Excerpt from “The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma” (1932)

by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, translated from the Polish by Ewa Malachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas

The 1932 novel The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma is one of Poland’s most famous and enduring novels. The mordant political satire maintained its popularity before, during, and after the country’s Communist interlude and inspired a film adaptation in 1956, a TV miniseries in 1980, and a contemporary adaptation in 2002. It was also the inspiration for the award-winning 1979 American film Being There, which featured Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. The novel follows the rise to political power of a churlish opportunist whose simplistic vulgarity the Polish elite mistake for canny introspection.

In the passage below, Dyzma is making his first steps up the social ladder. The landowner Kunicki has tapped Dyzma to manage his large and complex estate, a job for which Dyzma is completely unprepared.

They turned at an avenue of maples and rode for a good half hour past fields dense with ripe rye. The air was still, but out here the heat was more bearable.

“Nice harvest,” Dyzma remarked.

“Yes, yes,” Kunicki answered sadly. “Too nice, too nice, unfortunately.”

Nicodemus burst out laughing. “You say that like it’s a bad thing!”

“And you don’t think it is?” Kunicki asked, surprised. “After all, it’s a disaster for agriculture.” Dyzma was tempted to tell him he didn’t understand, but he held his tongue. Better to be circumspect. “A disaster,” Kunicki repeated. “Prices are dropping like a stone. In two months, we’ll be selling it for chicken feed. It’s a high-yield disaster, dear sir.” Aha, Dyzma thought. You see, who would’ve thought! But best to say as little as possible, and for Christ’s sake, don’t ask questions.

“Well, sure, that’s understandable,” he said in a loud voice. “It’s just that I don’t agree that it’s as bad as you make it out to be.”

He fell silent, and it occurred to him that he needed to add something in order not to appear naive. Which is why he said, casually and somewhat randomly, “Grain’s going up.”

“Bah! But that’s only if the government starts stockpiling grain.”

“And who said they weren’t?”

“What are you telling me?!” Kunicki leapt up.

Dyzma was afraid he had made some ridiculous fundamental error but was immediately reassured when he saw the gleam in his companion’s eye.

“Hot damn! What are you saying? Has it already been decided?”

“For now, it’s the plan . . .”

“My dear Nicodemus! What an absolutely brilliant idea! Brilliant! After all, it’s the government’s duty to protect agriculture; the country’s welfare is entirely dependent on agriculture, for God’s sake. Hell, in this country there’s nothing less than an obsession for tinkering around with the economy. But Poland is seventy percent farmers! Seventy percent. Not industry, not mining, not commerce, but agriculture and agricultural products, livestock and lumber—it’s the basis for everything! What’s good for agriculture is good for everyone—for manufacturers, for wholesalers, for workers! Mr. Dyzma, you really should, sir, you have a sacred duty to your fatherland, to use every bit of your influence to push this brilliant project forward! So the government is going to buy up all the surplus! My God! Koborowo and the house alone . . .”

As he began to mentally calculate the potential profit, Dyzma spoke up again.

“It’s just a matter of money. There isn’t any money.”

“Money, money? That’s nothing.” Kunicki was on fire. “A trifling detail. After all, the state can issue bonds. Grain bonds for, say, a hundred million zlotys. Pay the bonds and that’s that. Charging interest, obviously, at, let’s suppose, five percent, or even six. What do you think, sir? For six years, let’s say. And I’ll be damned if during that stretch there aren’t at least two boom years, right? So then we sell the entire grain supply abroad and make a bundle. What do you think? And tremendous benefits: primo, sustained high prices that’ll really save our hides, and secondo, increased circulation, because, of course, the bonds must be unregistered bearer bonds. And that way the state can give the domestic market a real shot in the arm, to the tune of a hundred million—now there’s a sum that will surely have a salutary effect on our catastrophe of a cash situation. Hot damn! You simply must talk to Minister Jaszuński about this . . .”

“We’ve already talked about it at length, and who knows . . .”

He broke off, and at the same time thought, This old guy’s got a hell of a good head on his shoulders. With a brain like that, he could even be a minister!

Kunicki pursued the matter unflaggingly. He rolled out various arguments, put forth reservations and doubts—which he immediately smashed with the power of his logical reasoning—on and on he lisped, his words tumbling out one after the other while he flourished his whip with emotion.

Meanwhile, the road had curved back into the woods, and they were making their way through tall pines.

In a vast clearing, cords of lumber were stacked along a narrow-gauge railway. A miniature steam engine had just begun to puff and hiss in the effort to move a dozen or so wagon cars loaded with great logs. Two rows of workers were helping it along, pushing the wagons from either side.

The workers doffed their caps with a reluctance that bordered on hostility. A weather-beaten figure in a gray jacket approached their carriage and was starting to say something when Kunicki cut him off.

“Mr. Starkiewicz, say hello to Mr. Dyzma, general administrator.”

The figure took off his cap and gave Dyzma an appraising look. Dyzma bowed slightly.

For a few minutes, while Kunicki grilled Starkiewicz on various particulars, Nicodemus looked curiously around at the masses of accumulated lumber, the barracks slapped together with old planks, the clearing with its whistling saws and moaning axes. When they moved on, Kunicki launched into an expert lecture on the many different grades of wood, the state of their utilization, and the tribulations of obtaining a permit to fell one’s own timber, a stand of trees in this very vicinity. He quoted articles of law, figures, prices, and from time to time he glanced at his companion’s face, which wore an expression of scrupulous attention.

In truth, Dyzma was flailing in a sea of panic. His consciousness was being buried alive under an increasingly berserk avalanche of concepts and ideas about which he had not the slightest understanding. He felt like a man beneath a toppled haystack. He’d lost all orientation and realized he was singularly ill equipped to deal with this state of affairs, and not by a long shot would he be able to control the situation enough to avoid disgrace and humiliation—to avoid, to put it plainly, ratting himself out.

They’d already toured the lumber station in the state-owned woods, the sawmill by the railroad terminal, and the furniture factory, and by the time they had finished their visit to the paper mill as well as some warehouse or another, the muddle in Dyzma’s head had grown to such a degree that he would’ve been glad to flee the scene right then and there. Looming before him was a towering mountain of incomprehensible business matters, bizarre and mysterious interconnections; he’d just met so many new people, these managers and directors, who spoke with such authority and with so many acronyms and abbreviations that Dyzma had managed to grasp nary a thing.

Excerpted from The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma: A Novel by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, translated from the Polish by Ewa Malachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas and with an introduction by Benjamin Paloff.

The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma introduces an unemployed clerk who crashes an elite soiree, where he makes a crass remark that sets him on a new course. Soon high society—from government ministers to drug-fueled aristocrats—wants a piece of him, interpreting his simple vulgarity as strength and freshness. His willingness to do anything to hold on to power—political flip-flopping, inventing xenophobic plots, even having enemies assaulted—only leads to greater success. 

TADEUSZ DOŁĘGA-MOSTOWICZ (daw-WENG-ah maw-STOH-vich) was born in 1898 and began his writing career as a journalist. Kariera Nikodema Dyzma appeared serially in 1930–31 to great acclaim, establishing his reputation as a novelist. He published prolifically until his death in 1939.

EWA MALACHOWSKA-PASEK is Ladislav Matejka Collegiate Lecturer in Polish and Czech Studies at the University of Michigan.

MEGAN THOMAS is, with Ewa Malachowska-Pasek, the translator of Zofia Nalkowska’s Romance of Teresa Hennert.

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The Dead Season

Excerpted from Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz. Translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine and with a foreword by Rivka Galchen.

“Bruno Schulz is arguably the most influential author the Polish language has ever known . . . Levine finally allows English-language readers to spend time with the living Bruno Schulz—serious, funny and breathtakingly real.” ⁠—Times Literary Supplement

At five in the morning, a morning brilliant from early sunshine, our house had already been bathed for a long time in ardent and quiet morning radiance. At that solemn hour, unobserved by anyone—while across the room in the semidarkness of lowered drapes the peaceful breathing of sleeping people still moved in solidarity—in total silence it entered into the facade that was blazing in the sunlight, into the silence of the early heat, as if its entire surface were made of blissfully slumbering eyelids. Thus, profiting from the silence of those solemn hours, it swallowed the very first fire of morning with a blissfully slumbering face, fainter in the radiance, with the arrangement of its features trembling slightly in the dream-filled sleep of that intense hour. The shadow of the acacia in front of the house, waving brightly on those burning eyelids, repeated on their surface as if on a piano, over and over again, the same glittering phrase washed away by a breeze, vainly attempting to penetrate the depths of that golden dream. The canvas drapes absorbed the morning heat, portion after portion, and grew darkly suntanned, swooning in the boundless radiance.

Bruno Schulz, self portrait, 1920-1922

At that early hour, my father, no longer able to find sleep, descended the stairs, laden with his books, in order to open the shop, which was located on the ground floor of our apartment building. He stood motionless in the entrance for a moment, withstanding with tightly closed eyes the powerful attack of fiery sunshine. The sun-bright wall of the house drew him sweetly into its blissfully leveled flatness, smoothed down to the point of disappearance. For a moment he became a flat father, grown into the facade, and he felt his arms, branching out, trembling and warm, fuse flat amid the golden stucco decorations of the facade. (How many fathers have already grown permanently into a facade at five in the morning, at the moment when they stepped off the bottom step of a staircase? How many fathers have become in this way forever the keepers of their own door, flatly sculpted onto the frame, with a hand on the door handle and a face unfolded into the same parallel, blissful grooves over which their sons’ fingers would later travel lovingly, seeking the last traces of their fathers now merged forever into the universal smile of the facade?) But then he detached himself with his last bit of will, regained the third dimension, and turned into a man once again, freeing the shackled shop door from its padlocks and iron bars.

When he opened the heavy, ironclad wing of the shop door the grumbling gloom retreated one step from the entrance, drew back a few inches into the depths of the shop, changed its place, and lay down lazily inside. Invisibly giving off steam from the still-cool paving stones of the sidewalk, the morning freshness stood timidly on the threshold as a faint, trembling strip of air. Deep inside, the darkness of many previous days and nights lay in the unopened bales of cloth that were arranged in layers and ran in rows into the interior, in muffled parades and pilgrimages, until it came powerlessly to a stop in the very heart of the shop, in the dark stockroom, where, already undifferentiated and replete with itself, it dissolved into the silent, looming, ur-matter of cloth.

Father walked along that tall wall of cheviot wools and twills, trailing his hand along the edges of cloth bales as if along the slits of women’s dresses. Under his touch, the rows of blind torsos that were always ready to panic, to break out of line, would calm down and consolidate in their cloth hierarchies and order.

BRUNO SCHULZ (1892–1942) was a Polish Jew born in Drohobych, at the time a city in Austrian Galicia. He published two volumes of short fiction during his life. Shot in the street by a Nazi officer in German-occupied Drohobych, Schulz achieved posthumous fame as one of the most influential European fiction writers of the twentieth century.

MADELINE G. LEVINE is Kenan Professor of Slavic Literatures Emerita at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her translations from the Polish include The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories by Hanna Krall, Bread for the Departed by Bogdan Wojdowski, and four volumes of prose by Czeslaw Milosz, including Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections and Milosz’s ABC’s.

from “The Akhmatova Journals”

Lydia Chukovskaya was an author and passionate defender of Russian letters and human rights. Her books include the frequently studied Sofia Petrovna and To the Memory of Childhood. In 1987, in the twilight of the Soviet Union, she published the intimate diaries she’d kept of her close friendship with the great poet Anna Akhmatova.

The poet was born on June 23, 1889 on the contemporary calendar, and we’re marking her birthday with a passage from Chukovskaya’s journal, one of the many books on our backlist about or including Akhmatova. She’ll also make an appearance in this fall’s The Soviet Writers’ Union and Its Leaders: Identity and Authority under Stalin by Carol Any in our Studies in Russian Literature and Theory series.

Her assertion here that she read Ulysses four times in a single winter to “get to grips with” the novel is an unforgettable anecdote of her remarkable tenacity.akhm01


akhm_jacketExcerpted from The Akhmatova Journals: Volume 1: 1938-1941 by Lydia Chukovskaya published in English by Northwestern University Press in 2002.