Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast

Tomas Venclova, Author Yale University Press $65 (384p) ISBN 978-0-300-06406-3
Polish writer Wat was born with the century on May 1, 1900, a date and a year that seem, in retrospect, to predict his life as a fellow traveler and as a witness to the worst this century had to offer. The son of a prosperous Jewish family in Warsaw, he became infamous as a Polish futurist and then for his short tenure as the editor-in-chief of the increasingly rabid Communist periodical The Literary Monthly. That tenure would end in 1931 with the first of 14 prisons--Polish and Soviet--through which Wat would rotate over the next 15 or so years. Wat was never terribly prolific. A highly experimental prose poem, Pug Iron Stove, and a short-story collection, Lucifer Unemployed, dominate his prewar works; two books of poems and the autobiographical My Century, his postwar output. Venclova is better as a critic than as a biographer, putting Wat's work clearly in context with other Polish, Russian and Western European writers and also within Wat's own thinking on language, particularly on his preference for metonymy and disdain for metaphor. What is most unfortunate is that Venclova gives little sense of the tumult of Poland in the first half of the century, or of Wat's inner, nonliterary life. For example, one comes away confused about Wat's deeply conflicted religious identity: the son of a Jewish scholar, Wat converted to Catholicism; his last wish was to be buried in a Christian cemetery in Israel; and his suicide in 1967 was prompted, says Venclova, by the wave of East European anti-Semitism that followed the Six-Day War. Too bad, as Wat's life and times are arguably more interesting to Western readers than his work. (May)
Reviewed on: 04/22/1996
Release date: 04/01/1996
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