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The Reading Experience


An occasional blog on beautiful and wise books,  book writing,

book translation, and the reading experience.

I have argued elsewhere that Polish literature is one of the best in the world. (Which of course it is and I am the handsomest senior citizen out there).

Here I wish to discuss why this treasure remains invisible to this day.

There are three reasons why.


The first of these is the fifty years of communist rule.

a) To begin with, the communist regime operated a very effective apparatus of censorship, which suppressed the publication or distribution of many excellent works within the country. The story of Bocheński's Roman Trilogy is a case in point: his books had to be passed from hand to hand in secrecy and could never be discussed in the media. Such works could only be published in samizdat form, or--abroad.

b) Second, Polish and Russian (some would say "Soviet," pretending that the USSR was something other than a Russian Empire's false-flag operation) diplomatic services used every tool at their disposal to prevent the publication of Polish works they deemed politically incorrect in the West. The Polish services did this mainly for their own political interest and would not have minded promoting some innocuous Polish literature (stories of happy farmers on a state farm, for example), but the Russian services were interested in putting the kibosh on any Polish publication abroad: it remains an established article of faith among Russian elites till this day that all Poles are incorrigible Russian haters (Moscow was burnt twice, both times by a Polish army) and it has actually been stated by a number of Russian communist leaders from Lenin to Brezhnev that Poles are a nation of incorrigible reactionaries. Therefore the Russian policy was to oppose the publication of any and all Polish works in the West per se.

A certain version of this remains to this day, as a vast majority of Slavic departments in American and European universities are dominated by Russian scholars, giving the impression that the 260 million Slavs who are not ethnic Russians are really just a footnote to Russian literature.

c) Under communism, publishing was considered a strategic industry (as it was part of the propaganda industrial complex). This meant that any representative of any Polish publisher who found himself in contact with a foreign publisher would be subject to surveillance and, not infrequently, of attempts to acquire him (and his Western counterparties) as an asset. As a result, employees of Polish publishers avoided contact with Western publishers like the kiss of death. The only authors who succeeded in the West during this time (Miłosz, Kapuściński, Lem) did it through their own personal contacts and gumption.


The second reason grows out of the first. Let us dub it the "publisher inertia." Polish publishers spent 50 years cut off from normal commercial exchange with Western publishers. They have no contacts, no tradition, no custom of selling their books in the West. They don't know how. They don't think they can. They don't even try.

Western publishers, on the other hand, look back in history and say to themselves: I don't see any Polish bestsellers in my country, Polish literature must be boring.

The idea that publishers know the market or can lead it is patently false or else all of their books would be bestsellers, while the best statistics I can find show that at least 70% of all newly published books make no money. Publishers simply do not understand the market any better than anyone else does, are risk averse, prefer me-too products, and will do tried-and-true 99 times before they try anything new.

The old market efficiency syndrome is at work here. You will recall the famous story of two economists walking down the street. "Say," says one, "is that a ten-dollar bill lying over there on the pavement?" "No way," replies the other. "If it were, someone would have long since picked it up."

The translators of Kapuściński's The Emperor relate the following remark made to them by a flabbergasted American publisher to whom they pitched the book: "Wait wait, you want me to publish in America a book written by a Pole about the Emperor of Ethiopia?" (Rolls his eyes).

(The Emperor has an Amazon sales rank of 50,000 and on Amazon alone sells $1500 worth of Emperor every month--38 years after its first publication in English).

The result is a kind of institutional defeatism: publishers don't publish these books unless someone pays them to do it (usually some kind of a charitable government grant) and then do nothing to sell the books because--well--they do not believe in the product anyway. Just look at the Amazon listings of the Polish books published in America over the last 20 years. You will see that they are usually only published in one format and have no reader reviews: a clear sign nobody is doing anything to promote them. These books are institutional tombstones.


Number three also grows out of number 1: lack of translators.

If you don't translate books, you will have no translators. If you have no translators, you cannot translate books. And if you only have a few translators, you end up with the usual problems of interpersonal politics and anti-competitive practices which mean high fees, unreasonably long delivery times, and lots and lots of politics.

A translator I spoke to recently has told me he takes a year to translate a book! A year! There is maybe half a dozen of them and Poland publishes 35,000 titles a year--how is this going to work, ever? Another told me he would not handle a project because his translator colleagues don't like it, which, given the size of the group, is of course rational: a job comes and goes, but colleagues will be around for half a century. Since they bid on the same jobs and the same grants, you better play nice.

The illustration is taken from Livro do Armeiro-mor, Lisbon, 1509

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How perverse of Krawczuk to end his story here without giving us the conclusion of the love of Titus and Berenice. Perhaps he wanted us to pick up Cassius Dio and find it for ourselves? But Cassius gives us very little. Four years after Vespasian seized the throne, Berenice and her brother, King Herod Agrippa II, came to Rome:

Berenice was at the very height of her power and consequently came to Rome along with her brother Agrippa. The latter was given the rank of praetor while she dwelt in the palace, cohabiting with Titus. She expected to marry him and was already behaving in every respect as if she were his wife, but when he perceived that the Romans were displeased with the situation, he sent her away. (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXV 15).

That’s it.

Racine gives us more, imagining their good bye:


N’accablez point, Madame, un prince malheureux ;

Il ne faut point ici nous attendrir tous deux.

Un trouble assez cruel m'agite et me dévore,

Sans que des pleurs si chers me déchirent encore.

Rappelez bien plutôt ce coeur, qui tant de fois

M'a fait de mon devoir reconnaître la voix.

Il en est temps. Forcez votre amour à se taire,

Et d'un oeil que la gloire et la raison éclaire,

Contemplez mon devoir dans toute sa rigueur.

Vous-même contre vous fortifiez mon coeur.

Aidez-moi, s'il se peut, à vaincre sa faiblesse,

À retenir des pleurs qui m'échappent sans cesse.

Ou si nous ne pouvons commander à nos pleurs,

Que la gloire du moins soutienne nos douleurs,

Et que tout l'univers reconnaisse sans peine

Les pleurs d'un empereur, et les pleurs d'une reine.

Car enfin, ma Princesse, il faut nous séparer.


Ah cruel ! Est-il temps de me le déclarer ?

Qu'avez-vous fait ? Hélas ! Je me suis crue aimée.

Au plaisir de vous voir mon âme accoutumée

Ne vit plus que pour vous. Ignoriez-vous vos lois,

Quand je vous l'avouai pour la première fois ?

À quel excès d'amour m'avez-vous amenée ?

Que ne me disiez-vous : Princesse infortunée,

Où vas-tu t'engager, et quel est ton espoir ?

Ne donne point un coeur, qu'on ne peut recevoir.

Ne l'avez-vous reçu, cruel, que pour le render

Quand de vos seules mains ce coeur voudrait dépendre?

Which we might translate along these lines:


Do not kick, Madame, a man when he is down.

Let us not wallow in self-pity.

It is cruel enough that this pain devours me

And robs of my strength.

Please, rather, remember that I have always

Obeyed the call of duty.

Now, such a time has come, and our love must yield.

Let us see with the eye of reason

My duty in all its god-damned harshness.

Set your own grievance aside and try to help me.

Strengthen my heart, drive away its weakness,

Stem the tears which, once they begin to flow, may never stop.

Or if we cannot stop them, then at least

May our pride of our own virtue sustain us in our grief.

Let all the world intuit unseen

These tears of an emperor and of his queen.

My Princess, we must part.


Oh, cruel man! How you wound my heart!

What have you done? I believed you.

I believed that I was loved! My soul, delighted in

Your sweet presence and lived only for you.

Where were your Roman laws then

When you first told me of your love?

Did you say: “Oh, unfortunate Princess,

How naïve are your hopes! Do not be deceived,

Do not give a heart that cannot be received.”

Did you receive it only to throw it away so

Without warning me?

Photo: Anne-Marie Duff in Berenice at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photograph: Johan Persson

The Book (Rome and Jerusalem) is here:

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Titus, engraving by unknown, after Aegidius Sadeler II, after Titian

To illustrate "Rome and Jerusalem" we decided to use "The Eleven Caesars" series of engravings by hand unknown, published in London by Thomas Bakewell, between 1700 and 1799 and placed in the public domain by the Wellcome Trust.

These engravings were themselves copies of the engravings by Aegidius Sadeler II’s (1570–1629), a Flemish engraver principally active at the Prague court of Rudolf II. They in turn were based on a series of painted half-length portraits of eleven Roman emperors made by Titian in 1536-1540 for Federico II, Duke of Mantua.

The imaginary portraits, inspired by the Lives of Caesars by Suetonius, were among Titian’s best-known works. The paintings were originally housed in a purpose-built room inside the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova. Bernardino Campi added a twelfth portrait in 1562. Between 1627 and 1628 the paintings were sold to Charles I of England by Vincenzo II Gonzaga in perhaps the single most famous collection acquisition in European history, and when the Royal Collection of Charles I was broken up and sold after his execution by the English Commonwealth, the Eleven Caesars passed in 1651 into the collection of Philip IV of Spain. They were all destroyed in a catastrophic fire at the Royal Alcazar of Madrid in 1734, and are now only known from copies and engravings.

Vespasian, engraving by unknown, after Aegidius Sadeler II, after Titian

Book goes live on March 15, 2024 preorder here

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