FEBRUARY 16, 2004
The Noonday Cemetery and Other Stories
By Gustaw Herling Translated by Bill Johnston
(New Directions, 281 pp., $25.95)
IN 1953, WITOLD GOMBROWICZ, the great punk of Polish literature, began publishing a diary in the émigré journal Kultura, hoping that it would make him rich and famous. The diary, written in desperation, was to become perhaps Gombrowicz’s most celebrated work. It opens:
Friday is concerned with the state of Polish newspapers.
Before the war, Gombrowicz’s scabrous satire Ferdydurke had infuriated the Polish intelligentsia, acquiring for him the sort of attention reserved for the enfant terrible who is frightening and intoxicating not for stupid behavior in bars, but for the sort of aesthetic leap that terrorizes culture mandarins. But instead of settling in for a lifetime of being lionized in Warsaw cafs by the new generation of Polish literati, Gombrowicz became a pioneer in what was to become a common habit of Eastern European intellectuals: exile. He got himself onto a boat bound for Buenos Aires in August 1939, and upon arriving found himself marooned there, initially by Hitler and subsequently by Stalin. He spent twenty-three years in Argentina, mostly miserable and poverty-stricken, his work banned in his home country. He never returned to Poland.
Almost twenty years later, shortly after Gombrowicz’s death, Gustaw Herling, another Polish exile, began his own diary in Kultura, written from Naples and published eventually as Journal Written at Night. (A volume of selections in English was published in 1996 under the title Volcano and Miracle.) Herling begins with a half-page quotation from the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce’s memoirs, describing an earthquake in Ischia in 1883. This opening is just as telling as Gombrowicz’s. Gombrowicz was a titanic talent and a titanic personality, and he knew it; he wanted to make absolutely certain his readers knew it, and to make sure they knew that he knew. He is always everywhere in the writing. Herling’s choice, seemingly to deflect attention from himself, is similarly typical: though he begins his own diary with a half-page of someone else’s writing, he is himself just underneath the text. This style—seemingly impersonal, but with the very personal just below the surface—was Herling’s hallmark. Throughout his career, he consistently let the reader know he was there, somewhere behind the text, around it, within it, but almost always hidden by shadow.
All but one of the twelve narrators in The Noonday Cemetery, a collection of stories written between 1983 and 1996, resemble Herling to varying degrees, and in each of those eleven stories the narrator frames the story and then recedes. In the title story, he offers two epigraphs at the outset, each of which might serve as an explanation. Here is the first, from Pascal:
Certain authors, when they speak of their works, say “My book, my commentary, my history, etc.” ... They would do better to say: “our book, our commentary, our history, etc.,” seeing that usually there is more of other people’s work than their own therein.
The second is from Valéry:
The dead concealed lie easy in
That keeps them warm, drying
And Noon up there, Noon the
Perhaps Herling is simply explaining his aesthetic choice by asserting his belief in the essential collective human contributions to one man’s art; or maybe he is making his choice based on a sense of moral responsibility to those who cannot testify on their own behalf. But another epigraph might have been equally appropriate, this one from Akhmatova’s “Poem Without a Hero”:
There, behind the barbed wire,
In the very heart of the dense taiga
They take my shadow for questioning.
BORN IN 1919 IN KIELCE, in central Poland, Herling died in 2000, a hero in his native country and considered by many to be Poland’s leading prose writer. He was a university student in Warsaw when Hitler’s troops marched across the border, and had just begun publishing reviews and essays, which earned him a place among Gombrowicz’s crew at the Café Zodiak, an acolyte at the master’s table. Herling became one of the founders of the first underground resistance movement against the Nazis, and he was captured in 1940 by the NKVD. He was tried first as a “Polish officer in the pay of the enemy”—that is, the Germans––and then, when that failed to stick, as an enemy of the Soviet state, precisely because he had wanted to fight the Germans. Since Hitler had yet to break the German-Soviet pact of friendship, this was good enough to sentence Herling to five years of forced labor in the gulag as an enemy of the Soviet Union.
The two years that Herling spent in prison and then in a forced labor camp near Archangel are the subject of his first book, the memoir A World Apart. Even in this memoir of terrible privation and dehumanizing pain, Herling seems much more concerned with documenting the lives of the people around him than with his own experience. The English edition of the book was published in 1951, long before Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Varlam Shalamov saw their testimonies of the Soviet gulag in print. Despite pleas to the public on its behalf from Bertrand Russell and Albert Camus, the book was largely ignored, and, when not ignored, attacked or disbelieved.
Herling was freed in 1942, after the Polish-Russian truce was reached, and joined a division of the Polish army as a radioman, leaving Russia for combat in the Middle East and in Italy. After the war he helped to found Kultura, in Rome, and co-edited its first two issues. With his first wife, the painter Krystyna Stojanowska, he moved to London. In 1952, she committed suicide, and Herling left the city for Germany, directing the cultural section of Radio Free Europe from Munich. After marrying Lidia Croce, Benedetto Croce’s daughter, in 1955, he returned to Italy and settled in Naples for good, unable to return to Communist Poland.
Over the next thirty-five years, Herling’s writings were published throughout Western Europe but banned in his home country. In the United States, he is best known for the three novellas that make up The Island (published separately, in Polish, between 1960 and 1963 in France, and in this country in 1993). But the work of his that had by far the greatest impact in Poland was the Journal Written at Night, which appeared in smuggled editions. The entries range in subject from Shakespeare to the Soviet system to a tour of Umbria, sometimes directly touching upon the terrible crimes of the Soviet system, but often concerned with more general calamities of the human condition. In Akhmatova’s words, Herling’s shadow had been taken for questioning; thereafter, standing outside the borders of his homeland, it pursued a softly voiced but persistent inquiry of its own.
IN THEIR FORM, THE STORIES THAT make up The Noonday Cemetery have a certain nineteenth-century sensibility, though in content they are surely infected by a dose of twentieth-century knowingness and despair. The two writers for whom Herling seems to feel the most affinity are Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe, who provide models both for his formal strategies and for some of his deeper obsessions. On the surface, he tends more toward the sophisticated subtlety of the former, but beneath the layers of removal there is something reminiscent of James’s description of Poe’s readers as stuck in a “decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” One of Herling’s narrators (who so resembles his author that he quotes from his own Journal Written at Night) mentions that his friends jokingly refer to his “Poemania”; his admiration for “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he confesses, is “instinctive, and not based on any analysis of the work.”
It is this tension that often makes the stories so powerful: the urbane distance of Herling’s style is a smooth skin over an agonized, primitive body. It is an ordered system imposed on something dark and chaotic, and ultimately inexplicable. In “The Height of Summer,” Herling chronicles the investigation of nine suicides over the night of the Ferragosto—the height of summer, August 15—in Rome in 1995. His tone is clinical, but the list of tragedies of loneliness and love grows wilder and more terrible underneath the evenness of his narration.
In “Notebook of William Moulding, Pensioner,” he reads through the notes of a retired London executioner, who changes his name and hides himself from humanity as he agonizes in retirement over his inability to remember any of the faces of the men and women he executed. He suffers, as well, from the sudden doubt that all the criminals he hanged were indisputably guilty. The narrator’s historical researches are interrupted by Moulding’s death, which brings an end to the journal. Herling reconstructs the conclusion to the hangman’s story by means of newspaper reports: the eighty-five-year-old pensioner was tortured to death by teenagers who broke into his house, stealing nothing and killing only, apparently, out of pure arbitrary hatred. The murderers, who are spared the death penalty by a system that has done away with capital punishment, had no idea of their victim’s former profession. Herling’s touch is so light in this sort of narration that the covering of dispassion becomes shot through with a terrible, subtle sadness—not the sort of sadness inspired by sudden, dramatic, tragic events, blips on a cardiogram, but rather the sadness where these events make up the regular rhythm of life.
Some of the stories substitute anger for sorrow. “Beata, Santa,” written in 1994, a story in which the Herling character befriends a young Polish girl raped by soldiers during the Yugoslavian war, caused no small outrage in Poland for its apparent denunciation of Pope John Paul II, and in particular his view on abortion and the victims of rape. The girl sleeps under a picture of the pope, in Poland a hero of mythical proportions and the object of an almost hysterical worship; after she dies in childbirth, her gravestone is adorned with two quotations from John Paul II: “Motherhood is often an act of heroism” and “Mothers are the heroes of our times.”
This shows Herling at his weakest. It is precisely in the persistent overlay of civility corrupted by the worst of human nature beneath it that he is a beautiful writer. When he drops the veil and steps forward, he is doing little more than pointing out how stupid and cruel human life is. By now, we know. In his soft, sad sophistication, he shows how paltry a shield civilization is: the calmness of his tone can never quite contain the hysteria of atrocity. When he is angry, he loses this effect: he abandons the subtle force of his art for the pundit’s desperate need to make sure even the stupidest of readers will grasp the horror. This explicitness makes him a much lesser writer, as in this passage from “Beata, Santa”:
I do not recall which famous writer should be credited with the assertion that literature is a constant meditation on death. I would add: and on the power of Evil. In both cases literature strives to comprehend the incomprehensible, to perceive the imperceptible, to shed at least a little light on the “heart of darkness.” But it usually acts as though there were a clear line of demarcation separating Life from Death, and Good from Evil. Whereas for me what is important, though hard to fathom, is and always has been the border region, Conrad’s “shadowline,” which represents motionlessness, a lifeless survival amid elements lying in wait.
This is an uncharacteristically hamhanded passage, but it is also exactly what Herling achieves at his best: some touch of the intangible, some glimpse of the imperceptible, a great feeling of the incomprehensible. He stands in the shadow and draws us in with him, so we may see for a moment that edge, which is atrocity and death, which is hope and life.
HOW DOES HERLING ARRIVE in the between world, the land that is neither day nor night? In the first pages of A World Apart, Herling meets a man in prison, and in describing him, tells us that he is not like him:
Frequently in Soviet prisons one comes across people with the stamp of tragedy on their faces. This Jew’s narrow mouth and hooked nose, the eyes which were always watering as if inflamed by dust, the broken sighs and the claw-like hands darting to the sack—these could mean all, or nothing.…
“Polish?” he finally asked one evening. I nodded. “I’d like to know if my son could have been an army captain in Poland?” he screeched angrily.
“I wouldn’t know,” I answered.
But he should have known. For Herling, though he denied it, seems to have been born a Jew. His birth certificate registers the appearance in the world of one Gecel vel Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, the fourth child of Jakub Jozef vel Grudziński and Dorota z Bryczkowskich Herling-Grudzińska, a Jewish family in Kielce. On Herling’s high school certificate, he is listed as Jewish. In Poland, one was either Polish or Jewish—to be a Pole was to be a Catholic. Herling, apparently, made his choice. When the Polish scholar Zdzislaw Kudelski sent Herling his study of the author’s life and work in 1999, Herling responded to Kudelski’s description of him as “born to a Jewish family” this way: “You should have written ‘he was born to a Polish family of Jewish roots.’ I will accept no explanation from you.”
There is something ignoble in Herling’s repudiation of his roots. Living in Italy for half a century, Herling had little reason to deny his family. It is true that he became interested in Catholicism; possibly he wished to think of himself simply as a Pole. But his refusal to accept membership in the people to which he was born can also be considered a part of Herling’s movement toward the shadows: rather than emerging from Soviet torture wishing to affirm his common humanity with the world, he chose, in art, to separate himself from it.
Herling’s epilogue to A World Apart concerns another Jew: a communist from Grodno whom he meets in Vitebsk prison. He casts it as the story of his decision to leave the camp mentality behind, to join the civilized world. The communist is a new arrival at Vitebsk, full of fervor and passion quickly extinguished: “In his heart he thought of himself as a Pole. But when, on the evening after his arrival in the cell, the block sergeant asked him formally what his nationality was, he replied quietly, looking down at the ground: ‘Jewish.’”
Herling finds the Jewish communist again years later, in Rome, and listens to the rest of his story: he remained imprisoned in a Soviet work camp until 1944, not freed when amnesty was granted for Polish citizens—the Russians did not consider Jews to be citizens of any nation but Jewry. In 1944 he was released, and conscripted into the Red Army. Eventually, he made it back to his homeland: “When I got back to Poland I found no one alive; my whole family, all near and distant relatives, were dead. But through so many sleepless nights I have longed to meet someone who could understand me, who had also known a Soviet prison camp....”
In the camp, in 1942, he was told to testify that he had heard four German prisoners claiming that Hitler was coming. “I had to choose between my own death and that of those four,” he says. “I chose. I had had enough of the forest, and of that terrible daily struggle with death—I wanted to live. I testified. Two days later they were shot beyond the zone.” Herling says nothing. The survivor continues: “If I told that story to any of the people among who I am now living, they would either not believe me or, if they believed, would refuse to shake my hand. But you must know to what they drove us, how low they brought us there. Say only that you understand....” Herling cannot say it. But was he really re-joining civilized morality? Or couldn’t he have been separating himself, rather, from both modern human ethics and the code of animal survival, in order to stand between them, in the shadowline?
In that first entry of the Journal Written at Night, Herling writes that he took his “first steps on the soil of Italy in 1944 in the glare of an eruption of Vesuvius, in a rain of ash under an ominously darkened sky.” He lived the rest of his literary life under that darkness. Twenty years later, writing about an art exhibit called “In the Shadow of Vesuvius,” he suggests that rather than in the shadow of the volcano, he lives—as all Neapolitans do, as all humans do—under the volcano. Under the threat of disaster, beneath the looming possibility of horrible pain and death. He may have lived there, but in fiction he stepped out just far enough, into the shadow, to see better, to testify. So, too, he stayed out of the sun, where it is easy to forget those destroyed in the deluge. The result is an art so quiet that there is little to match the volume of its cries.
This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.