A Fugitive from Utopia

A Fugitive from Utopia

The Prose of Adam Zagajewski

Solidarity, Solitude:
essays by Adam Zagajewski
trans. Lillian Vallee
Ecco, 1990, 240 pp $19.95

Two Cities: On Exile, History,
and the Imagination
trans. Lillian Vallee
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995; University of Georgia, 2002, 272 pp $18.95

Another Beauty
trans. Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2000; University of Georgia, 2002, 240 pp $18.95

“To write the history of one’s own literary adventures-what could be more pretentious?” There is any number of living poets for whom this statement is true, but to find it in Another Beauty, the most recent prose collection by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, is like stumbling into a practical joke. After all, Zagajewski, who was born in 1945, was a child of communist Poland, and his “literary adventures” included all sorts of loud protests against one of the most totalitarian of fathers, the Stalinist state. As a university student in Krakow in the late 1960s, Zagajewski co-founded an influential poetic circle called Teraz (“Now”), which was committed to exposing the paradoxes and ideological lies of communism. In 1974, he and fellow poet Julian Kornhauser sparked a major literary controversy when they published The Unrepresented World, an essay collection that condemned the allegorical writing of the previous decade for its moral evasiveness and advanced a “critical realism” capable of boring through the Soviet-speak of everyday life.

It’s a remarkable résumé, and one that an older Zagajewski-who has lived in Paris since 1982 and has taught during spring semesters at the University of Houston since 1988-has repeatedly downplayed. In Solidarity, Solitude, published in Poland in 1986, Zagajewski coolly explains that when he wrote The Unrepresented World, he took his place “among the Catos of the world for a while, among those who know what literature should be and ruthlessly exact those standards from others. . . . To read it à la lettre, my God, what backwardness.” In Another Beauty, self-reproach has crystallized into utter disbelief: “I apparently wrote whole manifestos proclaiming the triumph of a ‘young literature.'” At those moments in Another Beauty when Zagajewski does let his dissident self shuffle across the historical stage, it’s not to reenact his skirmishes with state censors. Instead, Zagajewski matter-of-factly describes Our Hero as one of many ill-taught poets clad in the standard uniform of black sweater and leather coat dusted with dandruff.

American readers who relish the cold war view of Central Europe as a kind of literary Byzantium, a region of calamity where art springs from historical necessity and wields unshakable moral authority, may protest that Zagajewski’s deflation of his dissi...