By Filip Mazurczak
Although the Nobel Prize in Literature is the world’s most prestigious literary accolade, the case of Władysław Reymont shows that it is no protection against tumbling into oblivion. Reymont, whose socially conscious work encompassed genres as disparate as naturalism, reportage, historical epics, fables, and even horror, is largely forgotten outside his native Poland. One of Reymont’s many works that have never been translated into English is his last novel, The Revolt, an anti-Bolshevik parable about animals overthrowing human rule. Sound familiar? Reymont’s novel was published more than twenty years before George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Throughout history, many writers have come from privileged backgrounds, but Stanisław Władysław Rejment, born in 1867 in the village of Kobiele Wielkie in the Russian partition of Poland, did not. The son of a church organ player and an impoverished noblewoman, Rejment was the middle child in a family of nine children. While his parents could not afford to educate him, they encouraged Stanisław’s love of learning; there were always plenty of books in the house.
The young Rejment applied to be a Pauline novice not out of religious fervour, but to have access to education; however, his request was turned down because he did not know Latin. Using the pen name Władysław Stanisław Reymont, in the 1890s he wrote poetry and short stories and became a contributor to the weekly Tygodnik Ilustrowany, a collaboration that lasted throughout his life. Because royalties did not pay the bills, Reymont worked as an actor in a travelling theatre troupe and a railway worker. Having been brought up in abject poverty, the young Reymont gravitated towards socialism, although he later turned towards nationalism and, ultimately, the peasant movement.
Reymont’s big break: a pilgrimage
Reymont’s big break came in 1895 with the publication of Pielgrzymka do Jasnej Góry (A Pilgrimage to Jasna Góra). The previous year, he had taken part in a walking pilgrimage from Warsaw to Poland’s most important Marian shrine, organised to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Kosciuszko Uprising. He participated in it not as a pilgrim, but as a reporter. Most of the pilgrims were very simple folk. At the beginning of the journey, Reymont looked at them with the barely concealed condescension of a sophisticated intellectual. Eventually, though, he was moved by their deep faith. That and a conversation with a Capuchin friar, Father Prokop, nudged him towards Catholicism.
A Pilgrimage to Jasna Góra was seen as a major achievement in journalism. Reymont’s descriptions of the idyllic Polish countryside and his conversations with pilgrims (for instance, with a centenarian who was tired of living, and prayed for a speedy death) have made it a classic of Polish reportage. The work was seen as socially progressive, as it praised the Polish peasantry and tried to take on their point of view rather than that of the aristocrats.
In addition to being a precursor to Ryszard Kapuściński, the renowned post-war journalist, Reymont was also something like a Polish Stephen King. In the 1900s, when Madame Blavatsky’s occultist ideas were popular across Europe and in the United States, Reymont joined spiritualist societies in Częstochowa and Warsaw, which allowed him to visit theosophy centres in London and Paris.
These travels inspired him to write 1911’s Wampir (The Vampire), one of the first Polish works of horror. The novel deals with Zenon, a homesick Polish émigré writer in London who frequents séances and develops a fatal attraction to Daisy, an enigmatic seductress who might not quite be human.
It was the tetralogy The Peasants, however, that brought Reymont international fame. Published between 1904 and 1909, each instalment was titled after one of the four seasons of the year and depicted the lives of Polish peasants. Translated into twenty-seven languages and winning Reymont the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1924, one year before his death, The Peasants was considered to be an important work of naturalism, a literary movement associated with France’s Émile Zola, which sought to depict the world as it is, not as the writer would like it to be. The Peasants details the superstitions and social conventions of peasants in the Russian partition of Poland and their dependence on the land.
Later, decades after his death, Poland’s communist regime tried to depict Reymont as a scathing critic of capitalism, largely because of his 1899 novel The Promised Land. Its sardonic biblical title refers to the city of Łódź, which in the 19th century was a major hub of the textile industry. There, exploitative capitalists opened factories, trying to build a worldly New Jerusalem. The novel’s protagonist is Karol von Borowiecki, an ennobled Pole who, along with his friends, the German Max Baum and the Jew Moritz Welt (representatives of the three biggest ethnic groups in 19th-century Łódź), builds a cotton mill. Insensitive to the dangerous, slave-like conditions in which his factory’s employees work and treating his fiancée shabbily and his mistress even worse, Borowiecki is despicable. At the novel’s end, though, he turns out like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov: a libertine who recognises his error and repents.
Indeed, Reymont did not love capitalism. However, while Poland’s communist regime touted The Promised Land, it simultaneously banned Reymont’s last novel: the anti-Bolshevik Bunt (The Revolt), serialised in Tygodnik Ilustrowany in 1922 and published in novel form two years later. The novel was not a major success in Poland, in part because Warsaw’s liberal literary critics, themselves often flirting with Marxism, considered his dystopian work to be reactionary.
The novel centres on Rex, a dog living at a manor. He is treated well by the orphan farmhand nicknamed Deaf-Mute, but not by the other humans, who brutally beat him for transgressions such as biting the landlady’s beloved dachshunds. The Lenin-like Rex organises a revolt of both domesticated and wild animals against human rule. “Break your chains!” Rex implores his fellow beasts, “We’re sick of barns, oppression, and humans! Lead and the herds will follow! Whoever stands in our way will be impaled on horns and trampled by hooves!” This rallying cry recalls revolutionary slogans beginning with Marx’s and Engels’s summons to the working class to unite.
First, Rex kills a bear, the king of the forest (since the bear, strong but clumsy, has symbolised Russia for centuries, this could be a reference to the tsar); later, the animals kill the hunters in the forest and, finally, most of the humans on nearby farms, except Deaf-Mute, who becomes Rex’s right-hand man.
Seeing that flocks of birds fly east, Rex mounts a stallion and leads the animals eastwards (unlike in Animal Farm, the animals do not take over a farm and create a dictatorial state). During the journey, many animals die of starvation and frostbite; ultimately, they decide to return to human rule and kill Rex.
While Reymont never explicitly said that The Revolt was an allegory for the Bolshevik Revolution, it was interpreted as such by literary critics and casual readers alike. This was partly because Reymont’s distaste for Marxism was well known. He had harshly criticised the 1905 Russian Revolution, which was particularly strong in Russian-controlled Poland, where 93.2 percent of workers went on strike, in Tygodnik Ilustrowany, making him synonymous with opposition to revolution. Reymont was horrified by the anarchy, violence, and slogans calling for the brotherhood of the working class as opposed to national self-determination (Reymont yearned for Polish independence).
Comparisons to Orwell
Despite a similar basic plot device, there are a couple of differences between The Revolt and Animal Farm. Reymont’s work is arguably even darker than Orwell’s novel; scenes such as the pogrom of the hunters are gory and disturbing. Another major difference between The Revolt and Animal Farm is that although the former features anthropomorphic animals, its depictions of animals and their behaviours (apart from their talking and having consciousness) are realistic in the naturalist vein. Thus, in terms of style, The Revolt is more reminiscent of Watership Down and White Fang than of Animal Farm.
Reymont’s novel was serialised only five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, but for a student of 20th-century history it is startlingly prescient. The starvation and cold and resulting death experienced by the animals as Rex guides them east to a more just world recalls Stalin’s deportations of his real and imagined political enemies to the gulags and the famines, both deliberate ones (as the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine) and those resulting from the incompetent central planning of communist regimes (as in Mengistu’s Ethiopia and Mao’s China).
Meanwhile, although Rex’s revolution was supposed to liberate the animals, they ultimately turn against him; this seems like an augury of the rise of Solidarity in Reymont’s homeland in the 1980s, when the working class, whom Marxism was meant to enfranchise, turned against its communist masters.
The Revolt has never been translated into English. In Orwell’s lifetime, it was published in Dutch and German; Orwell knew the latter language. It has been speculated that Arthur Koestler may have introduced him to the German translation. Orwell’s participation in the Spanish Civil War as a Republican volunteer and subsequent disappointment with the left first gave him the idea to write an anti-Soviet satire, but he claimed that he had the specific idea for it to take the form of a fable in which animals abolish human rule when living in the Hertfordshire countryside in England. One day, he saw a child walking a horse and whipping it whenever it went the wrong way. Orwell immediately saw parallels between the downtrodden equine and the serfs in Tsarist Russia.
Orwell and Poland
Although Orwell has explicitly said where he got the idea for the plot of Animal Farm, if we bear in mind sympathy for the Poles it is hard to shake the intuition that the British writer could have known about his Polish colleague’s novel. Apart from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell felt compelled to write an anti-Soviet fable as a result of World War II geopolitics. Although Orwell’s country had declared war on Germany upon the latter’s invasion of Poland and allowed the Polish government-in-exile to function in London, and 200,000 Poles fought under British command during the war, the USSR’s entry into the Allied camp led the British to snub Poland (yielding to Stalin’s demands regarding Poland at Yalta and Tehran, for instance), which had been ravaged by both Hitler and Stalin.
At this time, propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic (such as the American documentary Why We Fight) promoted a sugar-coated vision of Stalin as a kindly grandfather and marginalised his crimes against humanity. Orwell, though, remembered that Stalin had starved to death or shot millions of his own people, and he wrote Animal Farm in part to remedy his countrymen’s amnesia.
In September 1944, as the politically inconvenient Animal Farm was being rejected by publisher after publisher across Britain, Orwell wrote a column in Tribune in which he criticised his country for not providing aid to the Polish underground, which bravely but futilely tried to liberate Warsaw, and blasted the Red Army for not lifting a finger to help the Poles. After the war, Orwell also wrote columns criticising the xenophobic wave that swept Britain and subsequent demands for Polish officers who had served Britain in uniform to go back to their country, by then behind the Iron Curtain.
While dethroning Animal Farm from its position in world literature would be impossible, The Revolt is a brilliant enough allegorical dissection of Soviet totalitarianism that a competent English translation could propel it to international renown. Reymont received international fame in the 1910s and 1920s, yet he has since been forgotten outside Poland. At the time of writing, the English translation of only one of Reymont’s works – his novel The Comedienne – remains in print. It is unfortunate that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, which does not know Polish, will not know this great eclectic writer who always defended the little guy, be he oppressed by the Dickensian factories of 19th-century Łódź or by Soviet tyranny – at least not until dedicated translators and international publishers bring him back into the world’s consciousness.
Main image credit: Jacek Malczewski/MNW (under public domain)