Soren Gauger on Bruno Jasieński


As we speak, one of the few objects in Poland commemorating the life and work of Bruno Jasieński – a high school that bore his name in his hometown of Klimantów – has officially undergone a name change, on the grounds that the writer in question is not "an authority for today's youth" and, indeed, has a "demoralizing effect" on their young minds. Leaving aside the question of the desirability of judging literature on such criteria, what seems most astonishing is that, even now, over seventy years after his torture and execution in a Soviet prison, Jasieński is still such a socially awkward commodity, certain to make English-speaking readers as uncomfortable as Polish ones. Most of the greatest writers seem to have been born at the wrong time, but only a small handful of the truly odd ones feel as though they wouldn't be quite at home – or embraced – at any time.

Objective Section

Bruno Jasieński arrived in Paris in the fall of 1925. In his last surviving statement for the Russian NKVD before his execution, he listed three reasons for leaving Poland: (1) he had graduated from university and was due to serve twenty months of mandatory military service, (2) he was being sued for alleged blasphemy during one of his poetry readings in Lwów (today Lviv, Ukraine), which could have resulted in a year or two in prison, and (3) he was an unemployed literature graduate whose scandalous reputation scarcely promised him work as a high-school teacher. Difficult as it may be to imagine from today's perspective, his poetry readings had been banned by the police in many Polish cities, and on one occasion an audience had even stoned him for his work.

Jasieński intended to learn French and to write novels in his new language. Instead, he immediately enrolled in Chinese and Japanese classes, and wrote freelance articles for the Wiek Nowy newspaper in Lwów. Among other events, he covered the exhumation of famous Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki's remains in Paris and their shipment back to Poland. He also worked as a director at the Polish Workers' Theater, where he staged an adaptation of one of his own poems.

The decision to write I Burn Paris is immortalized in Aleksander Wat's conversations with Czesław Miłosz (My Century): 

Wat: [Jasieński's] communism became absolute because of I Burn Paris, with that quarrel over I Burn Paris, when the French authorities expelled him and raised a fuss. I saw how I Burn Paris came about, through his ignorance of the French language. It was like this: Jasieński returned home, I was having dinner at his place, and he started saying with incredible passion and fury that he had seen Morand's latest book in the bookstore, Je brule Moscou. And he was enraged, pacing round the apartment, cursing, unable to calm himself, that Moscow, which he had just... That crook, that fascist...
Miłosz: He didn't understand that bruler means something different: to drive through quickly?
Wat: And three or four days later he was telling me the plot of a novel he wanted to write: Je brule Paris. Sometimes this is how great works of literature get made. He was chased out of France for Je brule Paris in 1929. He went straight to Leningrad from Paris by ship.
Poland's most untiring Jasieński advocate, Krzysztof Jaworski, suggests in Bruno Jasieński in Paris that this story might have been touched up a bit: Jasieńśki had written positive reviews of Morand's work, a rarity in Jasienski's critical output. Jaworski suggests that the "rage" might have been colored in for effect. But such is the appeal of Wat's story that it retains its hold in the popular imagination.

Jasieński was indeed expelled from France for this novel, and import of the book form (it originally appeared piecemeal in the l'Humanité communist periodical) was forbidden on the grounds that it "exuded blind and stupid hatred for Western European culture." Nor did it increase his popularity in Poland, though in Russia it became a legitimate phenomenon: the first edition of 140,000 copies sold out in a matter of days, prompting a second edition of 220,000 copies.

Small wonder: The book chronicles, in the first part, an unemployed factory worker who is so abused and manhandled by French society that pouring a test tube of the Black plague into the water supply seems the only reasonable solution. In the present section, our protagonist dies in fits and spasms. Then for the last two hundred pages, Paris divides into cultural or political districts (Anglo-Americans/Jews/Chinese/workers/policemen etc.), while all the hate and mistrust latent in such a multicultural society comes bubbling to the surface. By the end Paris, the symbolic heart of Bourgeois culture, is a landscape of corpses.

Quasi-objective Section

I Burn Paris remains a reluctantly acknowledged masterpiece in part because of all the ambiguities. The effect comes from following moral impulses so obsessively that they sometimes become their own opposites. The novel marks what is generally thought to be Jasieński's transition from Futurism to Catastrophism. What this means, for example, is that Jasieński's earlier poetry took the staccato rhythm and mechanics of typewriters, trams, factories etc. as their substance, as in the following passage:

the thousands-strong, hundred-street citiespumping out thousands of papers a day,the long black columns of wordsshouting loud on the boulevardswritten by little old bespectacled men.wrong.the City writes themstenographing a thousand synch, in time, in blood.a hundred thousand camera clicksmark long forty-column epics.[...]power-plant strikes, suicide, adultery,there's your big fat poetry.  

- "Song of Hunger," 1922

Compare (from Part One of I Burn Paris, after the protagonist has been thrown in prison):

On the other side of the wall, in the neighboring cramped cells — a strange society of castaways, discarded like waste by the scrupulous, unforgiving machine of the world to this place, behind the high wall on Boulevard Arago and, by someone's inconceivable will, tied and hitched to a new and bizarre mechanism, governed by the new and bizarre laws of the World of Readymade Things.The pointless walks around the symmetrical circles of the courtyard, regular as a carousel, under the low, sooty bell jar of the prison skies. The long rosary, manipulated by some unseen hand, of which each bead is the live, pulsating guts of human existence. The machinery built of cogs that had no place beyond the wall, but which unexpectedly meshed when thrown together in this monstrous lumberyard, clinging to one another and creating a new collective organism, functioning according to a new guiding principle, one scarcely conceived on the other side.

In the novel, the wonderment is gone, the machine has run amok. The pulse in Jasieński's poetry is a mechanical one. It was (remains) shocking for its bold disregard of what this mechanization means, preferring merely to hand us a portrait of the state of things in the modern world, and making a poetry that reflects it. His novel, on the other hand, focuses precisely on the ramifications of this state of things. Yet the recurrence of these images retain some of the young Futurist's fascination for the factory-made man, and his prose holds onto the one-two punch of the poetry's mechanized rhythm. The repetition of such adjectives as "matte" and "flickering" tell us something else: Jasieński's book is an early example of literature with a distinctly cinematic sensibility (Eisenstein is certainly a reference point), a narrative viewed through a camera lens.

A similar ambiguity emerges in Jasieński's treatment of the moral decadence and degradation of his contemporary society, which takes many forms: brothels, child prostitution, racism, grinding poverty, jazz music, the lifestyles of upper classes and bourgeoisie, and so on. Pierre, the novel's initial protagonist (whose death occurs early, in a strangely offhand gesture), appears as a kind of inter-war Candide, stumbling through the dark woods of modern French society, pummeled by its various mechanisms. Of course, in the midst of detailing the horrors that await Pierre in his weird spiral to madness, Jasieński ends up writing passages that very much resemble a decadent novel. Everything is grotesquely bent out of shape, but the sections detailing the revulsion and vileness are, from a literary point of view, some of the most compelling to read. It is a dilemma familiar to the religious painter: Hell is more fun to paint. 

Finally, there is a strange and unsolvable contradiction in the fact that a novel which culminates in celebrating the triumphant spread of communism is also a novel whose central motif is the spread of a deadly and unstoppable plague.

None of this is to doubt the sincerity or conviction of Jasieński's aims. The treatment of the Jew by the White Russian officer will seem shockingly prescient to the twenty-first century reader with any knowledge of the Holocaust. The impression is made all the more powerful when one recalls how rare such depictions are in the European literature of the 1920s and 1930s. In his later novella entitled "The Nose" (forthcoming from Twisted Spoon, in The Legs of Izolda Morgan and Other Writings), written in Russian, he offers a rare, if not unique example of a writer with Jewish roots satirizing the sick morality of Nazi Germany before the war broke out. In the present novel, his humane treatment of P'an, the Chinese protagonist, again finds few parallels in the European literature of the time. What remains impressive in I Burn Paris is the fact that, whatever the moral or political status of the character at hand, Jasieński gives him/her full rights to our understanding and sympathy. In this disease-infested Paris everyone may well be cutting everyone else's throats, and the portrait of humanity as it stands might be dismal beyond repair, but as individuals, everyone gets a fair hearing, and a fleshed-out literary existence. 

But the ambiguities I have mentioned do seem to suggest that there is a subconscious, or subterranean, life to the narrative, one that goes unacknowledged by the writer as such, but which is perhaps the chief source of discomfort in reading the novel. Whether it is the Futurist undermining the Catastrophist, Jasieński casting doubt on his own best intentions, or a classic case of attraction/repulsion syndrome, it is a tension that runs through much of the book. 

Non-objective Section

We should note in passing (though without the humility of a footnote) that the translator's introduction – surely the most conservative of all arts, save perhaps typography – has undergone a shift in demeanor over the past few decades which is, not surprisingly, reflective of the shift in the so-called art of translating as such. This shift might broadly be defined as one from creative virtuosity to academic fidelity – both approaches with their own drawbacks – and accordingly, the sometimes disarming sincerity and eccentricity of translators' introductions of the 1960s and 1970s has largely given way to introductions that are at best blandly informative, and at worst larded with an academic rhetoric that puts the translator in a position of authority over his subject (i.e. the writer being translated). As I have no intention of playing such shabby tricks with the reader, because I am old-fashioned enough to believe that a translation should be motivated, above all, by a kind of bald enthusiasm for the author at hand, and ultimately, because this particular writer is one of painful, and sometimes uncomfortable honesty, I should like to include the following. 

Any introduction to I Burn Paris should explain what I see as the real tragedy of Bruno Jasieński, though I would like to refrain from wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth. The tragedy has less to do with the garden-variety pathos of a highly gifted writer sentenced to death in the vast slaughter of Stalinist Russia (though surely this is tragic enough), than with a more unconventional sort of tragedy: that of an artist pursuing his own delusions to the bitter end. From his earliest poetry, Jasieński was a writer with a powerful sense of his own showmanship and the manufacture of his own identity. This included the monocle he liked to wear, the pseudonym (real name: Wiktor Zysman), affiliation with various literary movements, manifestoes, public statements, rallies, and performances. Even as an aesthetic writer (as opposed to the politically engaged writer he later became), he had an acute sense of creating a persona – the writer himself was viewed as another fictional character. Jasieński's literary voice is seldom, if ever, an intimate one – it is that of a man holding forth from a tribunal or a podium. It is a Romantic impulse, a sign that a writer sees his role as a spokesman for the people (compare: Bruno Schulz's "secretly clasping his reader's hand under the table").

There is a certain inevitability, perhaps, in such writers finding politics. Like many intellectuals of his time, Jasieński was a Marxist. When he found himself expelled from France after the publication of I Burn Paris, the Soviet Union gave him a hero's welcome (a surviving photograph: crowds with banners at the train station, gathered round to greet him). His addresses to the Soviet public maintain the confidence and bluster of his early Futurist manifestoes. That is to say, one has the creeping suspicion that the character of Jasieński the writer (as opposed to Zysman – whoever he was) had not been fundamentally altered, it was only the rhetoric and the vocabulary that had changed. When the purges began in earnest in the 1930s and it became very dangerous to be a public persona, Jasieński had already made a few enemies, and he was soon fighting accusations of being a Polish spy and an enemy of the people. He was arrested on 31 July 1937, and executed on 17 September 1938.

There survive a few of his letters written from captivity directly to Stalin, begging for mercy. In his last letter of many pages, written in self-defense, he lists the shocking tortures he was subjected to (fingernails pulled out, teeth punched out), but just as shockingly, for the first time, we seem to hear Zysman speaking, begging to be allowed to die rather than continue the tortures. Zysman drops all the swagger of his character. And if I am not wholly mistaken, there is a dim recognition of the insanity of having arrived there simply for having played his role - and a confusion at the notion of all this fiction ultimately having such brutal consequences.

Click here to read an excerpt from Bruno Jasieński's I Burn Paris, translated by Soren Gauger.