Aleksander Wat
Life and Art of an Iconoclast

By Tomas Venclova. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1996. xiii+369 pages. Hardcover. $35.00.

Reviewed by Dennis J. Dunn

Tomas Venclova, Professor of Russian and East European literatures at Yale, has written a brilliant biography and analysis of Aleksander Wat and his work. The story hums with insight and color. It is a tour de force that reveals Wat as a pivotal cultural figure in the twentieth century.

Starting with a chronological summary of Wat's childhood and youth at the beginning of the century, the book soon presents a masterful mosaic of Wat's life, poetry, fiction, and essays. It shows how Wat, like many intellectuals in the twentieth century, saw Communism as a dramatic advancement in mankind's history, a development on a par with the American and French revolutions. Wat became a communist in the 1930s, but soon began to see the oppressive and fundamentally perverse nature of its statist proclivities.

Soon Wat condemned the totalitarian ideologies of the Right and the Left, especially Stalinism which he had an opportunity to witness first-hand. He was imprisoned in the 1940s by the Soviet secret police first in Lwow [Lviv], and then in Kazakhstan. His poetry from this period is haunting in its analysis of the dark force of Communism which many in the West and East, including democratic political leaders and leading intellectuals, continued to worship as the wave of the future and as a form of protean democracy that would be the means by which the undeveloped world would modernize.

Wat was eventually released from prison and allowed to return to his native Poland, where he lived for some fifteen years before emigrating to the West. He was a man in search of the meaning of life. His world was without anchors, and his work reflected the uncertainty and despair of those intellectuals who have abandoned their society's traditional cultural values, finding themselves adrift in a world that valued money and power even as insecurity, disorder, and alienation grew. Wat tried to attack his contemporaries' shallow nihilism, but he himself never abandoned his position of metaphysical uncertainty.

Venclova's book reveals Wat's brilliant mind. It is based on Wat's own works, including his autobiographical My Century, archival sources, the remembrances of Wat's widow, and an array of secondary material. Thorough and penetrating, the book stands as a model of literary biography.

Dennis J. Dunn is Professor of History
at Southwest Texas State University.

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The Sarmatian Review
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