Jerzy Pietrkiewicz (later Peterkiewicz) was born in the village of Fabianki, in the Dobrzyń district of Poland, north-west of Warsaw, on 29th September 1916. Of sound peasant stock, he grew up speaking dialect. After the death of both parents he became a boarder at the Jan Długosz Academy in Włocławek where, at the age of 14, he encountered literary Polish for the first time. He continued his education at the University of Warsaw, where he studied journalism.
Living on the edge of poverty, he discovered the “magical secret of language” and was soon recognised as a highly original avant-garde poet, one of a group known as the Authentics (Autentyści). His first book of poetry, Verses about Childhood (Wiersze o dzieciństwie) was published in Warsaw in 1935. It was followed a year later by his first narrative poem The Province (Prowincja) and by the collection Verses and Longer Poems (Wiersze i poematy) in 1938.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Jerzy was working as literary editor of a daily newspaper. Although ill, he managed to escape to Bucharest, and to obtain a permit to travel to France. From there he found his way to England, arriving in 1940, unable to speak a word of English.
Exempt from military service on medical grounds, and aided by the British Council, he went to St. Andrews University where he was awarded an M.A. in 1944. Three years later he had obtained a PhD in English Literature from King’s College, London. His thesis was entitled “A Comparative Study of English Lyric Poetry from a Polish Point of View, illustrated by an English Anthology, with Polish Translations and a Critical Commentary”. This formed the basis of his later publication, in Polish, An Anthology of English Lyric Poetry 1300 – 1956 (Antologia liryki angielskiej 1300 – 1956) published in 1958.
He worked at first as a freelance writer, during which time he wrote the play Us (Sami swoi), which was performed in 1949. He was appointed in 1950 to teach Polish language, and then literature, at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London. The title of Professor of Polish Language and Literature was conferred on him in 1972, and Emeritus Professor in 1979. He was Head of the Department of East European Languages and Literatures from 1972 – 79.
It was in the 1950s that Jerzy Peterkiewicz made a conscious decision not to write poetry in Polish any more, instead choosing to write fiction in English. His first novel, The Knotted Cord, was published in 1953, and from then until 1969 he published a further 7 novels.
His numerous academic works concentrated on the theory of literature and on poetry. Outstanding works of the 1970s include The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language, and a monograph on the Mariavite sect in Poland, The Third Adam.
As an émigré writer, he was not published in Poland until the 1980s, when the political thaw triggered a change in attitudes.
The last years of his life were devoted to translating the poetry of Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, after he had been chosen for this role by the Papal Commission and by the Pope himself. These translations include Easter Vigil and other poems (1979), Collected Poems (1980), The Place Within (1994) and Roman Triptych (2003)
Peterkiewicz’s autobiography, In the Scales of Fate, was published in 1993. He was enormously proud to be made a Commander of the Order of Polonia Restituta (Poland) in 1995, and to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by his former University at St. Andrews in 2005.
He listed his Recreations for Who’s Who as: Travel, outward and inward.
Jerzy Peterkiewicz died on October 26th 2007.
Obituary in the Guardian (Wednesday 12 December 2007)
Professor Jerzy Peterkiewicz, who has died aged 91, was a novelist, poet and professor of Polish language and literature at London University from 1972 to 1979. He was also the editor and translator of the poetry of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. He was born in Fabianki, in the district of Dobrzyn, north-central Poland. His village, indeed the whole region, remained important to him, especially in his literary life. His father, a farmer with a 400-volume library, was proud of his peasant roots. His mother, who came from impoverished nobility, was nearly 50 when Peterkiewicz was born and she never fully recovered from this late childbirth.
In early childhood, Peterkiewicz was told by an old peasant woman that his birth was killing his mother. In fact, she was suffering from cancer; but he imagined himself as her cancer. The sense of guilt became an important motif in his future literary work. Both parents died when he was about 14. He was educated at the Bishop's grammar school in Wloclawek, a sort of Polish Eton, where his poetic talent was recognised, and then at the University of Warsaw.
His first book of poetry appeared in 1935, when he was 18, dedicated to the people of his village. Critical and popular success followed and he started to depict Poland as strong and free.
When, in 1939, the Germans and then the Russians invaded Poland, his career as a journalist and literary editor ended. He managed to reach Romania, from where he hoped to go to France to join the Polish army. However, an operation for a burst appendix grounded him in Bucharest. While recovering, he finished his first (and only) novel in Polish, Po Chlopsku (The Peasant Way of Life) in 1939, and wrote some poems, including a Polish carol. A first Christmas abroad made him conscious of his alienation, which became a new motif in his writing.
He arrived in Britain, from France, in 1940. Exempted from military service on health grounds, he was helped by the British Council to go to the University of St Andrews. There, he took a first degree in English and German in 1944, and then, in 1947, a doctorate in English literature from King's College London, becoming the first Pole in the history of that college to do so. Soon afterwards he married the writer Christine Brooke-Rose, but they later separated. He was also married briefly to a Polish actor called Danuta Karel.
In 1952, he started teaching at the school of Slavonic and East European studies, London University, a career which lasted for almost 30 years. His academic life never stopped him from his literary work, but his Polish poetry gradually ceased to appear with his decision to write fiction, in English.
In 1953, in the week of the coronation (the date was important to him), he published the first of his eight novels in English, The Knotted Cord. Its subject matter was his rural childhood, full of magic and intense suffering, but also dark humour. It was an instant success. Loot and Loyalty (1955), a historical novel, was prophetic in its description of an environmental catastrophe in the Chernobyl region. Future to Let (1958) depicted the Polish community in London in the mid-1940s, its hero, Adam Gruda, based on Wincenty Witos, leader of Poland's peasant movement and three times prime minister of Poland, who died in 1945.
Isolation (1959) and That Angel Burning at My Left Side (1963 ) were bestsellers - brilliant, erotic and humorous. His seventh novel, Inner Circle, was deliberately published on the author's 50th birthday, numerology being one of his many eccentricities. It had an unusual triptych structure with three parts, Surface, Underground and Sky, each repeated three times. The Guardian nominated it book of the month, and then as one of the books of the year for 1966. It was a futuristic vision of a hopelessly overcrowded Britain, without greenery. Much later, in 1988, this novel was published in Poland when Peterkiewicz was no longer blacklisted.
The Quick and the Dead (1961) was also translated into Polish, and published in his homeland in 1986. His last novel, Green Flows the Bile (1969), was partly satire, partly erotic romp and linguistic experiment. His autobiography, In the Scales of Fate (1993), reads like fiction. There were also BBC radio plays. His academic publications concentrate on the theory of literature and on poetry, but include some works outside this category. There were two gigantic anthologies: Five Centuries of Polish Poetry 1450-1950 (1970) and Antologia Liryki Angielskiej (Anthology of English Poetry) 1300-1950 (1958, with the English edition in 1970). Peterkiewicz himself translated all the English poetry into Polish, and the Polish into English.
The last 11 years of Peterkiewicz's life were devoted to his translations of the poetry of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), after he had been chosen for this role by the Papal Commission and the Pope himself. The two men had a lot in common: they belonged to the same generation, both were poets and university professors, both shared a fascination with St John of the Cross and Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Peterkiewicz's translations included Easter Vigil and Other Poems (1979), Collected Poems (1982), The Place Within (1994), Poezje (a bilingual edition, 1998) and Roman Triptych: Meditations of John Paul II "From the Beginning" (2003).
Peterkiewicz received many honours, including, in 2000, the honorary citizenship of Fabianki and the town of Rypin, the Commander's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta conferred by the then president of Poland, Lech Walesa, 1995, and an honorary doctorate of letters from St Andrews (2005). Much of his writing, however, was done in Spain, where he lived for much of the year (he also had a beautiful flat in Hampstead, north London).
His preoccupation with the peasant theme was a legacy of his own background, but he was also part of the "authenticist" movement which believed that observation and direct experience are the test of literature: only a son of the earth can write about peasant life. Peterkiewicz's last poem (2006) in Polish, printed like a greeting card, was addressed to Witos, the peasant leader.
Jerzy Peterkiewicz (Pietrkiewicz), novelist and poet, born September 29 1916; died October 26 2007.
This obituary (by Alicja H. Moskalowa) was originally published in the Guardian on 12 December 2007, and can be found on guardian.co.uk.
The Trustees of the Jerzy Peterkiewicz Educational Foundation are grateful for the permission to reprint the text here.