On August 1, 1944, Miron Białoszewski, later to gain renown as one of Poland’s most innovative poets, went out to run an errand for his mother and ran into history. With Soviet forces on the outskirts of Warsaw, the Polish capital revolted against five years of Nazi occupation, an uprising that began in a spirit of heroic optimism. Sixty-three days later it came to a tragic end. The Nazis suppressed the insurgents ruthlessly, reducing Warsaw to rubble while slaughtering some 200,000 people, mostly through mass executions. The Red Army simply looked on.
Białoszewski’s blow-by-blow account of the uprising brings it alive in all its desperate urgency. Here we are in the shoes of a young man slipping back and forth under German fire, dodging sniper bullets, collapsing with exhaustion, rescuing the wounded, burying the dead. An indispensable and unforgettable act of witness, A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising is also a major work of literature. Białoszewski writes in short, stabbing, splintered, breathless sentences attuned to “the glaring identity of ‘now.’” His pages are full of a white-knuckled poetry that resists the very destruction it records.
Madeline G. Levine has extensively revised her 1977 translation, and passages that were unpublishable in Communist Poland have been restored.
Probably the finest book about the insurrection of 1944. . . . Białoszewski’s book was about the city and its people; in the course of his narration, the two become interchangeable.
A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising is a faithful, antiheroic, and nonpathetic description of disintegration: bombed houses, whole streets, human bodies disintegrate, as do objects of everyday use and human perceptions of the world.
In a country in which writers were supposed to uphold the moral conscience, Białoszewski was the opposite, a champion of insignificance…When the moment came, he filled page after page with details about life amid the rubble — about what it was like to pick dust and debris out of one’s soup, to visit a barber, to attend a Chopin concert with guns and bombs going off all around, or to use a latrine…
—Daniel Lazare, Jacobin
A master of grammatical games, puns, and colloquial speech patterns, this dark-minded, philosophically inclined scrutinizer of the humblest objects of daily life is enjoying more popularity and critical attention a quarter century after his death than during his lifetime. Outside of Poland, he remains best known for his Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising.
—The Iowa Review
Białoszewski very quickly emerged, surfaced for me as the most exciting and most intriguing Polish writer of what now would be the second half of the century.
Białoszewski demonstrates that each loss also offers a new way of seeing and something new to see, even if what comes into view is only a ‘grey naked hole.’ He manages to generate a new form from absence and emptiness as the ‘greynakedhole’ takes on a life of its own. Seen this way, the world’s inescapable losses generate not only pain, but also creative possibility and even perhaps ‘inexhaustible joy.’
—Clare Cavanaugh, Partisan Review
This most ‘private’ author of postwar Polish literature disregards discourses of history so deeply embedded in the Polish literary tradition; rather he focuses on the mundane aspects of the everyday life, usually from an autobiographical perspective and using an overtly colloquial language. Although Białoszewski’s works have stirred many discussions, most of these have focused on his treatment of genres and language.
—Joanna Nizynska, professor of Polish, Harvard University
Poems of Miron Białoszewski is the book I hope to one day hold in my hands. A great post-war Polish poet, Białoszewski wrote work radically different from that of his contemporaries—Miłosz, Świr, Kamieńska, Herbert, and Szymborska—but his poetry was just as powerful and important to the development of the contemporary European lyric… When I mentioned [him] to Tomaž Šalamun in a recent conversation, Tomaž’s face lit up: ‘Białoszewski, when he is translated and available in English, will cause an explosion in American poetry!’ One hopes so.
—Ilya Kaminsky, poetry editor, Words Without Borders