The world is divided into two halves. In one of them it’s impossible to live, and in the other, it’s impossible to survive.
— Marek Hlasko, Beautiful Twentysomethings.
IN 1955, POLISH WRITER MAREK HLASKO secured Roman Polanski’s release from a Warsaw jail. Polanski had caused a ruckus when he couldn’t get into a theater performance, even though he had a coveted ticket, because the house was full. Hlasko, a well-liked fixture in the jail’s drunk tank, intervened. In short order, Hlasko, Polanski, Polanski’s girlfriend, and the arresting officers bought a bottle of vodka and got drunk atop a pile of ruins in Warsaw’s downtown.
About a dozen years later, Polanski, riding high on the success of Rosemary’s Baby, returned the favor by giving Hlasko a job in Hollywood. He was hoping Hlasko could complete an almost mythical trifecta of young, talented Poles making it big in Hollywood: he’d already been working with Krzysztof Komeda, the composer who had written the music for Rosemary’s Baby and, before that, for Polanski’s debut film Knife in the Water. But Hlasko could not — would not — write on command. Polanski had to sever their working relationship, and Hlasko’s drinking, which had always been a problem, got out of hand. One night in December of 1968, after a party in the Hollywood Hills, Komeda and Hlasko went for a walk. Nobody really knows how it happened, but at some point Komeda fell and hit his head. He died a few months later as a result. In June of that year, Hlasko was found in a hotel room in Wiesbaden, dead of a fatal mixture of alcohol and sleeping pills. Those who were close to him swear it couldn’t have been suicide. But if this wasn’t premeditated, it also hadn’t come out of the blue.
Hlasko’s story, and his fiction, are experiencing a resurgence: The Graveyard and Killing the Second Dog, two of Hlasko’s novels, have been republished; Beautiful Twentysomethings, Hlasko’s memoir, appeared this past fall for the first time in English in my translation. Israeli filmmaker Uri Bar-On is making a movie about Hlasko called James Dean in Tel Aviv. That his writing has found a new audience at our particular moment in history should come as no surprise: the anger that drove his writing was grounded in the same kind of populist disillusionment we see today, from Occupy and the Tea Party, to the social protests of the Arab Spring.
Hlasko’s 1956 short story collection, First Step in the Clouds, won Poland’s premier literary prize for that year. At the time, he was a relatively unknown 22-year-old tough guy whose stories painted a bleak and violent picture of the Catholic country its people often considered a modern-day Golgotha. At a time when socialist realism — a writing style and ideology that has been characterized as “Boy Meets Girl, Meets Tractor” — still reigned supreme, an honest look at the tedious and uninspired lives of average Poles proved unsettlingly refreshing.
Born in 1934, Marek Hlasko lived out his boyhood in a cataclysmic era, when Poland was under German occupation and her cities ravaged by bombs and tanks: over 80 percent of Warsaw was kaput by 1945. Millions of Poles, Jew and gentile alike, fell, by bullets, starvation, gas, and vengeance. In the war’s wake, Hlasko grew up under the heavy thumb of Soviet influence. Some of the 20th century’s finest writers came out of Poland — philosophical and moral poets such as Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, and distinctive prose stylists such as Bruno Schulz, Tadeusz Borowski, and Witold Gombrowicz — but these were artists of an older generation. They had come of age before the overshadowing moral bankruptcy brought on by Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. Hlasko, five years old when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, never knew a system where, to paraphrase Yeats, the center held.
Instead, the center of the world in which Hlasko grew up was, as Polish critic and historian Jan Blonski put it, “a blind revolt, vague, brutal, and indecisive all at the same time.”
After a tumultuous beginning that included expulsion from several schools and work as a truck driver and pickpocket, Hlasko began to write. First Step in the Clouds appeared at a time of promise. Stalin and his hardline Polish proxy Boleslaw Bierut were dead. Wladyslaw Gomulka was in power, toting liberalization. The Polish thaw, which began in 1956 with a frank national discussion of the Stalinist legacy, and saw public manifestations of discontent via riots over food prices and the desecration of Soviet symbols, hinted at further change; it in fact helped fan the coals of the Hungarian Revolution of that same year. There was a brief flowering of culture, and Hlasko, with his dashing looks and hard-living exploits, attracted all the buzz.
The Polish government sent Hlasko to Paris to promote new Polish literature and serve as its ambassador overseas. While there, he allowed an émigré house to print works that Polish publishers had already rejected. When the Polish government found out about it, he was summoned home to face repercussions. Hlasko wasn’t ready yet to abandon ship and defect, but he did request more time abroad. As that was not an option, the man whom the Western press was calling the Eastern European James Dean (he bore a remarkable resemblance to the movie star) stayed in Paris and soon found himself a rebel without a country. Not proficient in anything but his mother tongue, and no longer receiving a stipend from Poland, he took to working whatever jobs he could find. Newsweek and The New York Times gave Hlasko a hero’s reception, and several of his novels were translated into English, hailed, primarily and unfortunately, as dissident lit. It was a title he didn’t welcome: he wanted to be known as a writer, not simply for that against which was writing. “Every story about genuine love is a story about God,” Hlasko once told a publisher. But every God has his Devil. Hlasko’s concerns were more existential than political. It was convenient in the West to think of Hlasko as a rebel without a country, even more so as a writer with a cause. His work, however, says otherwise: in Hlasko’s writing, women are whores, men are scoundrels, innocents are always victims, and drinking is the only escape hatch, leading to a frozen sea.
The boozing, depressive man drifted across Western Europe; he married the German actress Sonja Ziemann, but their relationship was tumultuous. He was in and out of mental institutions, sometimes there for treatment, sometimes for the solitude it offered a novelist. And sometimes, so he claims in his memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings, for the free room and board.
It was in Israel, from 1959-1960, that Hlasko found the material for some of his greatest works. Living with, and on the generosity of, Polish Jews he knew from back home, he worked in a fiberglass factory and for a land surveyor, among other rough jobs. From that one year of hard living Hlasko would eventually write four novels, two of which are translated into English: Killing the Second Dog and All Backs Were Turned. Killing, first published in 1965, follows a few days in the lives of two Polish con men who have a long-running scheme of defrauding wealthy American widows. Robert, a failed theater director, writes the scripts; Jacob, the handsome, turbulent action man, delivers the dialogue and steals the hearts. What’s most disturbing about this story is that, at the end, Robert adds a plot twist that’s meant to convey the fury, the hopelessness, of Jacob’s love: the latter shoots his pet dog, ostensibly to drive away the woman he loves. This senseless act of violence, performed in frustration, is supposed to “save” Mary from a wreck of a man. But as Jacob and Robert know, it only draws the widow in further. The earlier suicide of a woman who fell victim to this trick does not faze the two men. It’s this — the sheer capacity of humans to sacrifice innocents, their capability for deception and mistreatment — which so shocks: Hlasko had escaped the totalitarian regime, yet still he found a tyranny of cruelty everywhere.
The 1960s had turned bleak. Assassinations were piling up: JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, RFK. The closing of the decade included the My Lai massacre, student unrest and the formation of the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and the re-frosting of the USSR under Brezhnev after Khrushchev’s brief thaw. There was a hardness to the rounding out of the decade, a feeling that all that remained was violence. Easy Rider, the 1969 film with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson, became an emblem of a new pessimism. By film’s end, the three are dead, with nothing to show for it, victims of petty acts of hatred and greed. These are not heroes who die stoically at the hands of Nazi tormentors, comforted by the knowledge that their brothers-in-arms are waiting to avenge their patriots’ deaths. These men die for dollars, for their long hair, their clothing, their crooked smiles.
Jim Stark, Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, actually does have a cause. He’s a crusader for sincerity. It was Hlasko, the man without a country, who was adrift, in the sense that he believed the world to be beyond redemption. The idealism of his early work, where at least goodness was a possibility, is no longer present. The Graveyard, Hlasko’s first novel, and his only political one, is a direct dystopian confrontation with a totalitarian society. Novels of this genre as a rule imply that the nature of the system, not the nature of man, is what causes problems. By the time he wrote Killing the Second Dog nearly 10 years later, Hlasko was too dismayed and tired — he had seen too much in too many places — to write anything that might be interpreted as optimistic. At one point in the novel, Jacob confesses his plot to the woman he’s conning. But here is his reasoning: “Right now I’ve had enough. Not that I’ve become more sensitive all of a sudden, or that I want to reform. I’d be happy to live this way for a thousand years. But I don’t feel too well today.” If evil is put on pause, it’s not because hearts are in the right place.
In Hlasko’s obituary in The New York Times, he’s quoted as saying: “Hell is when nothing happens and you can’t even hit anybody.” In his writing, though, people hit, and bad things happen. The story of the 20th century is, in many ways, the story of how innocent bystanders bore the brunt of man’s most malevolent inclinations. This, more than any system or ideology, is Hlasko’s theme. There is no place for lovers. There is no beautiful failure. Nobody has mercy on the poor. His was not an age of glorious fallen warriors; it is our legacy today as much as ever.
Ross Ufberg is a writer and translator of, among others, Beautiful Twentysomethings by Marek Hlasko. He is cofounder of New Vessel Press, and is a PhD candidate in the Slavic Department at Columbia University.