A Biographical Study with Selected Letters of Stanislawa Przybyszewska
By Jadwiga Kosicka and Daniel Gerould. Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press. 1989. xvii + 247 pages. Hardcover. Index, maps, illustrations. $12.95.
Janet G. Tucker
Jadwiga Kosicka's and Daniel Gerould's biography of twentieth-century Polish dramatist Stanislawa Przybyszewska is a welcome treatment of a long neglected literary figure. Enhanced by maps of Poland, a chronology of Przybyszewska's life, and a Przybyszewski family tree, approximately one-fourth of the book is devoted to Przybyszewska's (short) life, with the remainder containing her selected letters.
Kosicka and Gerould provide the reader with background information, tracing Przybyszewska's aesthetic gifts to her artist mother Aniela Pajak and her famous and talented father, the writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski, an important figure in Polish modernism who was one of the founders of the Mloda Polska movement. Przybyszewski had a European reputation; he led a dissolute life in Berlin in a circle that met at the Black Piglet and included Edvard Munch, August Strindberg, and the poet Richard Dehmel. He was a 'committed Satanist' noted for his wild drinking, two marriages, and liaisons resulting in illegitimate children to accompany the legitimate ones. Przybyszewska, whom her father recognized only belatedly, was one of the former.
Their relationship was always complex and troubled. All her life, her father represented the sounding board against which Przybyszewska always felt compelled to measure herself and not come up wanting. It was after seeing her father when she was eighteen that Przybyszewska made her final decision to become a writer (24). Nothing more poignantly and aptly underscores Przybyszewska's attempts to relate to her neglectful father than Kosicka's and Gerould's allusions to a possible incestuous relationship between the two and to the fact that it was her own father who introduced Przybyszewska, when in her early twenties, to the morphine that would kill her by the time she was thirty-four.
She spent her early years in Lwów [Lviv in Ukrainian] and later Paris with a devoted mother, who died when Przybyszewska was only eleven. Przybyszewska moved to Zürich, Vienna, and finally Kraków, where she studied in the Teachers' Institute and made one friend with whom she would later correspond, Julia Baranowska. In 1919 she renewed her ties with the father she had not seen since 1907. Well aware of his considerable if ambivalent fame in Poland, Przybyszewska was determined to make a name for herself as well.
Early on, she exhibited tendencies to emotional instability and a preference for isolation that would dominate for the remainder of her life. Her one significant attempt to connect to the outside was her marriage to a fellow morphine addict, the artist Jan Panienski, which ended with his death from an overdose in 1925. Now on her own but still turning to others - relatives and friends - for emotional and physical sustenance, Przybyszewska immersed herself in her principal interest: the French Revolution. She would devote her remaining years to two dramas, Thermidor (initially written in German in 1925) and The Danton Case, begun in 1928. The latter enjoyed a degree of success and popularity on stage in the decades following her death. So deeply was she immersed in this theme that she even dated many of her personal letters according to the revolutionary calendar.
Her most significant contribution may well have been her correspondence, which Kosicka and Gerould have translated as illustrative material to inform her biography and for intrinsic aesthetic worth. There is a helpful list of all addressees. The letters date from 1914 to her last one, written shortly before her death. Many were never sent. They constitute a journal tracing her precipitous descent from typical adolescent concerns to her final decline.
The letters were addressed to relatives, friends, and public figures in Poland and to such renowned Western figures as Georges Bernanos and Thomas Mann, to whom she directed the last two notes of the present collection. Przybyszewska frequently laments her extreme poverty and petitions for assistance, exults in her brilliance, and resents her lack of literary recognition. She wrote a hefty portion of her letters to Helena Barlinska, her mother's sister, recounting her reading (Maeterlinck, Nusbaum's book on Darwinian zoology, Ovid), intellectual achievements in mathematics, and physical accomplishments. Youthful enthusiasm gave way early on to depression, as in the letter of 6 January, 1924, when Przybyszewska confesses that she lives 'in a permanent state of depression and apathy.' (80)
Devoted to her writing and unable, even unwilling, to settle for any kind of job she would have considered beneath her, Przybyszewska struggled against poverty from her twenties on. Quite naturally, she ended up begging for money, and the person to whom she typically sent pleading letters was her devoted aunt. Already by 1924 we can see the ring of her oncoming destruction starting to tighten around her. She is not only depressed and lonely, but desperate. 'Save me if you can,' she implores Helena Barlinska, 'I have no other way out but to appeal to you.' (85)
Two letters that she addressed to her father in 1927 contain no such request but instead focus on her interests. She discusses the international scene and literaturefrom Bernanos and Huysmans to Ilya Ehrenburgand concludes with her entreaty that he read and comment on her work. In her missives to Antoni Slonimski, both dated 10 September 1927, Przybyszewska once again decries the evil of international events ('[we] live in a monstrous century, in a monstrous world, and we are monsters ourselves,' ( 90) but she seems to conflate them with the Great Terror that ensued in the wake of the French Revolution. Along with her depression and sense of alienation, Przybyszewska's immersion in and identification with the atmosphere of the French Revolution strongly suggests that morphine and mental illness had begun to take their toll. She focuses especially on Robespierre, her hero. '...I have the calm certainty,' she states to Helena Barlinska, 'that I understand Robespierre better than anyone whose works are known to me.' (142) He is 'a leader of genius.' (142) 'Today,' she notes on 6 April, 1929, 'is the 17th of Germinal; yesterday was the anniversary of Danton's execution....I remember like yesterday the day on which Danton and his followers were executed.' (144)
Przybyszewska's pride at seeing her masterpiece completed gave way to anxiety and depression, which found an outlet in her letters. In a note to Leon Schiller dated 22 November, 1929, Przybyszewska takes him to task for not having commented on The Danton Case, which she had sent him some eight months earlier (177). By 1930, she had deteriorated markedly. '...I really cannot be sure whether my letter has reached you,' she wrote to Joseph Heinz Mischel, with whom she had earlier discussed translation rights. 'It was written in a state of mental blackout.' (192) 'My absolute loneliness resembles the loneliness of a criminal...[if] such loneliness is not responsible for causing my nervous state,' she protests to Paul Ehmke in a letter dated 16 November, 1930, 'then at least it appreciably intensifies it. (198) 'Master!' she pleads with Thomas Mann on 9 December, 1932, 'I am turning to you for help....I am alone. Truly alone....financial strain has been holding me back...and now it's starting to kill me.' (216) Her last letter (in this collection) from 21 November, 1934, is directed once more at Mann: 'I've run out of bread....The cold is torturing me...I can't go on.' (239) She would die the following August.
The selected letters thus provide a far more poignant account of Przybyszewska's life from early confidence and optimism to her final descent into imbalance and death than could be obtained from a conventional biography. The only mistake in the collection is one minor typing error on p. 87 ('embarassed' instead of 'embarrassed') that in no way detracts from the overall excellence of this work, a fine treatment of a writer who perhaps now, at the end of the twentieth century, will receive her due as an important literary figure in European letters as well as in her native Poland.
Back to the April 1999 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 4/23/99