Issue 156, Fall 2000
Gustaw Herling, ca. 1940. Mugshot from Hrodna's Jail
Most mornings for the better part of the last fifty years, until his death in July at the age of eighty-one, Gustaw Herling rose in the shadow of Vesuvius and went to his desk to continue what had long since become one of the great ongoing journeys in contemporary literature. A hero in his native Poland and a well-known if occasionally controversial figure in his adoptive Italy, Herling was for decades the object of quiet but intense admiration among readers and writers throughout Europe. Although a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, it wasn’t until the recent and widely acclaimed republication of several of his books in the U.S. that he was brought to the attention of a broader American readership.
Herling was born in Kielce, in eastern Poland, in 1919. The son of a miller, he went on to attend the University of Warsaw, where he was an active figure in the extraordinary Polish literary renaissance that flourished between the wars. His precocious career as a literary scholar, marked by pioneering assessments of Witold Gombrowicz and Czeslaw Milosz, was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. After helping to establish his country’s first anti-Nazi resistance cell, Herling fled east to join the Free Polish Army, but was arrested by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) crossing into Soviet-occupied Poland, and imprisoned in a labor camp on the shores of the White Sea. His experiences there were recalled in his classic memoir A World Apart: The Journal of a Gulag Survivor, published in 1951. Praised by Albert Camus and Bertrand Russell, and distinguished no less for its artistry than for its unflinching depiction of Stalin’s camps, it was one of the first Gulag memoirs to appear in the West, and has since attained the status of a masterpiece.
Herling was released from the labor camp in 1942. Soon after, he made contact with the Free Polish Army assembling behind Soviet lines and set out with them on an epic anabasis overland to the Middle East. Eventually joining Allied forces, they took part in the Battle of Monte Cassino, where Herling was wounded and for which he was subsequently awarded the Virtuti Militari, the highest Polish military honor.
Herling never returned to live in Poland, seeing no future for himself in a Soviet-dominated country; and his books remained strictly banned there until the fall of Communism. After the war, together with Jerzy Giedroyc, Herling co-founded the influential journal Kultura, the flagship of the Polish intelligentsia in exile. In its pages he began to publish his celebrated “Journal Written at Night.” Written over the course of thirty-odd years, it is a vast and elegantly written contemplation of the human condition, encompassing an astonishing range of cultural, political and historical reflection. Volcano and Miracle: A Selection from the Journal Written at Night was published in 1996.
Following a period of wandering in Europe that included extended stays in Britain and Germany, where he worked for the Voice of America, Herling returned to Italy. He married Lidia Croce, a Mallarmé scholar and daughter of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, and they settled in Naples, in the historic Villa Ruffo, once said by a covetous James Fenimore Cooper to command the finest views of the Bay of Naples. There he began to write the darkly imaginative stories and novellas upon which his reputation rests. A collection of three tales, The Island, appeared in English in 1967.
The interview was conducted on two sweltering August afternoons in 1999, in a sprawling study overflowing with books in Polish, Russian, Italian, German, Spanish, French, and English. Despite the gravity of his experience and the seriousness of his concerns, Herling was a man of robust good humor whose conversation was frequently punctuated by bursts of explosive laughter. He concluded the interview with a display of the manual typewriter on which he wrote his life’s work. “I bought this in Rome, after the war, when I became a writer,” he said. “And I intend to be buried with it.”
You came of age in a particularly vibrant period in Poland. Could you describe it?
1938. My ambition was to study Polish literature and become a professor at the University of Warsaw. I didn’t have any aspirations as a writer. My interest was in Polish literature, and foreign literature, of course; I was very interested in literary criticism. I belonged to a group of Polish students gathered around Ludwig Fryde, an excellent literary critic. I considered him my teacher. Even as a young man I had begun to do literary criticism and to publish. Very immature things, but still interesting enough to be published. I am very proud that among the first articles I published were reviews of two Polish writers, now very well-known and famous, but not so very well-known and famous then—Witold Gombrowicz and Czeslaw Milosz. I wrote a long essay on Milosz, and one of the very first essays on Gombrowicz. I knew Gombrowicz personally, as a student. He used to frequent the Café Zodiac in Warsaw. A lot of people used to come there to listen to him; he was a kind of mentor for younger writers. He was a teacher by temperament, interrogating, lecturing us, and so forth. This characteristic remained with him when he went into exile in Argentina. He had a lot of money problems, so he started a kind of philosophical school. Whoever wanted to could come and listen to him, but they had to pay, just a little, but they had to pay. It became in a way his profession, the origins of which you might say were in those long sessions at the café.
I knew instantly that he was going to be a great poet. I liked his first volume very much—Three Winters. I remember we had a student debate in which each of us chose and defended a particular young contemporary Polish poet, and I chose Milosz. I gave a speech arguing his merits, which he heard and seemed to like very much. It was before the war; after the war we met in Paris, in the offices of Kultura, after he decided to remain abroad.
Since your criticisms of Milosz’s The Captive Mind condense a great many of your concerns about his work, perhaps you’d care to elaborate on them.
I was and I am very critical of The Captive Mind. It is the one thing on which we truly differ, and I don’t hide it. It is an excellently written book, but it is not true, as I said then and still insist. The substance of my criticism is that he makes what happened in Poland too simplistic—the intellectuals chose Ketman, the New Faith, and so forth.
The New Faith being communism, seen as a response to Western spiritual and cultural bankruptcy, and Ketman being the heuristic method cultivated in medieval Persia for concealing one’s true thoughts in the face of an oppressive system, which he got from Gobineau, of all people.
Yes. But in Poland’s case it wasn’t true; it was a false analogy. The regime was very brutal. Those who wanted to live, to make money, to gain a post, had to subordinate themselves. Two things motivated writers to collaborate with the Communist regime—money and careerism. The writer who was . . . accommodating, let us say, was looked out for by the regime. This is my opinion.
Milosz disliked my remarks very much when I wrote about his book, but when he won the Nobel Prize he gave a long interview to a Polish journalist, which has been published as a book, and a very interesting one. What is funny is that, at a certain point the interviewer asks, What about Herling’s criticisms? And Milosz responds, Maybe he’s right. This is the most he’s ever conceded, that maybe he overrated this business of Ketman and the New Faith and so on. He then tells of a visitor from Poland, a schoolteacher who said, Mr. Milosz, how could you write such nonsense, you’re such an intelligent man. And Milosz again conceded the possibility that he had been wrong, that he had exaggerated things. In any case, that is the problem between us.
What was so captivating about The Captive Mind, apart from it being so beautifully written?
Intellectuals, particularly foreign intellectuals, were happy finally to have a book that explained things, and explained them in such a way that didn’t criticize or indict or offend writers and intellectuals, people of their own milieu.
Strange that people whose business it is to think should be so eager to have someone else think for them.
The behavior of the intellectuals before the war, during the war and after the war with respect to fascism, communism, and other forms of totalitarianism of various descriptions was not very respectable. So they were happy to have Milosz’s book, to have their behavior absolved, if not validated. Because to have something like Ketman or the New Faith is certainly preferable to listening to me telling them that they had betrayed themselves for career and family. Not that the Poles were alone in this. The behavior of writers and intellectuals in Italy during the Fascist reign was the same thing. They should be ashamed of what they wrote, especially because they weren’t writing out of any genuine conviction of fascism’s merits. They were merely trying to advance their respective careers. To some extent it was the same with German writers under the Nazis. Thomas Mann wasn’t sure about what choice to make.
Unlike Robert Musil, who in his exile liked to say that he was merely following his readers.
Yes. Mann was in a way negotiating with the Nazis. He wanted to know if the Nazis would publish his books, if they would guarantee the safety of his great library in Munich, and so on. We have to be extremely conscious of this problem. I remember the great Italian writer, my friend Ignazio Silone; his intransigence against Italian Fascism was very badly looked upon by his colleagues. They called him a fanatic, which is a terrible word—