The Last Mazurka
A Tale of War, Passion, and Loss
By Andrew Tarnowski. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007. xv + 348 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36740-4. Paper. $24.95.
Memoirs and family sagas provide a unique insight into a world that no longer exists, into stories not recorded by history textbooks, and into the ways that people learn to cope with their reality. These stories, taking place against the backdrop of better-known historical events, personalize and add a particular flavor to history. Andrew Tarnowski's memoir is such a book. Driven by the need to explain his origins to his children, Tarnowski tells the story of a Polish aristocratic family throughout the twentieth century: the turbulent birth of an independent Poland after the First World War, their escape from Poland across Europe at the dawn of the Second World War, and finally their settlement in postwar England. By depicting this aristocratic family, Tarnowski opens a world full of conflicts and dramas-in other words, wounds that might not yet have healed for many members of his family.
The story begins in 1914 with the marriage of the author's grandparents, Wanda Zamoyska and Hieronim Tarnowski. This arranged marriage, which took place ten days after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, turned out to be disastrous from the wedding night (with Hieronim attempting suicide after failing to consummate the marriage) and eventually led to a family scandal (Wanda became pregnant by her lover Alfred Potocki) and a divorce. According to Tarnowski, apart from being terribly mismatched, there was another reason why his grandparents should never have married-Wanda and Hieronim were probably first cousins. But Tarnowski adds, “Perhaps the family did not consider the issue worth raising, since such affairs were common among the Polish aristocracy” (19). After revealing his grandparents' deeply hidden secrets, Tarnowski discloses the unhappy stories of Wanda and Hieronim's children, Staś and Sophie, who followed their parents' path of miserable relationships. The author's father, Staś Tarnowski, emerges as a hard-drinking and abusive husband who used to beat his wives out of pure frustration. His marriages-first to Tarnowski's mother Zofia (nicknamed Chouquette after a French pastry) and then to Ada Lubomirska-were full of extramarital misadventures. After the Second World War Staś moved from England to Poland, where he lived a dysfunctional life with his children, wife, lover, and his lover's lover.
Tarnowski's book raises interesting questions about gender dynamics within the Polish aristocracy and even gender stereotypes in memoir literature.
The author himself was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1940 where his parents stayed for a short while after fleeing Poland via Romania and France. From Switzerland he was shuffled across Europe through Italy to Egypt. After the war, his mother Chouquette and her second husband moved to England, where Andrew Tarnowski received a good education at private schools. After a short visit to Poland in 1967, he returned to Poland in 1987 for almost five years as a Reuters Warsaw Bureau chief.
This memoir is an attempt to piece together numerous pieces of stories that emerged from the author's conversations with family members into a narrative that would compensate for his family's cultural losses as well as provide an identity and heritage that he missed as a child of immigrants. It is also a quest to recover some of the splendor of the ancestral aristocratic legacy that the Tarnowski family was deprived of by Poland's neighbors' aggression. Not surprisingly, the book describes many more family dramas than actual historical events or problems. For example, readers learn about the Nazi and Soviet invasions of 1939, and yet they are kept far away from the miseries of the war. As Tarnowski stresses, some members of his family not only managed to survive but even thrived “on a heady mix of high society, hard work, and exotic adventures” (275).
Yet, by the same token, the aristocratic perspective is perhaps what makes this book interesting. The memoir reveals an impressive network of aristocrats helping those in a similar social position, from aristocratic Romanian families sharing their clothes and toiletries with aristocratic Poles to the Egyptian Prince Youssef Kamal ed-Dine. Another remarkable aspect of this story is that of Polish aristocrats who decided not to return to Poland after the war. This quandary is well reflected in the life of Andrew's father, Staś, who, after having some heroic moments during the war, moved to England where he lived in obscurity and penury until he decided to move back to Poland.
A quick look at Tarnowski's father as well as his father's numerous female life companions highlights yet another interesting dimension of the account. In the book men are usually portrayed as abusive, hyper-masculine, and yet weak in the face of challenges posed to them by the world. Women, on the other hand, are gentle, feminine, beautiful, and yet resourceful, and in moments of need they express formidable self-control and unbreakable courage. Despite the fact that the men and women in this book appear at times overly one-dimensional (at least in Tarnowski's descriptions), his discussion raises interesting questions about gender dynamics within the Polish aristocracy and even gender stereotypes in memoir literature.
One of the merits of the book is the author's rich descriptions. Tarnowski describes in full detail old Polish dances such as mazurkas, aristocratic rituals, even oddities in an individual's gait. He pays significant attention to objects-many of historical significance, such as the flag of King Charles Gustavus of Sweden captured in the seventeenth century, and some of sentimental value, such as the wallet and red rose that Andrew's mother gave her husband as Christmas presents when he lay in hospital after the siege of Tobruk in 1941. These objects-the wallet scuffed with age and the crumbled remains of rose petals that Tarnowski still keeps-serve as captivating palimpsests, little pieces that pushed Tarnowski to write a narrative that would tie the objects and recollections together.
For these very reasons this very emotional and at times disturbing narrative is also a problematic document. With its colorful descriptions comes the author's tendency to be overly sentimental and nostalgic. Narrating stories heard in Aunt Sophie's “absurdly untidy kitchen,” Tarnowski passes along his family's longings and admiration for archaic traditions and great men who had once held power in Poland. In doing so he also repeats without much of a critical eye some of the stereotypical images of Poles, such as “traditional Polish bravery,” or Polish readiness to fight for other countries' freedom that “became almost second nature to Poles after the eighteenth-century Partitions” (138).
Regardless of these shortcomings, this is a very readable book. Even with its one-dimensional characterizations, absence of criticism, and omissions of some topics, it offers plenty of interesting insights. If paired with other recollections from the same time period it could make a valuable addition to the syllabi of courses on the twentieth-century history of Poland or Central Europe.
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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 4/22/08