Stefan Chwin

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  • © Instytut Książki

(born in 1949) is a novelist, essayist and literary historian associated with the University of Gdańsk. He made his literary debut with the fantasy-adventure novels Scorpion People [Ludzie-skorpiony] (1985) and The Letter Man [Człowiek-litera] (1989) under the pen name of Max Lars. He gained attention with his book The Brief History of a Certain Joke [Krótka historia pewnego żartu] (1991), a mixture of autobiographical prose and essay in which he reconstructed the spiritual atmosphere of his childhood. Already in this book, he expressed his fascination with both former and contemporary Gdańsk, a city with a thousand-year history, where cultures, languages and religions have always been interwoven. Chwin has always been particularly interested in the relatively fresh traces left behind by the former (German) residents of the Free City of Danzig. One of these former residents (a product of Chwin’s literary imagination) is featured in the novel Hanemann (1995). This book, which is extremely rich in motifs and significance, presents the life story of the main protagonist, Hanemann – a doctor living in Gdańsk who, after the death of his fiancée, falls into a depression. He becomes a “living corpse” who lacks, however, the courage to kill himself. The storms of history, including the war-time destruction of Gdańsk and the takeover of the city by the Polish administration, pass him by, so to speak. He is pulled out of his numbness only by a young woman who has been repatriated from the former eastern regions of Poland. She is also someone who has been washed up by life, and her suicide attempt, which Hanemann prevents, is a turning point in his life. This novel was enthusiastically acclaimed by literary critics and received many awards; it continues, today, to be regarded as one of the most important achievements of Polish prose from the end of the 20th century.

The collective protagonist of Chwin’s next novel, Esther (1999), was inspired by his grandmother’s family, the Celińskis, who were prominent in Warsaw at the turn of the 20th century. They are reminiscent of the Buddenbrooks, also solid townsmen who grew wealthy from being grain merchants – cosmopolitan, liberal and attached to a comfortable life and objects of the highest quality. A beautiful, wise governess named Esther appears in this wealthy home. Initially full of joy for life, one day she falls into a state of lethargy. The story of Esther’s mysterious disease and then equally mysterious recovery serves as merely a fictional scaffolding for the book, which is fleshed out by Chwin with motifs of a discursive character – he creates a critical overview of the most important ideas forming the foundation of twentieth-century modernity. In subsequent novels, Chwin displayed a similar disposition: in dynamic, sometimes ostentatiously incendiary stories, he introduces lofty moral-philosophical content. In The Golden Pelican [Złoty pelikan] (2003), he makes use of the model of a realistic novel of manners, transforming it into a modern parable about guilt, punishment and atonement. A certain lecturer at the University of Gdańsk is convinced that as a result of a mistake he made during an entrance exam, a student killed herself in despair after receiving a failing grade. This event – though it is only the oversensitive professor’s conjecture – torments the protagonist and transforms his life into a nightmare. The story is like a pretext – everything that is the most important becomes subordinated here to a reflection on the moral condition of contemporary man. The President’s Wife [Żona prezydenta] (2005), in turn, is in the genre of political fiction and spy novels. The main character, referenced in the book’s title, is accused of terrorism; secret service agents, primarily American, are mixed up in the dense detective novel plot, which refers to political scandals from the front pages of newspapers. The writer, of course, cares about something else – he wishes, as we read in the preface at the beginning of this novel, ‘to bear witness to the more universal anxieties, obsessions and frustrations of our time’. In The Valley of Joy [Dolina Radości] (2006), Chwin makes use of fantasy, writing a story about the complex fate of Eric, a make-up artist who possesses an astounding ability to manipulate people with his appearance. Here, too, the adventure layer of the novel “serves” lofty issues – with questions about the identity of twentieth-century man in the foreground. Finally, in Miss Ferbelin [Panna Ferbelin] (2011), Chwin poses a question about the presence of Jesus in the present-day world. He takes us to an imaginary Gdańsk ruled by the leader of the Procuratoria, a contemporary Pontius Pilate, where the Teacher is active, who has a day job as a labourer at the shipyard. The career of the Messiah from the coast begins with the organisation of protests by oppressed shipyard workers and is a repetition of Christ’s fate, nearly in its entirety.

Chwin is also the author of a lengthy book with a rather wide audience – Suicide as an Experience of the Imagination [Samobójstwo jako doświadczenie wyobraźni] (2010). This book is the best Polish study, to date, of the issue of suicide viewed from the perspective of cultural studies. The theme of suicide has always been present in his prose. He has also published two lengthy books of memoirs (2004 and 2008) which refer, above all, to current cultural and socio-political events.

 

Bibliography

(including literary works only):

  • [pod pseud. Max Lars] Ludzie-skorpiony, Bydgoszcz: Pomorze, 1984.
  • [pod pseud. Max Lars] Człowiek-litera, Bydgoszcz: Pomorze, 1989.
  • Krótka historia pewnego żartu. Sceny z Europy Środkowowschodniej (powieść eseistyczna), Kraków: Oficyna Literacka, 1991.
  • Hanemann (powieść), Gdańsk: Marabut, 1995.
  • Esther (powieść), Gdańsk: Tytuł, 1999.
  • [wespół z Krystyną Lars] Wspólna kąpiel (opowiadania), Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2001
  • Złoty pelikan (powieść), Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2003.
  • Kartki z dziennika, Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2004.
  • Żona prezydenta, Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2005.
  • Dolina Radości, Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2006.
  • Dziennik dla dorosłych, Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2008.
  • Samobójstwo jako doświadczenie wyobraźni, Gdańsk: Tytuł 2010.
  • Panna Ferbelin, Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2011.
  • Srebrzysko. Powieść dla dorosłych, Gdańsk: Tytuł, 2016.

Translations:

Czech:

  • Hanemann (Hanemann), trans. Peter Vidlak. Brno: HOST, 2005

English:

  • Death in Danzig (Hanemann), trans. Philip Boehm. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004; London: Random House Secker @ Warburg, 2005; London: Vintage Books, 2006; Harvest Books, 2005

French:

  • Le Pélican d'or [Złoty pelikan], trans. Frederique Laurent, Circe 2009
  • Hanemann, trans. Lydia Waleryszak, Circe 2012

German:

  • Die Gouvernante: Roman (Esther), trans. Renate Schmidgall. Berlin: Rowohlt, 2000.
  • Die Gouvernante: Roman (Esther), trans. Renate Schmidgall. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt-Taschenbuch-Verl., 2003.
  • Tod in Danzig: Roman (Hanemann), trans. Renate Schmidgall. Berlin: Rowohlt, 1997.
  • Tod in Danzig: Roman (Hanemann), trans. Renate Schmidgall. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt-Taschenbuch-Verl., 1999.
  • Der goldene Pelikan (Złoty pelikan), trans. Renate Schmidgall. München: Hanser, 2005; München: München Verlag Deutscher Taschenbuch, 2008
  • Ein Deutsches Tagebuch [Kartki z dziennika, Dziennik dla dorosłych], trans. Marta Kijowska, Berlin: Edition fototapeta, 2015

Hungarian:

  • Hanemann (Hanemann), trans. Weber Kata. Pozsony: Kalligram, 2004
  • Arany Pelikan (Złoty pelikan), trans. Weber Katalin, Pozsony: Kalligram, 2007

Romanian:

  • Doctor Hanemann (Hanemann), tłum. Constantin Geambasu. Bucureşti: Paralela 45, 2005.

Russian:

  • Chaneman (Hanemann), trans. Ksienia Staroselskaja. Moskva: Izd-vo AST, 2003.
  • Guvernantka (Esther), trans. Ksienia Staroselskaja. Moskva: Novoe Lit. Obozrenie, 2004.

Slovak:

  • Hanemann (Hanemann). Roman, tłum. Karol Chmel. Bratislava: Kalligram, 2005.
  • Dolina radosti, (Dolina radości), tłum. Karol Chmel. Bratislava: Kalligram, 2008.

Slovenian:

  • Predsednikova żena [Żona prezydenta], trans. Jana Unuk, Ljubljana: Cankarjeva założba 2012.

Spanish:

  • El doctor Hanemann (Hanemann), trans. Jerzy Sławomirski, Anna Rubió. Barcelona: Acantilado, 2005.
  • La pelikan de oro (Złoty pelikan), trans. Jerzy Sławomirski, Anna Rubió. Barcelona: Acantilado, 2007.
  • El valle da la alegría [Dolina Radości], trans. Jerzy Sławomirski i Anna Rubio, Barcelona: Acantilado 2013
  • El valle de la alegria [Dolina Radości], trans. Anna Rubio, Jerzy Sławomirski, Barcelona: Acantilado, 2013

Swedish:

  • Hanemann (Hanemann), trans. Lisa Mendoza-Åsberg. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Vorlag, 2001.
  • Guldpelikanen (Złoty pelikan), trans. Lisa Mendoza-Asberg. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Vorlag, 2003

Ukrainian:

  • Hanemann, tłum. Ihor Pizniuk, Kiev: Agrar Media Gruop, 2010.