Aleksander Wat


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Life and Art of an Iconoclast

Tomas Venclova

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Aleksander Wat was, in many ways, the archetypal Central European intellectual of the mid-twentieth century, a man who experienced and influenced all the tumultuous political and artistic movements of his time. Yet, little has been published about him, even in his native Poland. This book is the first account of Wat's turbulent life, accompanied by a thorough analysis of his extraordinary poems and prose works in their diverse periods and genres. Tomas Venclova, himself a poet and literature scholar of international renown, has uncovered numerous new biographical details, made the surprising discovery of an unfinished novel Wat began fifty years ago, and woven together the themes of Wat's life and work.

At different times a futurist, surrealist, and communist fellow traveler, Wat turned away from Communism after his imprisonment by the Soviet secret police and became a vociferous spokesman for democracy. Venclova tells Wat's story from his Polish-Jewish upbringing in the early 1900s, his participation in the literary avant-garde in the 1920s, and his work as editor of an influential Communist journal before World War II, through his emigration to the West in 1959 and his death in 1967. Venclova argues convincingly that Wat's literary achievement promoted the rejuvenation of Polish and East European letters after the Stalinist era, and his broad intellectual influence on many, including Czeslaw Milosz, helped to consolidate the moral and political opposition to totalitarian ideology that has profoundly changed political realities in the late twentieth century.

Tomas Venclova is professor of Russian and East European Literatures at Yale University.

"Venclova's interpretation of Wat's work, especially his poetry, is unmatched in profundity, thoroughness, imaginativeness, and aesthetic sensitivity. Publication of this brilliant book is a major event."—Stanislaw Baranczak, Harvard University

"[A] critical biography. . . . With a discerning feel for the philosophical complexities and the linguistic intricacies of Wat's writing, Venclova fills in the gaps of Wat's life story, weaving biographical facts with literary criticism. . . . Venclova amply supports his claims for Wat's intellectual powers and vividly portrays the man's relentless honesty and moral courage."—Tess Lewis, New Criterion

"[Venclova] has done an enormous service to literature, Wat emerges as one of the most talented and profound lyricists of his time. . . . It is a strength of Venclova's wonderful book that, with much tact, he allows us to understand Wat's work in its own brilliant, exultant, and iconoclastic vigor, without Wat's own melancholy exegesis."—Neal Ascherson, New York Review

"Yale's immaculately produced, handsomely printed volume celebrates a fascinating Polish modernist as well as consolidating the reputation of the finest living Lithuanian literary scholar."—George Hyde, Times Literary Supplement

"As this vivid account of his life shows, Wat was considerably ahead of his time in a number of ways—most notably, perhaps, in highlighting the affinity between Nazism and Communism."—Zev Ben-Shlomo, Jewish Chronicle

"As a fellow East European, whose own experiences include life under Soviet-type communism and exile, Venclova is particularly well qualified to write about the Polish poet with empathy and understanding. These qualities alone, however, do not account for the high quality of his book: its superb scholarship, its breadth, erudition, and philosophical depth, its brilliant analyses of poetry and sophisticated methodology. Aleksander Wat is literary scholarship at its best."—Bogdana Carpenter, World Literature Today

"A brilliant biography and analysis of Aleksander Wat and his work. The story hums with insight and color. It is a Tour de force that reveals Wat as a pivotal cultural figure in the twentieth century. . . . Venclova's book reveals Wat's brilliant mind. It is based on Wat's own works, including his autobiographical My Century, archival sources, the remembrances of Wat's widow, and an array of secondary material. Thorough and penetrating, the book stands as a model of literary biography."—Dennis J. Dunn, The Sarmatian Review

"An intriguing biography of Polish poet and intellectual Aleksander Wat whose imprisonment by the Soviet secret police turned him into a vociferous advocate of democracy. Venclova argues that Wat's literary achievements promoted the rejuvenation of Polish and East European letters after the Stalinist era."—Reference & Research Book News

"Tomas Venclova. . . . weaves Wat's life and writing into the meaningful whole that eluded Wat himself."—Clare Cavanagh, New Republic

"An excellent introduction to the life and work of a writer whose nature forced him to acknowledge the absurd when he sought the divine."—Philip McDermott, Magill's Literary Annual 1997

"Venclova's book is without a doubt an impressive and potent effort to embrace the whole epoch behind the life of a genuine poet. Written with enviable clarity, encyclopedic grasp, and poetic tour de force, the book is an indispensable source for the students of literary theory and Central European studies, and for all admirers of genuine poetry. Venclova has managed to capture the pulse of Wat's poetics, a task that could be accomplished only by a fellow poet."—Juras T. Ryfa, Slavic and East European Journal

"More than anyone, perhaps, Venclova is himself qualified to write a biography of Wat. Himself an accomplished poet in his native Lithuanian, Venclova is also a well-known Slavist, having published important studies in several languages, including Russian. . . . The detailed analyses of several of Wat's most important poetic works are a tour de force, both profound in their examination of the poetic language and clear in expression. . . . For those not yet acquainted with Wat, this book is the first step on a marvelous historical and poetic journey."—Theodore Weeks, Nationalities Papers

Winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies’ 1997 Vucinich Prize

Winner of the 1996 Waclaw Lednicki Humanities Award from the Polish Institute
ISBN: 9780300183054
Publication Date: April 24, 1996
384 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4