This posting of Writing the Polish Diaspora features Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak’s interview with Polish writer leszek szymanski*:
Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak: I would like to present to our readers an unusual figure in leszek szymanski* (aka Dr. Leslie Shyman), a writer, journalist, historian, traveler, politolog, philosopher, and a leading figure among Polish Emigre writers. He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, mostly in English, and has his place in the literatures of Poland, Australia and the USA. He is also a recipient of the Joseph Conrad (Korzeniowski) Award of Miasto Literatow (City of Writers). In Poland he is known in literary circles as the legendary founder of "wspolczesnosc" (the Contemporary), an amazing small magazine with a circulation of 55,000! In 1956, that was the only private and independent publication behind the Iron Curtain.
Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak: Why did you leave Poland, I believe, in 1959, and what was your first destination abroad?
leszek.szymanski. To answer this question, I must move backward to 1956---the year of the so called "Polish October (peaceful) Revolution." The birth of Wspolczesnosc was possible only because of pre- revolutionary ferment which started after Stalin's death, and it reached its apogee in Poland in October 1956.
We were reasonably independent in literary matters and completely independent in financial matters. But once Comrade Wieslaw (Wladyslaw Gomulka) was established in power, even quasi literary autonomy could not be tolerated by the monopolistic Party. Only the Roman Catholic Church was allowed semi-independence.
Thus, we were soon taken by the government conglomerate of RSWP. No personnel changes were made to the editorial board, but I was given a deputy chief editor named JOZEF LENART.
Lenart was a youth activist of the Union of Polish Youth (ZMP), an ex co-editor of its daily Banner of Youth (Sztandar Mlodych), and a trusted party man. He was also antagonistic towards us, a group of independent young writers.
I remember once, when I was waiting in the corridors of power of the Central Committee of Z.M.P., Lenart approached me. Smiling, with one hand pointed toward the palm of his other hand, he said, "Sooner the hair will grow on the palm of my hand, than you will publish ''wspolczesnosc.'' Now, still with a bold palm, he became my deputy.
I never had any illusions about Gomulka's liberalism and it was obvious to me that the days of our semi-independence were ending and we would have to follow the Party line through all its zigzags, while it pretending to be following a straight line. That Party line was the equivalent of today's political correctness---no matter how stupid and contradictory it was, you had to follow it.
Those in our group who were not submissive enough would be eliminated. I was right, though not about the timing. It took much longer to dissolve our group than I thought it would. Jan Zbigniew Slojewski was treated especially badly---for a long time, he was not allowed to print anything. Andrzej Chacinski was moved from the secretary of the editorial board to an equivalent position in some small cooperative magazine. Zbigniew Irzyk found shelter in Pax press.
In 1959, Teodor Parnicki (then still in Mexico), the author of End of the Peace of Nation, granted me an award for continuing his novel. And off I went with my then first wife Jadwiga de domo Ornowska to India, to do historic research for that book. While in India, I was wondering why my "reportages" from that country were not printed. Then I heard that I was to be arrested and that the Polish embassy wanted me to return. At the time I was in Himalayas, at Rishikes xxx with Shri Shivananda Guru, thanks to Wanda Dynowska, in his ashram. (The words "guru" and "ashram" did not have the present currency---again, I happened to be a pioneer.)
Previously, in New Delhi, I had met two people---an Indian writer and a member of the Congress from Cultural Freedom, Prabhagar Padhye, and Arthur Koestler, a then very well known anti-communist writer.
In hindsight, the news about my imminent arrest was grossly exaggerated, or perhaps purposely made to push me to ask for asylum, which would have gotten rid of a now awkward person. The Marek Hlasko incident was still fresh, and if I remember correctly, Jozef Lenart asked us to discuss "casus Hlasko", i.e. condemn him.
Anyway, my wife and I requested de facto asylum to the Australian High Commission, the British High Commission, and the US. Embassy. The British and the Americans promised to consider the matter. Sir Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, granted us immigrant visas in I believe three days. And with that, my wife and I flew to Sydney with a long layover in Manila.
BH: Who paid the tickets? And why the immigrant visas?
l.s: Congress for Cultural Freedom. And immigrant, because I did not want to give my friends and colleagues any trouble, as well as my mother since my father had just died. I did not want to make a political gesture as Marek Hlasko, Andrzej Brycht and many others did, regardless of the consequences for those left behind.
BH: I have heard that you have already knew English. How was that?
l.s: In or about 1953, I met at the Warsaw Youth Festival an Indian Writer, KEDAR NATH, who became one of my best friends. I invited him to Poland and he stayed with me till I left that country.
From him, I learned how to speak English. Previously, I had a passive knowledge of the language---
I could read and translate, but not talk. I had English in school (gimnazium i liceum im, Stefana Batorego). My father Kazimierz spoke and wrote English. And Edward Simmons of the American Embassy (a mysterious figure) helped me with spoken English and invited me for movies and parties at the embassy. Now that friendship could really be a pretext for an arrest.
BH: Tell us about your connections with Jerzy Giedroyc, Mieczyslaw Grydzewski and Marek Hlasko.
l.s.: In Poland i had a contract signed for the publication of the collection of my short stories ESCAPE TO THE TROPICS. It had a foreword by Stanislaw Rembek. The contract was signed with a quasi independent and quasi Roman Catholic organisation PAX. When the Party took us over, the Pax declined to honour the agreement (they [Pax] were after us, and displeased with me), but our new publisher RSW Prasa, did signed a new publishing contract.
I had a number of short stories published in the various magazines, and even won a III Prize in the competition by Union of Polish Writers for a story about Adam Mickiewicz. But I was not as well known as Marek Hlasko, and maybe, a book publication would change the situation. I felt i was not worse writer than him.
BH: Pardon me, but what it has to do with Giedroyc and Grydzewski ? Also I'd like to know more about your connection with PAX. Did you know Boleslaw Piasecki?
leszek szymanski smiling: Yes, my book has a lot to do or rather not to do with Giedroyc, while in Manila I sent MS to Giedroyc, who by now became the third prospective publisher and promised to print it. I think he sent me $100. But for a budding author having his first book published was more important than that money, not too small in those times. Now, to answer your question I must move forward chronologically.
I met Giedroyc much later in the editorial office of Kultura in Paris. drunk tea though when I visited Poland first time after 50 years I saw over the roof of Muzeum Literatury an advertisement to the sense "DRINK GIEDROYC"S VODKA.
I met the really legendary founder of Wiadomosci Literackie, Mieczyslaw Grydzewski(Grydz) relatively often in his editorial office opposite to the British Museum. His unofficial office was in the Press reading room of that ancient and famous institution, the newspaper Reading Room being still at the old address. As to Marek Hlasko I met him much, much later in Los Angeles.
We spent almost a year collaborating on a novel "Devils in the Rain or Rice Eaters" Danuta Blaszak writes about that, and times of 'wspolczesnosc". She intends to write the Doctorial Theses on the subject. How indeed! from the marginal literary magazine in the shadow of PO PROSTU, we landed in the history of the Polish Literature, and even perhaps became a footnote to the Political History of 1956.
BH: But what about Pax?It played diversive role towards the Church being "rezymowi Katolicy", the government Catholics. Especially doubtful was the role of the "fuhrer" Boleslaw Piasecki.And his "State Instinct" in 1956. How close you were to him?
l.s: Not close at all. I met him perhaps three times, for some short and non consequential polite conversations. I met more often his deputy Mieczyslaw Kurzyna and the director of PAX Publishing House; Teresa Englert,Krzyszton, Dolecki, Lichanski, Dobraczynski? and some other literary people, Stanislaw Rembek included.
I met all of them through Bohdan Slezkin.
Slezkin after being released from prison (He was of course "political" ) found shelter in Pax who used his illustrations and graphic works in their publications.
Pax helped a number of ex political prisoners and also those writers who were not accepted by the monopolistic government publishers.
Also Pax openly allowed us not to love and admire, worship the elder brother Soviet Union, saying we have to tolerate them and make the best of the dependency situation as Margrabia Wielopolski did.
Well,they were oasis of common sense in the sands of idiotic boot lickers, pardon the awkwardness of this mixed metaphor.
BH: And how successful was that first book of yours, published by Jerzy Giedroyc? I assume it was in Polish? He had ways to smuggle his books and the magazine into Poland.
l.s: Of course, but it was never published by Giedroyc.It was printed about six years later as ESCAPE TO THE TROPICS with about half of the stories with the Australian background.Then, and NOW, looking retrospectively it was very bad thing this breaking contract. My book did not became known in Poland nor abroad on emigration, and when came the great return of Demiurges, emigre writers, I had been completely forgotten in Poland.
BH: What has happened?
l.s.:Jerzy Giedroyc who was financed for his work; grew into a saintly figure in Poland. In the counter distinction to Mieczyslaw Grydzewski who was paid by nobody but who tried to pay his authors though he himself, was wearing the same old pants and jacket all those times I met him.
BH: Do you mean Giedroyc did not pay?
Szymanski smiling again: No he paid and paid better than Grydz. He had his sources. Giedroyc did not print my book but deducted his advance from the royalties for the articles I had written for KULTURA
BH: And why he did not publsh the book?
l.s. Giedroyc was more of the political figure than the literary one. He never wrote me so, neither told, but the reason was, I guess, that I did not make noise about choosing freedom, and he did not assisted me politically or otherwise, except that $100 or so, and he was not behind my decision. Just thinks about possible headlines:
The chief editor of only independent literary magazine in the Eastern Europe asks for Asylum says Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of emigre KULTURA.
Such a head line or at least assumption at the proper places, would be a feather to his cup. as were Marek Hlasko and Andrzej Brycht. Forgive again the quality of the metaphor.
And perish the thought maybe he simply thought the stories were not good enough.
BH: So who and when published that book, if at all?
l.s.: I think I have approached all the British, Australian publishers and gathered almost as many rejection slips, and a few nice letters of praise but no offers. Similarly to my novel "Drunken Maniana".
Sergio Angelo on his way back from Moscow with the manuscript of Doctor Zivago, stopped at my place and took in secret my novel too.
However, as long as I was in Poland I declined Pellegrini's offer to publish and I guess, when I decided to stay quietly abroad he was not interested. Or again maybe he saw no market for a novel of the Polish October Revolution which faded quickly, especially if compared to the impact of the real Hungarian Revolution.
BH. That's interesting. May I know more? And what happened to ESCAPE?
l.s: About Boris Pasternak,that’s another story. I met him through Virgil, a Lithuanian whose surname I forgot,but there was much to it. I could not help him. But to answer your question about my book,,, that book was printed by the Polish publisher of renown, in London Boleslaw Swiderski. It had very good reviews and sold perhaps a hundred copies in Australia and fifty in England.
BH: Thank you very much, and I hope to finish our interview when we meet the next time.
* Mr Szymanski insists on lower case letters in his name and in "wspolczesnosc"
Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak has lived in the UK since 2004. She is a member of The Poetry Society of London, International English Association (IPPA) based in London, Union of Polish Writers Abroad based in London, Polish Authors' Association Branch II in Warsaw (Poland), Academy of American Poets (USA).
Verses authored and translated by herself into English, published in the U.S. Canada, India, Australia, Africa and the UK. They were read on Australian Radio. She was included in the poet issue of New Mirage Journal (USA). Her work has been presented in Writing the Polish Diaspora (USA), The Australia Times Poetry Magazine, ken*again, Mad Swirl.
The poet has released three volumes of poetry in Polish : "on the banks of the river called life" in 2011, "ticket to the Happiness station" in 2012, "on the departure bridge " in 2013, and two in English ; ''Whispered'' 2013 in UK and ''Blue Longing'' 2014 in Canada.