The Collected Prose 1948–1998 (2010)

Translated by: Alissa Valles
Published by: ecco

Polish poet and essayist Zbigniew Herbert easily stands beside Nobel Prize laureates Milosz and Szymborska as part of a remarkable literary tradition. Though Herbert is very much an Eastern European writer, the urgency, vitality, and relevance of his work extend far beyond the borders of his particular region and his particular time. His fascination with other subjects–from painting to all things Dutch–enriched the scope and depth of his poetry, and made for compelling explorations in his essays and short prose pieces.

The first collected English edition of his prose work, this outstanding volume consists of four books – Labryinth on the SeaStill Life with a BridleKing of the Ants, and Barbarian in the Garden. Brilliant and erudite, dazzling and witty, these essays survey the geography of humanity, its achievements and its foibles. From Western civilization’s past, as witnessed through the Greek and Roman landscape, to musings on the artistic that celebrate the author’s discriminating eye, poetic sensibility, and gift for irony, humor, and the absurd; from a sage retelling of myths and tales that became twentieth-century philosophical parables of human behavior to thoughts on art, culture, and history inspired by journeys in France, Italy, and the Netherlands, Collected Prose is a rich compendium that celebrates the mastery and wisdom of a remarkable artist.

Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Mark read the essays on the Albigensians and the Templars, and felt they were straight historical accounts that could have been written by anyone, anywhere, addressed broadly to the court of public opinion. Tom wondered if such tales of denunciations and confessions, and severe repression, resonated particularly in Poland at the time (late 1950s / early 1960s), and referred elipically to current or recent events. Herbert has an eye for graphic detail, and the essays use anecdote to make points.

The places he described would have been unfamiliar to his Polish readership. He travelled with very little money; he had permission to travel abroad, but wasn’t sent as anything as official as a ‘foreign correspondent’ (as Kapuśzińcki was). He writes well about place, showing the importance of being there. Stewart highlighted Herbert’s ongoing exile from Lwów; he compared its loss to ‘breathing with one lung’. He never went back, unlike Miłosz, who did return to Lithuania.

Robert commented on the long, detailed, sophistacted descriptions, remarkable for someone who is self-taught. Herbert fed lice in a laboratory during the war, as did the mathematician Stefan Banach (who Robert has researched). He highlighted some quotes, including these from ‘Siena’.

‘One can also see the gates and walls which do not tightly enclircle the town, but hang loosely around it like a belt on a fat man who has suddenly lost weight.’

‘One should not surrender to the dictatorship of the guide-books but look at this edifice, one of the most beautiful in the world, with a critical eye.’

There is a plaque to his memory at the hotel where he stayed.

Herbert was in his 30s before he began his travels; he was an educated, cultured man, with an appetite for sights. In 1959 a cappucino was something unknown outside Italy. His sympathy for the underdog is evident – Samos against the Athenians.

Grażyna read the Polish text of Still Life with Bridle, and thought it a shame there is not an illustrated version, so we can see the paintings he writes about. He appreciates the juicy language of early art historians, as opposed to the dry and academic language of today.

There is little place for women in his work; and when he sings the praises of multicultural Lwów he fails to include the Jews. He is often coy about his origins, not mentioning Lwów by name. His adolescence and schooling there is highlighted in ‘The Latin Lesson’, describing a terrifying teacher who drove the boys into the complexities of Latin. Here he writes little directly about Poland – more so in the poems, though there are oblique takes there too, in the classical and art history poems. Jenny found his biography (written by his nephew) too adulatory.

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