Tadeusz Różewicz (1921 – 2014) – A Tribute by Barbara Bogoczek

In the early morning of 24th April 2014 Tadeusz Różewicz passed away, and with him the 20th Century has been laid to rest.

 

 (Photo: Maria Dębicz)

 

No writer experienced the history of Poland so profoundly and fully.  Czesław Miłosz wrote about him in the poem, “Różewicz”:

 

he took it seriously

a serious mortal

he does not dance

 

he lights two thick candles

sits before a mirror

amused by his face

 

he does not indulge

in the frivolity of form

in the comic abundance

of human beliefs

 

he wants to know for sure

 

he digs in black soil

is both the spade and the mole

cut in two by the spade

(Translated by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass)

 

No writer transformed that century of oppression and hope into poetry, drama and prose with such humanity and truth, constantly insisting on the basic human values and reminding us of their constant violation.

It was in the 1960s that Miłosz’s Penguin edition of Post-War Polish Poetry introduced Różewicz’s poetry into English. Soon great young British and Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin found, through Różewicz and his translator Adam Czerniawski, a way to write poetry after Auschwitz. And while Samuel Beckett was the voice of the Theatre of the Absurd speaking in English and French, the plays of Tadeusz Różewicz proved you can look into the abyss and still laugh. When his most famous play The Card Index was put on in London in 2001, Time Out’ s critics concluded that the play “is so startlingly modern, so challenging and so relentlessly hilarious it makes you wonder what writers – and audiences, of course – have been doing in the theatre for the last 40 years.”

Tadeusz Różewicz was a man of very high standards, which condemned him to endless disappointments. He was also very shy and avoided the limelight, but privately he was exceptionally friendly and generous and had a wonderful sense of humour. He followed common sense. He was never drawn into any political formation, yet his views were decisively left wing. Therefore he kept away from the life of the cultural metropolis. In his writing, however, he exposed lies and hypocrisy, sometimes causing shock and outrage: as with his plays Marriage Blanc and Into the Sand, which put social and historical myths under the microscope.

There is something so universal about Różewicz’s work that it has been, and is still being, translated into over forty languages. Tony Howard and I joined this group of Różewicz enthusiasts at the end of the 1980s, most recently bringing out his autobiographical memoir Mother Departs (Stork Press, London, 2013). The work of translation gave rise to a life-long friendship – a gift and a privilege, which greatly influenced not only our literary sensibility but our view of the world. I had the joy of numerous meetings and conversations with the writer, both in England and Poland. I accompanied him on visits to London art galleries (he was a great admirer and a wicked critic of the visual arts) and to the Greenwich Observatory, from where I treasure some souvenir photographs.

 

(Photo: Maria Dębicz)

 

I saw him for the last time at his home in Wrocław in December 2013. As always, I was warmly welcomed:  I was served a range of culinary treats – home-made by the poet’s wife, Pani Wiesława – as well as an unrepeatable conversation on twenty different subjects. There was Becherovka vodka, too, and lots of laughter… Tadeusz showed me a text which was engrossing him at the time. It was written by Luis Bunuel shortly before his death. The pages had Różewicz’s notes in the margins and lines marking some passages of very particular interest. One of them read: “I have been accustomed to the idea of death for some time now…. Death constitutes part of my life. I have never had any intention of ignoring it, of denying its existence. But not much can be said about death if you are, like me, an atheist. One will have to die with the riddle…”

Dearest Tadeusz, it’s so hard to say good-bye to you. I won’t do it yet. I’ll continue our friendship, our conversations, by reading and translating your work.

Barbara Bogoczek