Strangers in New York: Jan Lechon's encounters with William Faulkner.
Wiersz do Williama Faulknera spotkanego w hotelu Waldorf-Astoria Panowie jak zwyciezcy wchodza do hotelu Sluzba szepce codzienne grzecznogci pacierze, Lukiem brwi strzela pieknosc do nowego celu. I Pan tu miedzy nimi? Skad Pan tu sie bierze? Nie dlatego bys mial byc wlozyc frak niezdolny, Lecz przeciez nie masz czasu. Ani chwili wolnej Od stuchania umarlych, ani wolnej glowy Od jekow, co Cie doszly z pol Bitwy Domowej. Innym wiaz albo lipa szumiace od dziecka, Tobie dom wspierajaca ta kolumna grecka, O ktory tak jak Edyp oparli sit slepi, I lisc zeschly buczyny, co sit omknie, czepi I w dusznym roz zapachu, co z ogrodu plynie, Wolno sunie Jokasta w czarnej krynolinie. On Meeting William Faulkner in the Waldorf-Astoria Lords of the world enter the hotel: Servants murmur politeness in prayer; A beauty's glance pierces a new target; And you, among them? What are you doing here? Not that you cannot wear tailcoats, of course; But that you have no time. Not a minute free From listening to the dead, nor a thought free From the clamor of battle, of Civil War. Let others listen to the rustling linden; For you, the house and the Greek column. Against each, like Oedipus, the blind lean And a dry beech leaf clings in falling, While in the suffocating rose garden Jocasta glides, wearing black crinoline. (2)
JAN LECHON'S "WIERSZ DO WILLIAMA FAULKNERA SPOTKANEGO W HOTELU Waldorf-Astoria" (a poem upon encountering William Faulkner in the Waldorf-Astoria) was for the first time published in 1981, in Polityka, a magazine of opinion well respected in Poland. When I read it there, the sonnet felt both deeply moving and somehow quite wrong. My own experience of Faulkner's prose had been so intense that I actually ran a fever making my way through As I Lay Dying. Yet, while wholeheartedly endorsing Lechon's tribute to the Southern writer, as a student of American literature and mindful of a professional obligation to respect the cultural context of the writer's work, I felt somehow uneasy with what happens to Faulkner's Southern landscape and mythology in Lechon's poem. At the same time, I was absolutely unable to maintain an emotional distance to what in the bleak 1950s our expatriate poet saw in Faulkner. For Lechon's cultural and historical background was mine, especially in the summer of 1981 when, following the rise and growth of "Solidarity," many of its dormant conflicts became inflamed again. So, perhaps, there was also intuitive recognition involved on my part that the Faulknerian "Jocasta wearing black crinoline" at the end of Lechon's poem could well become a figure of mourning for our own cause at the time. All these years later, I would like to try and impose some order on the tangled impressions of my first reading of Lechon reading Faulkner.
Jan Lechon, born Leszek Serafinowicz (1899-1956), belonged to "Skamander," the most visible group of Polish poets starting their careers in newly independent Poland after World War One. Apart from Lechon himself, "The Skamander" group (its name proposed by Lechon) brought together such brilliant talents as Julian Tuwim, Kazimierz Wierzynski, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, and Antoni Slonimski. In friendship and rivalry they shared the excitement of a new opening in Polish poetry and incarnated the ambition of artistic achievement commensurate with the miracle of the country's resurrection to national independence in 1918 after over a century of political non-existence. Roman Kramsztyk's well known portrait of young Lechon reading (3) (1919), however satirically yet affectionately exaggerated, conveys something of the youthful enthusiasm of the generation but first of all of Lechon's own exalted involvement in his art. Following two precociously early volumes (1912, 1914), the twenty-year-old writer published Karmazynowy poemat (A Poem in Crimson, 1920) which won instant recognition as the work of a dazzling, fully grown talent. The promise of Karmazynowy poemat was confirmed by Lechon's next collection Srebrne i czarne (Black and Silver, 1924), much more somber in tone but artistically equally impressive.
Its brilliant author was soon enlisted in the diplomatic service of his country and in 1930 posted to Paris as cultural attache of the Polish Embassy. He remained there until the outbreak of the Second World War. To what extent the appointment harmed his poetry, we will never know. The fact is that throughout the thirties Lechon did not publish another volume of poems and later in life he often regretted the time for writing wasted at various social functions. When the Second World War broke out, the poet managed to leave Europe via Spain and Portugal for Brazil, then settled in New York for the rest of his life. During the war years, he again started writing poetry. Lutnia po Bekwarku (Bekfark's Lute) came out in London in 1942, Aria z Kurantern (Aria with the Carillon) in 1945 in New York, and Poezje zebrane 1916-1953 (Collected Poems) in 1954, also in London. Unlike his friend, Julian Tuwim, who in 1946 chose to return to Poland, Lechon never considered going back to the country which, he thought, the Jalta agreements treacherously handed over to another occupant. In New York, he contributed to various Polish literary periodicals, worked for Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, and was among the founders of Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences. Yet his life in America felt increasingly unhappy and futile. Alone (he never married), subject to periods of severe depression and unable to write poetry of the quality he could feel satisfied with, Jan Lechon committed suicide on June 8, 1956.
Lechon wrote his poem to William Faulkner as a result of his complicated encounter with the American novelist whose art clung to his native landscape, history, and culture as fiercely as Lechon's did to his. Yet Faulkner's writings seemed to the Polish poet intimately familiar because both writers belonged to a timeless, supra-national tradition which Lechon, a war refugee in America cut off from immediate contact with his nourishing native surroundings, desperately needed to share. The poem's title draws attention to its occasion, a coincidental presence of both writers in the lobby of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Christmas Eve 1954. The two men were never introduced to each other; they never exchanged even a perfunctory greeting. Having arrived in New York in 1941, Lechon moved in the circles of the Polish section of Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and other institutions of intellectual and cultural life of Polish emigrants and war refugees. (4) Faulkner, who in 1950 was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, came as a celebrated visitor to the sphere of New York's literary life quite outside Lechon's millieu. Beginning with the publication in 1946 of The Portable Faulkner, Lechon's New York years were also the years of Faulkner's growing recognition in the United States. Moreover, importantly for Lechon, but in contrast to Faulkner's early negative reception at home, the American writer had long enjoyed a steady, favorable reputation in France where Maurice Coindreau's excellent translations of his novels had appeared since 1931. In fact, Dziennik (I 466, November 18, 1950) makes it clear that when eventually the Polish poet started reading Faulkner, he used the French translation rather than the English original. (5)
Lechon had taken note of Faulkner's work even before the American writer was awarded the Nobel Prize. A journal note to himself on August 19, 1950 (Dziennik I 383) insists: "Read Faulkner, absolutely. And absolutely read more 'in American.'" When the news came of the Award, Lechon reproached himself: "and I haven't yet read anything by him," admitting at the same time a reluctance for the task: "I must admit that at the moment I have no appetite for incest and murder. Rather I'd prefer to be well lied to by some fairy tale that we can shape our lives, and that, even in this life, the just and the suffering will be rewarded" (Dziennik 1459, November 10, 1950). (6) Possibly, his reluctance originated in the unenthusiastic tone of much of earlier American criticism of Faulkner's work described by James Meriwether: "misapprehensions about Faulkner the man went far toward confirming a certain condescension toward his work which prevailed for long in the literary circles of America and which encouraged too many readers and too many critics in a superficial approach to his fiction" (3). But more likely, Lechon's reasons were primarily personal. His psychic instability made him cautious of Faulkner's "Dark House" (7) while his formalist conservatism might have shrunk from criminal and sensational motifs in Faulkner's fiction. Also, Lechon's commitment to classical clarity of style and rationality of structure may have caused his initial distrust of Faulkner's complicated narrations and "baroque" style.
Nevertheless, did reading Faulkner make Lechon rethink his standards of esthetic excellence? Seeking an answer to the question, it is interesting to recall numerous entries in Dziennik in which the Polish poet laments his supposedly chronic writer's block. The passage in which Lechon regrets the loss of "the density and associative magic" of his first poetic volume Karmazynowy poemat (Dziennik I 183, January 14, 1950) seems quite suggestive when juxtaposed with the poet's response to The Unvanquished, the first of Faulkner's novels that he read:
I have finished reading L 'In vaincu by Faulkner. It must be something of an exception in the output reputed to be immoral for a great tragic morality is the very air of this strange and beautiful book. Even in translation, there remains a powerful suggestion of original, fascinating style and the suffocating aroma of its simultaneously spiritual and physical atmosphere. One should, of course, know Faulkner better, know more about that South which is the country of an almost whole different literature, in order to be able to say something meaningful about the book. At times it has the genial air of Huck Finn, at other moments its pages pierce you with the spirit of Hamsun, towards the end one is reminded of the best of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and almost Norwid. In any case, it is an aristocratic book, full of tragic sense, a book by a self-conscious, original master-artist. I need to read more of that writer. (Dziennik 1 468, November 20, 1950)
Later, just a few weeks before his death, in a comment on Julien Green's drama Sud, Lechon wrote:
In sum--it is like Faulkner in the Civil War cycle, only served in French; one could say--a classic Greek tragedy, for Faulkner lacks precisely that clarity. Yet now, after a few hours have passed since I put away the book, I wonder if it is not too Greek, too perfect, if the play does not lack precisely that Faulknerian madness ("--czy nie brak tej sztuce wtagnie tego faulknerowskiego szalenstwa?" (Dziennik III 842, May 12, 1956)
Clearly, Lechon was concerned about the question of excessive rational control in his creative process and admired the free ranging energy of Faulkner's style.
When the Polish poet did begin reading Faulkner, enthusiastic appreciation of the American's prose came instantly and prompted insistent comparisons with Stefan Zeromski, the novelist and short story writer who, as Lechon believed, shaped the emotional profile of his generation in Poland (Dziennik I 36). Repeated associations of Faulkner and Zeromski may provide a key to the nature of the attraction Lechon so quickly felt to Faulkner s prose. What is more, when for the first time he saw Faulkner in person, the connection was tenderly transferred from the work to its author:
I saw Faulkner in the street today. He looks like a Polish country gentleman. There used to be some of his type, small, thin, dignified. He wore a completely un-New York coat and a brown felt hat roguishly aslant. I think there are climates, characters, concepts in Faulkner similar not even to Conrad's hut to Zeromski's. Faulkner himself looks like someone out of Wierna rzeka--someone closer to Traugutt than to New York. (Dziennik III 55, March 2, 1953) (8)
Lechon's eyes transferred Faulkner from the contemporary New York urban setting into the context of the pre-war millieu of Polish landed gentry. Looking at Faulkner walking along a New York street in 1953, the Polish exile might have remembered the summers he used to spend in Plawowice, the country residence of his older writer friend Ludwik Hieronim Morstin. Then and there he had a sense of belonging not only to the culture but also to a recognized elite of Polish poetic talents who celebrated their companionship with annual gatherings at Morstin's estate. (9) Now, a stranger in New York, in his imagination he was drawing Faulkner into that lost setting. Such an associative process continues in Dziennik, most notably perhaps in the passage in which Lechon records his second encounter with Faulkner in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria.
Apart from the fact that they were almost exact contemporaries (Faulkner, born in 1897, was Lechon's senior by only two years), Lechon's emotional closeness to Faulkner, so clear in the Dziennik comment on his first glancing at the man, was historically grounded in the chronological coincidence of national tragedies of the Civil War and the Polish Uprising of 1863. It was also grounded psychologically in Lechon's heartfelt identification, for which Zeromski prepared him, with the writing driven by a furious loyalty to a lost cause: "I do not know another writer in our horrible times, who would have a similar, I would say, European, sense of honor, tradition, all those imponderables in the American understanding of the word," he wrote commenting on Requiem for a Nun (Dziennik II 244, September 20, 1951). Earlier (December 1950), in a radio talk given after Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize, Lechon spoke directly about the fact that the American writer's loyalty to a lost cause made his writing especially close to the Polish reader:
The Polish reader brought up on Zeromski and related to Conrad ... will find in his [Faulkner's] novels about the Civil War the familiar atmosphere best defined as poetry of things lost; will recognize in the participants of those faraway battles characters related to the protagonists of his beloved novels who similarly died for lost causes or remained faithful to them for life. (Radio. My translation.)
Moved by his experience of Zeromski's prose but, certainly, also of the recent war, Lechon strongly responded to Faulkner's fascination with psychic and moral consequences of unleashed violence. Having finished The Unvanquished, he commented in his journal:
I'm still under the impression and charm of Faulkner. I have expected anything of the American writer but not that kind of intensity and, simultaneously, subtlety of atmosphere pervading the final pages of his book. One could say it is like the heights of Zeromski though, unfortunately for us, more concrete and tangible than Zeromski since it conveys a powerful impression also in translation while Zeromski, as we know, does not come through, for everything in him is style, music. Still, there is something of Zeromski's people in the characters of this book, even to the spell that murder holds over Faulkner. I know that I will live long with that novel, its charm and the problems which it opens. (Dziennik I 469, November 21, 1950)
A day earlier the poet paraphrased into his journal "one of those very Faulknerian sentences" from The Unvanquished: "The expression, which I had already seen in the eyes of people who killed too many, so many that until the end of their life, they will never again be alone" (Dziennik I 469). (10) Moreover, religious himself, he considered the American novelist as, at bottom, a religious writer: "Faulkner is a deeply religious psyche and each new reading of his prose strengthens the conviction in me" (Dziennik II 244, September 20, 1951). Yet, perhaps most importantly, Lechon seems to have sensed in Faulkner's prose some explosive language energy, which he also linked with Zeromski but, at least at the time, found unavailable to himself. Substantial confirmation for the assumption is supplied by the fact that initially he planned to write his poetic tribute to Faulkner in free verse. The design collapsed because, as the author admitted, "I can't break through the stanza, can't get to free rhythm. 'Free verse' turns out to be bondage for me" (Dziennik III 720, October 29, 1955). So the poem became a sonnet, its compact, closed form invoking the past of courtly and romantic tradition. Still, the initial intention to write the poem in free verse seems to point to a desire on Lechon's part to break through to greater structural freedom and stylistic expansiveness.
Meanwhile, in the privacy of his journal, he repeatedly recorded the feeling of affinity with the American writer's tragic vision and continued to view him through the Polish writers of his youth:
In the Preface to Faulkners Reader [sic] Faulkner writes that the most beautiful conception of the writer's role he has ever met with, came in a book he read in childhood. It was the famous and with us so often ridiculed sentence by Sienkiewicz about "uplifting the hearts." It may come as a surprise that the murky Faulkner took it so seriously, but I have this journal and my other writings as witnesses that I have always considered Faulkner a romantic and in the Civil War cycle--a relative of Zeromski. (Dziennik III 346, April 13, 1954) (11)
On May 4, Lechon again remembered Faulkner's acknowledgment of Sienkiewicz: "Faulkner--it sounds improbable but stands clearly written in his Preface--says that Sienkiewicz's formula about 'uplifting the hearts' seems to him the only motto worth following by a writer" and he wondered then what in the Polish writer, pompous, theatrical, and often superficial, impressed such towering and different personalities across cultures as Montherlant, Theodore Roosevelt or Faulkner (Dziennik III 361). He also kept placing Faulkner in the context of the greatest European tragic writers, watching for comments by other critics, very often French, who confirmed his insights: "Malraux said about Faulkner what I thought having read L 'In vincible, (12) that he led Greek tragedy into criminal romance. Such a trifle! One could not say that even about Dostoyevsky" (Dziennik I 487).
No wonder, then, that when the Polish poet chanced upon the man Faulkner again, this time when both were entering the Waldorf-Astoria, the encounter acquired deep personal significance for him. Faulkner was at his zenith following the winning of the Nobel Prize. Apart from The Faulkner Reader, on Aug 2, 1954 his publisher, Random House, put out A Fable; although generally considered one of Faulkner's weaker works, the novel earned him both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The collection of stories Big Woods appeared on October 14, 1955; moreover, Faulkner started traveling on international missions for the State Department. Thus in 1954, 1955, and 1956, he often alternated between New York and his Southern home in Mississippi. On the evening in question, December 24, 1954, the two writers happened to be crossing the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria at the same time, each in pursuit of his own business. Faulkner was going to see Jean Stein, whom he had met the previous winter in Switzerland and who would soon publish a well known interview with the writer in The Paris Review. Lechon was on his way to a Christmas Eve supper given by his friend and patron, Cecilia Burr. For a fleeting moment, the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York became a space physically shared by the American novelist, then at the height of his recognition at home and abroad, and the Polish poet in exile, already on the downward curve of his career, tormented and lost in the power center of the alien post-war world. For neither one, however, was the Waldorf-Astoria a "natural" habitat, nor did the glamorous setting of the hotel significantly relate to either's work.
On Christmas Day 1954, in a depressed mood ("Going to Washington in the morning. Tired, irritated, sad, hungover--surely, five days won't be enough for me to get out of this"), Lechon recorded his impressions of the previous day's encounter:
Yesterday, as I was going to Christmas Eve supper at Cecilia Burr's, Faulkner, diminutive, wearing a shabby coat and a somewhat comic, brown, pseudo-Tyrolian hat, entered the "Waldorf" just before me. He looked like some Polish country gentleman who wandered into New York. I was crossing to the elevator, all the time glancing back at him, when I heard him say to the receptionist "Mr. [sic] Stein, please" and, after a moment, "I am Faulkner." Among the tailcoated men and bejeweled women in mink coats nobody recognized him; he looked almost a character from Hoffmann, a ghost from another world. I felt stupid dressed for the evening because I am really poor while Faulkner is a famous and rich man. I thought about what I had lost because of thousands of evenings of my life spent in the evening jacket or tailcoats and was close to approaching Faulkner with a story like the ones Warsaw drunks used to tell in "Astoria" or "Adria" crying over their fate in the ears of various Polish celebrities. (Dziennik III 531) (13)
Containing recognizable elements of his earlier journal responses to Faulkner, the entry develops in three steps. First, almost by force, it brings Faulkner into Lechon's own territory, by polonizing him, by making him resemble a member of the Polish gentry ("wygladal na jakiegos polskiego szlagona"), the class symbolically standing for the conservative, even nationalist strain of Polish culture. Then, by presenting Faulkner not only as someone out of place in New York ("zablakanego w Nowym Jorku") but as a ghost "from another world," Lechon absorbs the Southern writer into his own traumatic confrontation with "another world," which must have meant for him not only America but the whole, politically changed, post-war reality. From there, the poet reviews his familiar guilt over the time wasted away from writing and, sentimentally and self-mockingly, imagines himself confessing his failure to Faulkner in the retrospective scenery of the night life in pre-war Warsaw. Beneath the almost desperate desire to establish, against the indifferent, glittering world of the Waldorf-Astoria, a sense of psychic intimacy with Faulkner, there lies the simple, unalterable fact that for all the paradoxical contrast of appearance and situation between the two visitors to the hotel, both belonged to the brotherhood of writers for whom their art remained the highest value. This secret common ground is evidenced by Faulkner's disregard of the Waldorf-Astoria dress code and by Lechon's guilt because of proving incapable of similar contempt for what he as well as Faulkner knew to be a masquerade unworthy of their time. In Lechon's interpretation, his own evening dress stigmatized him as a failure while Faulkner's shabby clothes manifested heroic devotion to the calling.
Before he began writing the poem to Faulkner, the Polish writer saw the American novelist once more, walking in the street on October 22, 1955. Once more his journal entry comments on Faulkner's casual dress but this time also on the fact that Faulkner looked as if he had had a few drinks. Then the diarist declares:
Such a meeting always moves me, it makes me realize that New York is not only the capital of refugees from all over the world but also--the biggest city of vast America; America, which was home not only to Bebe Rull (14) and Buffalo Bill, but to Whitman and Melville, and Hawthorne, and where there lives now a great tragic writer, this little man with leather patches on his coat sleeves. (Dziennik III 717)
Like the Christmas Day entry, this passage, too, relies on juxtaposition, but here of different Americas: the America of popular culture, of sports and Wild West shows and the America of great writers. Faulkner's shabby appearance, emblematizing his outstanding position "in another world" of literature, guides Lechon's perception beyond the gaudy surfaces of American culture whose mass spectacles overshadow the achievement of her best writers. It is also as if those writers' estrangement in their own country made Lechon's exile more bearable because, inevitably, that is the common condition of great artists.
In fact, though, Lechon worked quite hard at his reconciliation with America. Disappointed with the political and social failure of Europe in the twentieth century, he realized that the United States provided not only rescue and refuge from the latest European catastrophe; even so, first and foremost, America meant energy, hope, and the future. Although New York never became fully his home, there are passages in Dziennik acknowledging his fascination with the city, his recognition of its powerful energy and even reluctant admissions that the city has become "home" after all. However deeply grounded in the European cultural and literary tradition, Lechon nevertheless was able to register the shift of cultural leadership in the Western World from Europe to North America, from Paris to New York as, for example, when he recognized the importance and excellence of American writers:
Slowly, very slowly, having learned something of America, I begin to develop a taste for her writers, to understand their mutual ties and their mysterious bonds with the history and life of this country. And, because of such understanding, everything in their writings seems to me deeper, more interesting and more beautiful. (Dziennik III 212, September 19, 1953)
Two years later, having prepared a talk on Thomas Wolfe, he thought that he was growing into America and that his knowledge of American writers would prove inspiring for his own work: it was
as if my knowledge of American writers, of Mark Twain, Whitman and Melville and my reading contemporary Americans created in me a whole poetic world where all those characters, Huck Finn's Mississippi, Whitman's wanderings in Long Island, the biedermeier of the South and the awesome, cruel saga of New York blended together, became my sub-consciousness and are getting ready to burst out as the Polish symbols did in the past. It may, of course be just a poem, only one, yet, I think, I have enough of that essence in me for a good one. (Dziennik III 617, May 6, 1955)
At the end of that summer, he firmly declared that American writers were pioneers and ground breakers in Western literature:
Melville was Conrad preceding Conrad, The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne was Dostoyevsky, or at least, so much earlier and deeper Mauriac. Really, the Europeans have little on which to base their sense of superiority over the Americans. (Dziennik III 705, October 1, 1955)
Working for radio Free Europe and Voice of America, Lechon regularly gave appreciative talks or participated in literary panels on subjects including American writers and specifically Faulkner (Dziennik I 505, December 27, 1950, also Polityka 24, June 13, 1981. See also Kowalski). However, his most eloquent homage to America came in a long essay Aut Caesar aut nihil published in the summer of 1955 (Dziennik III 671) in London by Oficyna Malarzy I Poetow. The essay took nearly two years in writing, and it called for reorientation of Europe's conception of itself vis-a-vis America. Since Europe was no longer the world's leader, political or cultural, since she became unable to defend her position as Caesar, she must not continue to look down on America's plebeian materialism. According to Lechon, her materialism defended the United States from social unrest and released the creative energies of her citizens.
And yet not even a year after the publication of his "defence of America," Lechon jumped to his death from the fourteenth story of Henry Hudson's Hotel in New York. Thus the sonnet he was writing to William Faulkner over the final months of his life, though he did not manage to publish it, nor perhaps even finish it to his satisfaction, allows a valuable glimpse of the poet's emotional landscape at the time of his death. It seems a landscape of tragedy; not opening to the future, like America, but darkened, like Europe, by tragic experience. In his various responses and comments on Faulkner which he entered in the journal, Lechon more than once took Faulkner out of his national context, stressing the Southerner's difference from what he took to be the prevailing concerns of America. For example, on November 2, 1954, the Polish poet noted:
Faulkner is really a negation of what is generally thought about America. And because he comes from the South, is symbolic of the South, one can perhaps say that the South is not America. First of all, money plays almost no significant role in his world, as if money did not exist; it does not have for him the kind of demonic power that it had for Balzac and for so many American writers. (Dziennik III 494)
Although, in the next sentence, recalling Hemingway, Lechon corrects himself, recognizing that there are other American writers quite unconcerned about money and that, perhaps, the prevailing view of American culture as materialist and money-driven is misleading, Faulkner, nevertheless, remains for him largely un-American, European, Polish--or at least widely open to international and intercultural transplantations.
And so the poem to William Faulkner uses the occasion of the simultaneous, Christmas Eve presence of both writers in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria to create imaginative space where both writers, strangers in New York, may meet. Lechon started writing the poem soon after he saw Faulkner once more, almost a year later, in October 1955 (Dziennik III 717, October 21 and 720, October 29). As in the journal entry for Christmas Day of the previous year, the author proceeds by building a sense of intimacy between Faulkner and himself against the holiday glitter of the Waldorf-Astoria lobby, the embodiment in the poem of the American power and worship of wealth. Faulkner's vision is reinterpreted and extended so that it smoothly includes the condition of the Polish writer in exile, entangled in the tragic darkness of history and the vulnerabilities of his own psyche. Although the strategy is similar to the one used in the relevant journal entries, the poem is less directly personal and depends for its meaning on symbolic images. Lechon says he wanted to put into the poem "as many images as possible with as few as possible coming from my old poems" (Dziennik III 721, October 31, 1955). Still, images from the prose comments in his journal are recognizable, and, at least to my mind, the poem still bears testimony to the strong impression The Unvanquished made on its author. Incrusted onto Faulkner's Southern setting are details of imagery related to Lechon's own Polish landscape--for example, the poem's trees which belong more to Lechon's memories of the Polish countryside than to Faulkner's South. Ash trees are of course common in both Mississippi and Poland but beech trees are rare in Mississippi, restricted to one specific area of the state. While Faulkner does mention beech trees, for example in Sanctuary, there is no evidence that Lechon ever read that novel. Linden trees, filling Polish high summer with their perfume and, since Kochanowski, prominent in the Polish tradition of poetic imagery, do not grow in Mississippi at all.
When the sonnet was being put into English, my American co-translator, Marsue Johnson, and I went through long explicating sessions in which she tried to remove the linden trees from the poem, as absolutely out of place in Faulkner's Mississippi, and I tried to find out why, while objecting to the linden trees, she saw nothing amiss in the crinoline dress worn by the woman walking in the aroma of roses wafting from the garden. Although evocative enough of a Southern belle in mourning (a Scarlett O'Hara, let us say) (15), in my understanding, Lechon's Jocasta "wearing black crinoline" stepped out of Racine more directly than out of any novel by Faulkner: Mrs. Compson in The Sound and the Fury is perpetually sick, Caddy is a tom-boy type, Drusilla in The Unvanquished rides with the soldiers wearing man's clothes, and Temple Drake in Sanctuary is a reckless flapper of the roaring twenties. In the poetic tribute to Faulkner, the details of vegetation and architecture of Faulkner's Mississippi slide into the Polish landscape of Lechon's memories, a landscape to which he clings even as he attempts to infuse the poem with images least related to his earlier poems. Quite strikingly too, Lechon, a practicing Catholic, completely disregards Faulkner's strong reliance on Biblical mythology inherited by the novelist from his Protestant culture. The result is the construction of a symbolic territory which Lechon shares with Faulkner through the mediation of their common heritage of Greek tragedy.
Juxtaposing the superficial rituals and glamour of the Waldorf-Astoria setting with the tragic vision of Faulkner's fiction, the poem moves rhetorically from the formality of its title and its invocation-like address to the lyrical images of landscape and mined home to culminate with the view of a looming female figure: mother-bride, art-motherland, muse-death? The movement away from the formal glamour of the Waldorf-Astoria to the intimately complicated symbolism of Jocasta emphasizes the claim that, just like Lechon, Faulkner belongs to "another world." But more importantly, it extends Faulkner's vision to include Lechon's own emotional and thematic territory. For it is also Lechon who is unable to free himself from "the clamor of the war," a war which in the fifties still raged as civil war for the poet and for so many Poles in exile who continued to serve their lost cause through Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, and various periodical and book publications. The familiarizing extension of Faulkner's art is by no means only thematic. It is suggestively visualized in the poem's landscape images with the linden trees and roses more evocative of high Polish summer than of high summer in Oxford, Mississippi, where roses bloom early and the suffocating summer air is cloyed by stronger aromas. Similarly, by reducing the characteristic plantation mansion colonnade to a single column, Lechon synthesizes the Greek temple or theatre with the Southern mansion and with a "dworek"--the archetypal Polish country residence. Faulkner is thus detached from the democratic America of the present and future while the cultural connotations of the sonnet form further emphasize his connection with the hierarchic and courtly past. Like Shakespeare's sonnets dedicated to the patron or sonnets by romantic poets written to great writers, Lechon's poem is a tribute to the master and a confession of love, not to Faulkner, of course, but to his art as a new link in the chain of works by great tragic writers from Sophocles through Racine to the present. It is also a personal endorsement of Faulkner's and their tragic vision which already included the war, martyrdom, and Poland's post-war political catastrophe, as well as Lechon's personal tragedy as a man without a future. Using Faulkner as the poem's subject allows the Polish writer to move in the imaginative sphere that simultaneously fuses the personal and the universal where national and private fortunes are destroyed by history, but also by passions and transgressive desires and where it remains for the Jocasta-like artist to suffer and witness destruction and to mourn its tragic losses.
Faulkner, William. The Faulkner Reader. New York: Random House, 1954.
--. Interview with Jean Stein van den Heuvel. 1956. Essays Speeches & Public Letters. Ed. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. New York: Random House, 1968. 237-56.
--. The Unvanquished. 1938. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1991. William Faulkner: Novels 1936-1940. New York: Library of America, 1990. 317-492.
Kadziela, Pawel, ed. Wspomnienia o Janie Lechoniu. Warszawa: Biblioteka "Wiezi", 2006.
Kowalski, Stanislaw J. Jan Lechon jako redaktor i publicysta w okresie nowojorskim. Lublin: Wydawnictwo Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego, 1996.
Lechon, Jan. Aria z kurantem. New York: Biblioteka Polska, 1945.
--. Aut Caesar aut nihil. London: Oficyna Malarzy I Poetow, 1955.
--. Dziennik. 3 vols. Warsaw: PIW, 1992-1993.
--. Karmazynowy poemat. Warsaw: J. Mortkowicz, 1920.
--. Lutnia po Bekwarku. London: M. I. Kolin, 1942.
--. "On meeting William Faulkner in the Waldorf-Astoria." Tr. Marsue Johnson and Agnieszka Salska. The Pawn Review 7.3 (1983): 56.
--. Poezje zebrane 1916-1956. London: Naldadem Wiadomogci, 1954.
--. Polish Radio Talk, December 1950. Polityka 24 (June 13, 1981): 9.
--. Srebrne i czarne. Warsaw: Ignis, 1924.
--. "Wiersz do Williama Faulknera yspotkanego w hotelu Waldorf-Astoria." Polityka 24 (June 13, 1981): 1267.
Meriwether, James B. "The Textual History of The Sound and the Fury." 1962. The Merrill Studies in The Sound and the Fury. Ed. James B. Meriwether. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill, 1970. 1-32.
Sprusinski, Michat. Polityka 24 (June 13, 1981): 1267.
University of Lodz
(1) A shorter, Polish language version of this essay appeared the the proceedings of the conference "Dialog miedzykulturowy w(o) literaturze polskiej," published by the University of Szczecin in 2008.
(2) Translated by Marsue Johnson and Agnieszka Salska.
(3) See e.g. www.zwoje-scrolls.com/zwoje44/text06p.htm 10.01.2008
(4) After his arrival in New York in 1941, Lechon worked for the bulletin of Polish writers in exile Tygodniowy Serwis Literacki Kota Pisarzv z Polski, renamed after 6 issues as Tygodniowy Przeglad Literacki Kola Pisarzy z Polski, which in 1943 became Tygodnik Polski and under Lechon's editorship continued until 1947. He was also among the founders of Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences (Polski Instytut Naukowy). After Tygodnik Polski was discontinued, Lechon, apart from his work for Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, wrote for Polish literary journals in Europe: Wiadomosci (London) and Kultura (Paris).
(5) "I have started L'Invaincu, a French translation from Faulkner, for, it seems, I wouldn't be able to manage the English version. Already in what I was able to read so far, there are great vistas and true poetry. But naturally, we'll see what comes later" (I 466).
(6) passages from Dziennik are my translations.
(7) This was Faulkner's working title for both Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936).
(8) Wierna Rzeka (The Faithful River), a novel by Stefan Zeromski (1912) set toward the end of the Polish "January" Uprising (1863-1864) against Russia. Romuald Traugutt was the last commander of the Polish forces executed in Warsaw after the fall of the Uprising.
(9) There survived an often reproduced photograph of participants of the first poets' meeting in Plawowice (Kadziela 128-29).
(10) The reference is to a passage at the end of section two of the final story "An Odour of Verbena," in which Bayard Sartoris, recalling a crucial confrontation with his father, saw "the intolerant eyes which in the last two years had acquired that transparent film which the eyes of carnivorous animals have and from behind which they look at a world which no ruminant ever sees, perhaps dares to see, which I have seen before on the eyes of men who have killed too much, who have killed so much that never again as long as they live will they ever be alone" (Unvanquished 476).
(11) Lechon refers to The Faulkner Reader edited by Saxe Commins and published by Random House in 1954. A revised version of Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech served as Preface to this anthology.
(12) Lechon's rendering of the French title of The Unvanquished is inconsistent: L'Invaincu or L'Invincible.
(13) Preoccupied with his own condition, Lechon shows poor understanding of Faulkner's situation (and of the United States?) assuming that, as an internationally recognized writer, Faulkner must have been a rich man. In fact it is only in the last twelve to fourteen years of his life that Faulkner could even be considered to be financially comfortable.
(14) I am indebted to Ashby Bland Crowder for the suggestion that Lechon most probably misspelled here the name of the legendary baseball star, "Babe" (George Herman) Ruth (1895-1948), for whose funeral ceremonies (in August 1948) about 100,000 fans gathered in New York. The poet's awareness of and attitude toward American baseball rituals is suggested, for example, by this entry of October 4, 1949: "Yankee(s) and Dodgers will be playing for the championship of America. For this reason a truly clinical madness culminates in the country about the game and its stars who are more enthusiastically worshiped here than great military victors. Eisenhower was not given a nearly comparable reception to that Joe di Maggio had yesterday. Today a mad nation of million saluted Dodgers with inhuman yells. Thousands are camping outside stadiums, newspapers, even the New York Times, report games before relating news of China and the atomic bomb" (Dziennik 171).
(15) Gone with the Wind was first published in 1936; the well known film version followed in 1939. Lechon connects Margaret Mitchell's historical romance with Sienkiewicz's works (Dziennik III 600, April 6, 1955).
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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