It’s 1937. Poland is about to catch fire. In the boxing ring, Jakub Szapiro commands respect, revered as a hero by the Jewish community. Outside, he instills fear as he muscles through Warsaw as enforcer for a powerful crime lord. Murder and intimidation have their rewards. He revels in luxury, spends lavishly, and indulges in all the pleasures that barbarity offers. For a man battling to be king of the underworld, life is good. Especially when it’s a frightening time to be alive.
“This is a real ‘boy’s’ novel. It begins with a punch—with a fast-paced description of a boxing match. All of Twardoch’s fetishes are in place: weapons, cars, suits. There’s exciting violence, a locker-room atmosphere, sexual fantasies, and voyeurism — we first see the main protagonist, the Jewish mafioso boxer Jakub Szapiro, through the eyes of an anxious skinny boy… A retro detective story in the spirit of Tyrmand, but darker and more brutal.” Witold Mrozek
“A brilliant and inventive novel about the Polish-Jewish underworld of the interwar period… highly suspenseful.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
“Something like a Polish version of Inglourious Basterds, in which the oppressed Polish Jews, supported by a likable Polish gangster, take revenge on Polish anti-Semites. Or simply a gangster picaresque novel set in an era that is increasingly popular.” Juliusz Kurkiewicz
Accommodations (originally published as Stancje in 2017) is the second novel by the poet and writer Wioletta Grzegorzewska, who is better known to English readers by her pen name of Wioletta Greg. Accommodations can be considered a kind of sequel to Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (Guguły, 2014), the story of a childhood spent in the Polish countryside in the late 1980s. [link]
Accommodations picks up this story and takes it further, as the protagonist leaves her rural community for the city of Częstochowa. As Jennifer Croft, this novel’s translator, notes:
Accommodations is a beautiful and frenetic coming-of-age tale by a brilliant poet whose unparalleled linguistic resources enrich and enliven the page. This book is about finding one’s place in the world – accommodating and being accommodated by new people and places and things.
Reading in Translation
Washington Independent Review of Books
A lyrical and moving Polish family saga set against the turbulent backdrop of twentieth-century Europe
Lala has lived a dazzling life. Born in Poland just after the First World War and brought up to be a perfect example of her class and generation – tolerant, selfless and brave – Lala is an independent woman who has survived some of the most turbulent events of her times. As she senses the first signs of dementia, she battles to keep her memories alive through her stories, telling her grandson tales of a life filled with love, betrayal and extraordinary acts of courage.
Sweeping from nineteenth-century Kiev to modern-day Poland, this enthralling family saga is a celebration of a beautiful life well lived.
Unhappy after being abandoned by her fiancé, Justyna, an impoverished young woman who lives in a manor house belonging to relatives, desires a life of greater usefulness. While being pursued by a wealthy aristocrat and by her former love – now married – she meets Jan, a man of lower social standing, who introduces her to a different world: one of closeness to nature, manual labor, and communal enjoyments. To leave the manor for a farmstead would be a very peculiar proceeding, however, and furthermore, the farming community is feuding with Justyna’s uncle.
Set in the 1880s among the Polish population in a part of what was once the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the story involves the consequences of the January Uprising, twenty years before, against Russian rule. The characters are drawn from a cross section of society and the novel’s topics include love, social justice, egotism and materialism, the psychological effects of war, the emancipation of women, marriage as partnership, drug addiction, dignity, obligations to one’s fellow humans, what it means to be civilized – and joy.
Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841–1910) was born to a noble Pawłowski family in Milkowszczyzna, and died in nearby Grodno (now in Belarus). Aged sixteen, she married Piotr Orzeszko, a Polish nobleman twice her age, who was exiled to Siberia after the January Uprising of 1863. They were legally separated in 1869. She married again in 1894, after a 30-year-long relationship with Stanisław Nahorski.
Orzeszkowa wrote a series of novels, dramas and novellas, dealing with the social conditions of partitioned and occupied Poland.
This is the newly translated novel by Olga Tokarczuk, whose Flights (Bieguni) which we read last year was the winner of the International Man Booker Prize in 2018.
Sarah Perry, in The Guardian, wrote of Drive Your Plow…, ‘The novel is almost impossible to categorise. It is, in effect, a murder mystery: in the bleak Polish midwinter, men in an isolated village are being murdered, and it is left to Janina Duszejko, a kind of eastern European Miss Marple, to identify the murderer. But a mere whodunit would hardly satisfy a novelist who said “just writing a book to know who is the killer is wasting paper and time”, and so it is also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.’
The first novel by the author and journalist Neal Ascherson, published when he was 84.
Its publishers describe it as follows:
“This is an unforgettable recreation of life in wartime, and of the tragic fate of Poland in the twentieth century: a novel about sabotage, betrayal and the terrible sadness of exile.
In 1940, during the Phoney War, a French destroyer blows up in the Firth of Clyde. The disaster is witnessed by Jackie, a young girl who, for a time, thinks she caused the explosion by running away that day from school; by her mother Helen, a spirited woman married to a dreary young officer; and by a Polish officer, whose country has just been erased from the map by Hitler and Stalin. Their lives, and the lives of many others, are changed by the death of the Fronsac.
This is a story about divided loyalties, treachery and exile; about people in flight from the destinies that seemed to be theirs before the war disrupted the world they knew.
Ascherson was interviewed about the novel in The Guardian, July 2017.
The acclaimed story of a young girl’s awakening – set in the the evocative, beautiful Ukrainian/Polish city of Lviv. In 1989, Marianna, the beautiful star soprano at the Lviv opera, is shot dead in the street as she leads the Ukrainian citizens in their protest against Soviet power. Only eleven years old at the time, her daughter tells the story of their family before and after that critical moment – including, ten years later, her own passionate affair with an older, married man.
Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening as she matures under the influence of her relatives, her mother’s former lover, her city and its fortunes.
Zanna Sloniowska was born in 1978 in Lviv and is a journalist and translator. She now lives in Kraków. She won the Conrad Award, the Polish award for first novels, and Literary Award Nike 2016.
“The House with the Stained-Glass Window is remarkable, a gripping, Lvivian evocation of a city and a family across a long and painful century, at once personal and political, a novel of life and survival across the ages.” – Philippe Sands
The Mighty Angel is about the alcoholic misadventures of a writer named Jerzy. Many times he’s woken up in rehab and after treatment at the hands of the stern therapist he has been released, a sober and, more or less, healthy. On the way home he picks up the supplies that are necessary to help him face his reality. While in rehab, Jerzy collects the stories of his fellow alcoholics to tell the story of the alcoholic and to discover the motivations and drives that underlie the alcoholic’s behaviour. A simultaneously tragic, comic, and touching novel. The Mighty Angel displays Pilch’s caustic humor, ferocious intelligence and unparalleled mastery of storytelling. Jerzy Pilch is one of Poland’s most important contemporary writers and journalists. In addition to his long-running satirical newspaper column, Pilch has published several novels and has been nominated for Poland’s prestigious NIKE Literary Award four times; he finally won the Award in 2001 for The Mighty Angel. His novels have been translated into numerous languages.
From the seventeenth century, we have the story of the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg. From the eighteenth century, we have the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death. In the nineteenth century, we follow Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw. In the present we have the trials of a wife accompanying her much older husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, and the harrowing story of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanish on a holiday on a Croatian island. With her signature grace and insight, Olga Tokarczuk guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.