Soren Gauger on Ludwik Sztyrmer

Character: headstrong when he sets his mind to something, not easily provoked, introverted, seldom affable, gloomy.

Most would prefer their authors, particularly the Central European ones, to be wan, sickly, moribund creatures, pale little bankers or bureaucrats who write fantastical daydreams on the sly. It rankles the reader when a Central European author turns out to have been an enthusiastic bodybuilder (Robert Musil) or—as is presently the case with Ludwik Sztyrmer (1809-1886)—an able soldier and a general in the Czar's army.

But in Sztyrmer's case there are compensations. He was such a non-athletic and slow moving youth that his classmates nicknamed him the "tin child." He spent the main part of his military education conniving ways to enter the sick ward, where he could rest, even throwing lime into his own eyes to be sent there. His relationships with women were marked by an extreme neurosis, manifesting itself in either paranoia, misogyny, or obsession—though he is one of a very small number of male writers anywhere to have chosen a female nom de plume. Here is Sztyrmer's diary on women: "It should be noted, however, that seeking to avoid company, I went to church on Sundays and on some weekdays dressed in uniform, not to pray, but to be seen; it seemed everyone was staring at me; I would always stand by the ladies' pews, though I was so timid that it sufficed for a young lady to be present in a home for me to avoid it. On the street I sought opportunities to cross women's paths. This youthful attachment to the fair sex [...] has so built up over time that today I may say that never have I nor will I love any woman as much as I love the whole of womankind. [...] Just before the end of vacations I was convinced at length to accompany my aunt and uncle to the public gardens. I was terrified of women—I went as if to my execution, convinced that a female friend would join us during the stroll. And I was not mistaken, for scarcely had we turned onto the first path, right where it forks, when Auntie spotted some female acquaintances and approached them; I, to avoid this encounter, pulled my uncle down the other path, but alas! I had taken merely a few steps when I saw women bearing down on us; I asked my uncle if they were known to him, and he smiled and said they were; I sought to flee, but turning about face I saw my aunt with her new companions in tow. Thus surrounded from all sides, blushing, flustered, I stood there, submitting to my fate. No sooner had they left than I begged my uncle to take me from the gardens at once."

Here Sztyrmer makes us realize how thin the line truly is between Buster Keaton and Franz Kafka. There are many ways, of course, to read a diary, and I think more people today are inclined to simply believe a writer than they once were, say fifteen years ago, if only to obviate another discussion on the unreliable narrator. What we can say with relative certainty is that the existing fragments of Sztyrmer's diary give us an acute sense of a writer who gleaned the potential in paranoia to create tension out of nothing, who saw his diary as a kind of venue for attempting to turn the quotidian into high drama (or slapstick comedy—and it is precisely this ambiguity that begins to problematize our view of Sztyrmer as a "psychological writer," in the same way that we would hesitate to label Beckett one).

Mind: powerfully encompassing. Physical fitness: splendid. Memory: splendid. Depth perception: poor.

His alleged masterpiece, naturally, is the one that has been irrevocably lost. This was his journal, a piece of writing known and judged on the basis of the excerpts in a book entitled Our Novelists, Series Two by Piotr Chmielowski. This latter book was published in 1895, and is now practically unavailable in even Poland's best libraries (the only copy I have been able to track down is an electronic scan of the book located in Stanford); it is, to all purposes, inaccessible. As evidenced by the fragment above, written when Sztyrmer was twenty-five, the general mood is claustrophobically psychological, in the same way that Polanski's Repulsion might be labeled as such. A focus on Sztyrmer's non-existing and unread masterpiece, on its psychological intensity and the reflections of this mental instability in Sztyrmer's writing, marks most of the critical writing on his work (though of this there is very little). Sztyrmer is judged best when he is scrutinizing the human mind, preferably his own, and his fantastical departures are even seen as regrettable.

Meanwhile, what is striking about the characters in Ludwik Sztyrmer's fiction is precisely how psychologically opaque and indeterminable they are. Virginia Woolf once remarked that in 19th-century Russian novels she was unable to comprehend anyone's motivations; the characters might well be fascinating specimens, she said, but she would never dream of being able to get inside their heads. With Sztyrmer it is much the same—his so-called character psychologies fascinate because they remind us of no one we know.

Diligence: possesses a great desire to improve; works steadfastly, but only in selected subjects.

Kafka, in a sense, had the same strategy. So did Hitchcock. Make the protagonist behave in a way that is overtly counter-logical (think The Trial or Strangers on a Train), magnetically drawn to situations of danger or certain doom. This allows writer/director to create an atmosphere that is horribly lucid and dream-like at the same time. In the novella Phrenophagos and Phrenolestes (excerpted here), Sztyrmer provides no insight whatsoever into the protagonist's motivation—our main character, Mr. Pantofel, makes a lengthy complaint, falls off a chair, speaks with a stranger, and then runs off to the madhouse for a tour. Mr. Pantofel's environment is equally ambiguous—even at the end of the book we are uncertain if the protagonist has genuinely toured a madhouse, if he has gone mad himself, or if perhaps he has accidentally killed himself in the opening scene, and is being given a tour of Hell (an interpretation reinforced by the "Virgil" character guiding him around). Everything—and this includes the character's behavior/outer reality and, shall we say, his "inner life"—is carefully structured to be read three ways.

Drawing: untalented.

Vasily Grossman, in Life and Fate wrote: "We often make fun of intellectuals for their doubts, their split personalities, their Hamlet-like indecisiveness. When I was young I despised that side of myself. Now, though, I've changed my mind: humanity owes a great many books and great discoveries to people who were indecisive and full of doubts; they have achieved at least as much as the simpletons who never hesitate. And when it comes to the crunch, they too are prepared to go to the stake."

Of Sztyrmer's four novellas reprinted in the 20th century, one is a silly farce; another (the abovementioned novella) a blend of Dante, Jan Potocki, and Laurence Sterne; a third a semi-autobiographical exposition on "the consumption of the soul"; and a fourth a story of demon possession reminiscent of Poe or E.T.A. Hoffmann. He also wrote a treatise called "Animal Magnetism" and a pamphlet on the various female personalities, and which was most advisable to marry. Nothing is consistent; nothing assembles into a full picture. Sztyrmer is capable (frustratingly, for the translator) of building a splendid rhythm in his prose, and then destroying it with a digression that falls woefully flat. By abstract extension, there is as much said about the "real" workings of a mind from a writer such as Sztyrmer, as from writers whose work sounds as though it holds a dictaphone up to an actual conversation; and for this we need not resort to Walter Benjamin's "history's losers count too" tactics. It takes only a small shift in perspective to see his restlessness as a virtue. It is this same nervous energy that leads to passages so forward-thinking and inspired that one stops and marvels.

One such passage is the introduction to the translation featured here—"Mr. Pantofel Addresses the Public." The "character" making this speech, Mr. Pantofel, stands nearly invisible behind his words. One reads the passage as direct words from the author, and with a more or less dim awareness that one is, in fact, the Public. This "conversation" thus has four participants—Mr. Pantofel, Ludwik Sztyrmer, the Public, and the reader, all of whom to a greater or lesser extent engage or identify with one another. None of this comes across, however, as cloying or quaint, in the way that Italo Calvino would have written it. The overall effect—and especially now, considering Sztyrmer's history of neglect, and the resignation of the tone—is strangely poignant.

Cleverness: very little. Constitution: fairly strong.

Every fifty years or so, someone tries to stage a Sztyrmer revival. In 1939—a bad time to try to revive a fanciful prose writer—Kazimierz Czachowski called him a "meteor of the psychological novel" and compared him to Bruno Schulz. In 1948, Jerzy Andrzejewski (author of Ashes and Diamonds) wrote that "Sztyrmer was not a great writer. But what an interesting writer! [...] His irony and insight in showing people in a state of—to use his own phrase—'black pathology' had no equal." Five years ago, two novellas were reprinted in a series of books called "Lesser Known Classics" (already out of print).

It is probably already an old-fashioned notion to believe that every literary translation is, in a sense, a vote for what ought to belong to a "just" history of literature. Though great authors might be consigned to oblivion and rotten scribblers canonized, the translator has a theoretical imperative to balance the scales. Today, of course, translators are largely commissioned by publishing houses or hired out by cultural agencies; they eke out a living while translating more or less the same books as their sponsored colleagues in other countries. In such an institutionalized climate as this, it is precisely writers such as Sztyrmer (or Edgar Allen Poe, who was, of course, "discovered" by the French) who fade into the woodwork. The translator has nothing by which to recommend Sztyrmer, except that he produced some very original literature. There is nothing "professional" about Sztyrmer's work, and his writing makes uncomfortable bedfellows with the work of most modern career novelists. It is precisely this seeming "incompetence" or "awkwardness," paradoxically, that gives his writing a flavor of real vitality, and that gives one a sense of confidence that he will pop up again for another revival in fifty years.

Click here to read an excerpt from Ludwik Sztyrmer's Phrenophagos and Phrenolestes, translated from the Polish by Soren Gauger.