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Jerzy (Michal) Peterkiewicz Biography

Jerzy Peterkiewicz comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Fabianki, Poland, 1916; emigrated to England in 1940. Education: Dlugosz School, Wloclawek; University of Warsaw; University of St. Andrews, Scotland, M.A. in English and German 1944; King's College, London, Ph.D. 1947. Career: Lecturer, 1950-64, reader, 1964-72, and professor of Polish language and literature, 1972-79, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.



The Knotted Cord. London, Heinemann, 1953; New York, Roy, 1954.

Loot and Loyalty. London, Heinemann, 1955.

Future to Let. London, Heinemann, 1958; Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1959.

Isolation: A Novel in Five Acts. London, Heinemann, 1959; NewYork, Holt Rinehart, 1960.

The Quick and the Dead. London, Macmillan, 1961.

That Angel Burning at My Left Side. London, Macmillan, 1963.

Inner Circle. London, Macmillan, 1966.

Green Flows the Bile. London, Joseph, 1969.


Sami Swoi (produced London, 1949).

Scena ma trzy ściany. London, Wiadomości, 1974.


Prowincja. Warsaw, 1936.

Wiersze i poematy. Warsaw, Prosto z Mostu, 1938.

Pokarm cierpki. London, Myśl Polska, 1943.

Pity poemat. Paris, Instytut Literacki, 1950.

Poematy londynskie i wiersze przedwojenne. Paris, Kultura, 1965.

Kula magiczna (Selected Poems). Warsaw, Ludowa Spóldzielnia, 1980.

Modlitwy intelektu. Warsaw, Pax, 1988.

Poezje wybrane. Warsaw, Ludowa Spóldzielnia, 1986.


Znaki na niebie. London, Mildner, 1940.

Po chlopsku: Powieść. London, Mildner, 2 vols., 1941.

Umarli nie są bezbronni. Glasgow, Ksiąznica, 1943.

Pogrzeb Europy. London, Mildner, 1946.

The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1970.

The Third Adam. London, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Literatura polska w perspektywie europejskiej (essays translated from English). Warsaw, Państwowy Instytut, 1986.

Messianic Prophecy: A Case for Reappraisal. London, University ofLondon Press, 1991.

In the Scales of Fate: An Autobiography. London, Boyars, 1993.

Editor, Polish Prose and Verse. London, Athlone Press, 1956.

Editor and Translator, Antologia liryki angielskiej 1300-1950. London, Veritas, 1958.

Editor and Translator, with Burns Singer, Five Centuries of Polish Poetry 1450-1950. London, Secker and Warburg, 1960; Philadelphia, Dufour, 1962; revised edition, with Jon Stallworthy, as Five Centuries of Polish Poetry 1450-1970, London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Editor and Translator, Easter Vigil and Other Poems, by Karol Wojtyla. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Random House, 1979.

Editor and Translator, Collected Poems, by Karol Wojtyla. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Random House, 1982.

Editor and Translator, The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II, New York, Random House, 1994.

Translator, Poezje Poems by Karol Wojtyla. Warsaw, Literackie, 1998.


Critical Studies:

In New Statesman (London), 10 October 1959; Sunday Times Magazine (London), 10 June 1962; "Speaking of Writing" by Peterkiewicz, in The Times (London), 9 January 1964; Le Monde (Paris), 28 June 1967; The Novel Now by Anthony Burgess, London, Faber, and New York, Norton, 1967, revised edition, Faber, 1971; by Peterkiewicz, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 30 July 1971; "Three Conversations," in New Literary History (Charlottesville, Virginia), vol. 15, 1984.

If titles are significant, Isolation and Inner Circle seem to be my representative novels, both structurally and thematically.

* * *

Three of Jerzy Peterkiewicz's last six novels are comic entertainments of a high order of literary craftsmanship; three others show a marked falling-off of standards. His first novels have little bearing on the later work. The Knotted Cord is a genuinely moving account of a peasant boyhood in Poland; its hero has to escape from many things, but particularly from the "cord" of the scratchy brown cassock that his pious mother has thrust him into, and from all that cord represents. The work is a "first novel" of promise, and it is a pity the Peterkiewicz has chosen not to develop or integrate into his later work a mode which might have provided a carbohydrate counterbalance to the sometimes too frothy champagne of the books which follow. Loot and Loyalty is a trivial and poorly constructed historical novel about a seventeenth-century Scots soldier of fortune exiled in Poland, and his connection with the "false Dmitri."

Future to Let, the first of the really successful books, is less "mannerist" by far than its successors. It is a very funny roman à clef on the tortured loves, English plots, and politics of contemporary Polish émigrés, chief among them Julian Atrament ("ink" in Polish), quite unidentifiable, of course, but almost recognizable, whose "es-cape to freedom" by means of his St. Bernard dog is Peterkiewicz's finest comic turn. Isolation, probably his best book, parodies the erotic mystifications of a modern spy story with a skill that even the suggestions of deep meanings about the mutual isolation of sexuality, etc., cannot spoil. The Powell-esque (or Waugh-like) Commander Shrimp (alias Pennyworthing), faded semi-spy and bathetic con-man, is a great comic creation. That Angel Burning at My Left Side has some of the virtues of The Knotted Cord; it is realism with a light touch, of a boy growing up through World War II and postwar refugeehood, looking for father, country, and self. The gimmick of the "angels" grows tiresome, but descriptions of place and event and the hero himself are vivid and concrete—until the hero gets to England, and everything, including him, suddenly (and apparently inadvertently on the author's part) becomes less real.

The three unsuccessful works include The Quick and the Dead, a spoof ghost story and fantasy of serio-comic realism, involving among other things the amorous relations of the dead in Limbo, the suffering and repentance of ghosts (a somewhat Golding-like concept), with significance, apparently, but the coy handling of its basic situation makes for heavy reading. Still harder to read, but even more significant, is Inner Circle in which a three-layered story of Surface (the far future), Underground (present-day sub-Firbankian London), and Sky (a version of the Eden story), is held together by repeated "circle" and "underground" image patterns, and by analogous destinies. The themes and point-of-view games again make it seem almost like a collaboration between Golding, Burgess, and Arthur C. Clarke. Peterkiewicz's most recent novel, Green Flows the Bile is as tastelessly affected a social satire as its title would suggest. It recounts the last journey together of two "fellow-travellers" (in all senses), the Secretary, a "political gigolo," and his employer, the "senior prophet of the age … the travelling peace salesman." The comic travelogue is passable in places, but the political satire is either painfully obvious or intensely private; the two pitfalls that await the topical roman à clef have caught Peterkiewicz this time.

Peterkiewicz's heroes are almost all coyly hollow semi-comic shadow-men, pretending to contain abysses and seeking with morose jocularity for an "identity" to which they are fundamentally indifferent. Their human relationships are sketched with equal shallowness. Even the intrigues are lower Greeneland, territory more powerfully explored by Burgess, though at times Peterkiewicz is clearly aiming for the playful, complex "meanings" of a Chesterton, or a Woolf (Orlando), or a Nabokov, or for the light, horrid satire of a Waugh (Scott-King's Modern Europe). Stage metaphors, mirrors, masks, costumes, photographs, cute but pallid versions of Nabokovian artifices, crowd the pages of Isolation, in which mock-pornography and reciprocal voyeuristic spyings, slowly building up a posthumous portrait, bring to mind Lolita (courteously, or perhaps coincidentally, acknowledged in a parrot of that name) or The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. These are samples of tone, not assertions of source; but even the best of Peterkiewicz's work is marred by hearing continually whispered chords made up of the murmurs of other men's voices, almost as if he were unwilling to hear his own voice. His real talent for language and comedy is almost swamped by his need to be terribly à la mode in these six novels, and it is a pity, for, to paraphrase a comment he makes on one of his characters, "his anonymous extraterritorial aura predicts at every step a possible eruption of personality."

It may be that, for all the polished virtues and assurance of his better novels, Peterkiewicz will be remembered longest and known most widely for his critical essays and anthologies, and for his book The Other Side of Silence, in which he sensitively discusses some intricacies of modern literature and places Polish literature in their context. One would like, however, to have as well his views on his own Polish contemporaries, who are giving us one of the most flourishing of modern minor literatures. Perhaps in his criticism he has more truly earned the right than he has in his fiction, to the inevitable, and specious, comparison with Conrad, that other Polish man of letters who turned himself, in adult life, and not without success, into an English writer.

Patricia Merivale

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