Friday, June 22, 2018

Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature by Georg Brandes

Life and art under foreign occupation
Georg Brandes
Georg Brandes was a Danish literary critic who influenced European literature’s transition from romanticism to realism. He was a big deal in the world of letters a century ago, when a literary critic could still be a big deal. His writings demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge of literature from throughout Europe, and he had a particular interest in Polish literature when everyone else was paying attention to Germany, France, and England. Brandes’s 1903 book Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature is part travelogue, part investigative journalism, part political commentary, and part literary critique.

In the first two-thirds of the book, Brandes writes the impressions he formed of Poland from four journeys he made to the country from 1885 to 1894. At this time Poland as a nation did not exist, for it had been conquered and divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Brandes’s first two visits were to Warsaw, in Russian-occupied Poland, and his third to a country manor house nearby. In these travel narratives Brandes vividly describes the lives of Poles under the rule of the Russians, who made every attempt to obliterate Polish culture, including prosecuting anyone who spoke the Polish language and exiling thousands to Siberia. As a literary man and journalist, Brandes pays special attention to censorship and the absurd lengths to which the Russian bureaucrats would go to stifle any inkling of nationalistic expression on the part of the Poles. Clearly sympathetic to the cause of Polish independence, Brandes praises the indomitable spirit of the Poles but frankly and insightfully points out how this systematic oppression has nevertheless affected the mindset of the Polish people and their national literature. More than just a geographical treatise, the book is an in-depth character study of the spirit of a nationless people. In the fourth and briefest trip described in the book, Brandes travels through Austrian Poland (a.k.a. Galicia), stopping briefly in Krakow before spending some time in Lemberg (today Lviv, in the Ukraine), where he is hailed as a visiting dignitary. By including this contrasting vignette, Brandes makes it clear that Austrian rule was far less oppressive than that of the Russians.

After 200 pages on Poland’s political climate, Brandes devotes the final third of the book to a study of Polish literature. This section was somewhat disappointing because Brandes only covers a handful of authors in detail. Mostly he discusses romantic poets of the early 19th century, with an intense focus on Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński. Today’s readers tend to view novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz as a paragon of romanticism, but Brandes only mentions him briefly as an overrated upstart and an author of “light literature.” Though I have read Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz, I was unfamiliar with the other works referenced, and I suspect most English-language readers are in the same boat as me. Still, some of the biographical information on these writers is very interesting, and Brandes provides a great deal of insight into how Poland’s history of foreign occupation has influenced its literature. Frankly, at times the literature section gets rather boring, but I won’t fault Brandes for providing a thorough examination of romantic poetry simply because the subject doesn’t particularly interest me.

Brandes’s book is a valuable document of Polish life at the dawn of the 20th century. Anyone interested in Polish history and culture—even if you’re not keen on romantic poetry—will find much to discover and appreciate in this frank and thoughtful work of literary travel journalism.
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