think of Tibet and Chechnya, of Kurds and Uighurs among those places and peoples that seldom make it to headline news.

Because Bobrowski’s memoir is as much a historical as a personal document, the reader becomes captivated by psychological aspects of its protagonists, chiefly, of course, its author. What makes a realist? Or a romantic? In comparison with his siblings, Bobrowski was, in his own “cold” assessment, the least attractive—frail, somber, the least loved by the parents. To compensate, he studied hard, but after graduating with accolades from St. Petersburg University and defending his master‘s thesis in the field of international law (there were troubles with censors), his father died and he had to quit. Then, at the age of twenty-one, he complied with the family’s request to become its guardian. Over the course of the next fifteen years, four of his siblings died, of which two, Ewa Korzeniowska and the family’s favorite, Stefan, were casualties of the January 1863 insurrection against the Russians. Bobrowski’s wife died in childbirth; the daughter lived but eleven years. Several other close relatives were exiled. At the age of fifty he began his memoir with a eulogy: of the entire large family he was left with one younger brother and one nephew. For their sake he had to remain put.

Addison Bross’s excellent introductory essay provides a thorough analysis of the 1830–1863 period in Poland’s history. Bross, who studied Polish with Professor Jerzy R. Krzyżanowski at Ohio State University, then continued at several universities in Poland, dazzles the reader with his command of primary sources that demonstrate the anguished dispute between inheritors of Polish Romanticism and the emerging camp of Positivists. One might argue with Professor Bross that in mainstream literature, particularly after the January Rising, the division was not as unambiguous as his essay implies. But few would object to his spirited defense of Tadeusz Bobrowski—doubtless reinforced in “challenging conversations” (Acknowledgements) with Najder, who had a low opinion of Conrad’s uncle, his rigid personality and his negative, even “malicious” attitude toward the insurgents in general and Apollo Korzeniowski in particular. To that and similar criticism, Addison Bross responds: “For all his rejection of the Rising, and despite some harsh encounters with insurgents and conspirators, Bobrowski portrays his opponents fairly, finding and honoring their genuine virtues while noting what he regards as dangerous flaws in their thinking. Likewise, evidence appears in the Memoir of insurrectionists’ esteem for Bobrowski’s character and abilities” (87).

For anyone interested in Conrad, Eastern Europe, or the varieties of colonial experience, this eloquent volume provides valuable instruction. ◊

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