:: Article

The Incorruptible: Stanisława Przybyszewska

By Alex Andriesse.


The dimensions of the room are small: seven-and-a-half feet by fifteen. On the left wall is a single window, half the size of a normal window, which sheds a meagre light on the furniture: a wooden table and stool, a love seat, an ugly grey cabinet where the books are stored, a basin, a stove, and a narrow bed. Because the room is on the ground floor, it gets very cold in winter — and the winters in Danzig are merciless, the temperatures sometimes dropping to thirty below. So close to the earth, it is also damp. Sepulchral drafts drift up from beneath the floorboards. The typewriter rusts in its case. On one occasion, the orgy of dampness leads to the begetting of animal life in the form of mysterious, white wet worms so minuscule they are scarcely visible. Only after the stove is lit and the room heated dry do the worms perish, crackling into withered corpses, tiny crumpled membranes littering the once damp sheets of paper that had served as their ‘great metropolis’.

From the age of twenty-six until she died eight years later (of tuberculosis and malnutrition brought on by her addiction to morphine), the Polish writer Stanisława Przybyszewska lived in this room. Following her husband’s death from an overdose at the age of twenty-five, she had moved there from another, more spacious apartment on an upper floor of the same building. Her husband, Jan Panienski, had been a teacher at Danzig’s Polish Gymnasium, and the building where they had lived together — and where she would live and die alone — belonged to the school, which provided the ground-floor dwelling-space free of charge to the widowed Przybyszewska, less out of respect for her husband than out of respect for her father, Stanisław Przybyszewski, who had helped found the institution.

Stanisław Przybyszewski, though wholly unknown in English, was one of the most celebrated Polish writers of his day. A fin-de-siècle libertine and all-round poète maudit, Przybyszewski dabbled in Satanism, hobnobbed with Strindberg and Munch, and fathered at least half a dozen children by at least three different women, none of whom was his wife. Stanisława was the last of these children. Her mother, Aniela Pajak, was by all accounts a nurturing soul (her daughter would later call her a ‘genius at motherhood’) and a passably good painter in the impressionist style. She worshipped Przybyszewski and asked nothing of him, except that he legitimize their daughter. Which he refused to do.

In 1907, when Stanisława was five, her mother moved them away from their native Kraków to the Austrian Alps and then on to Paris, where Aniela integrated herself into the city’s large Polish émigré community, enrolled her daughter in a French-language school, and resumed her interrupted artistic career, exhibiting her paintings at the Salon des Indépendants. Then, quite suddenly, in 1911, Aniela grew ill and died of pneumonia, though not before making arrangements for her daughter to be looked after by family friends in Zürich. Stanisława remained with these friends until 1914, when she moved in with her aunt Helena Barlinska’s family in Vienna and, two years later, with the Great War raging, followed them back to Kraków.

Although Stanisława had had two brief encounters with her father in the course of her childhood, it was not until 1919, when she approached him after a lecture he gave in a Kraków concert hall, that she spoke with him at any length. The man who had refused to legitimize her and ignored her from the moment of her birth took a belated interest in his progeny — now a bright, beautiful, dark-eyed young woman who had read everything and who spoke Polish, German, French, and English with facility. To his new wife’s great displeasure (the free-loving Satanist had since become a staid Catholic), Przybyszewski began corresponding with Przybyszewska, assisted her financially, helped her husband secure his post at the Gymnasium in Danzig, and introduced her to the ‘mind-sharpening’ powers of morphine. For the next few years, until she grew disillusioned with his genius, Przybyszewska worshipped her father almost as ardently as her mother before her. Even after their falling out, he continued to cast a long shadow over her life. His abandonment of her as a child, his disappointment of her as an adult — together with the sudden early deaths of her mother and her husband — fortified Przybyszewska’s distrust of human relations and paved the way for the idiosyncrasy, the isolation, and the aversion to daily life about which she would become fanatical in the years to come.


In her late teens — before she gave herself over to her hermitude — Przybyszewska had attended Gymnasium in Kraków, where she studied to become an elementary school teacher. She spent an apprentice year teaching in a Catholic convent school in Nowy Sacz, a small town forty miles south of Kraków, where she lived among the nuns in the nunnery. Then, in June 1920, she moved to the city of Poznán — where her father was living — and worked as both a teacher and a clerk in the post office. In Poznán, she also rubbed shoulders with artists and writers, and involved herself with a literary journal called The Source. Her need for privacy prompted her to move constantly from apartment to apartment, trying to get shed of nosy landladies and noisy neighbours, and after a while she suffered something like a nervous breakdown. She gave up her hopes of attending university and moved back in with her Aunt Helena in Warsaw, where she began working as a salesgirl in a Communist bookstore, a hub for Party members and secret meetings. At that time, ‘Bolsheviks’ were unwelcome in Poland, and the authorities, looking to crack down on subversives, took Przybyszewska in for questioning. She spent a week in prison before it was determined that she knew too little to be of use. She remained sympathetic all her life to the Communist cause, once remarking how much she hated to hear any negative news about the Soviet Union, but her temperament forbade her from playing any active role in political affairs. In June 1923, she married her talented artist friend from Poznán, Jan Panienski, and made the fateful move with him to Danzig.

Przybyszewska’s marriage to Jan was a happy one, which came as a surprise even to Przybyszewska. ‘The presence of this boy has become almost a necessity for me,’ she wrote her Aunt Helena in 1924: ‘And there’s the irresistible urge to share with him every “impression”, every “intellectual joy.”’ Neither of them wanted children: the one time Przybyszewska feared she might be pregnant, she was ‘weighed down with this depressing fear like a millstone…and even my dreams at night revolved around the subject.’ For a brief span, the two lonely, morphine-addicted artists — marooned in what they both regarded as a backwater town on the grey North Sea — provided each other with solace and, above all, with intellectual companionship, the companionship that Przybyszewska most craved.

After Jan’s death, Przybyszewska’s life immediately began to contract. During her first few years alone in Danzig, she tutored local children at home, only going out occasionally to stock up on groceries, cigarettes, and newspapers (purchased on credit), as well as paying regular visits to the doctor who wrote her prescriptions for morphine, which she called her ‘bread.’ Her seclusion may have been self-imposed, but her loneliness was nonetheless intense. ‘My only exchange of words in the form of human discourse is with my pupils — and with shopkeepers from whom I get my provisions,’ she wrote her aunt, with an eerie sort of foresight; ‘such isolation cannot help but have disastrous consequences.’ Sleeping during the day, writing eight or ten hours each night — when it was quiet and her nerves were more at ease — Przybyszewska’s principal contact with the outside world were now her letters, of which she wrote thousands (many of them ten, twenty, forty pages long) and in which she poured out all the anxieties, ambitions, and resentments that she had bottled up, and that had nowhere else to go.

There was no upside to Przybyszewska’s mode of existence. Her descent from the three-room apartment upstairs that she’d shared with Jan to the ‘dungeon’ on the ground floor where she lived alone also marked the start of her descent into deeper and deeper addiction, fear, poverty, bitterness, loneliness, and probably madness. We will not speak of despair. In her final years, when she had ceased to see pupils and her trips out had become still more infrequent, her world shrunk to the vanishing point, her confinement the stuff of Beckett. In fact, Przybyszewska’s life in Danzig closely resembled the ‘ideal’ circumstances for a writer that Kafka described in a letter to his fiancée Felice, intending, among other things, to scare her:

It has already occurred to me many times that for me the best way to live would be to stay, with my writing materials and a lamp, in the innermost room of a vast, closed cellar. Food would be brought for me and would always be left far from my room, on the other side of the cellar’s outermost door. The journey to reach the food, in my dressing gown, beneath the cellar’s vaulted ceiling, would be my one stroll. Then I would return to my table, I would eat slowly and carefully, and I would immediately begin writing again.

These were pretty much the conditions of Przybyszewska’s life, although, because she had no one to bring her food or ‘bread’, she herself had to venture out to the shops. At times, in order to allow herself longer periods indoors, she brushed her food with lysol to preserve its freshness.


Holed up as she was in book-deficient Danzig, Przybyszewska was not destined to encounter Kafka’s writing. But she shared with him a number of qualities, both personal and literary: neuroses about food and cooking (she was repelled by kitchen smells), ambivalence toward sex (she denied her interest in it, often), and an unshakable belief in the supreme concentration and devotion it required to write. But Przybyszewska was in reality far more reclusive than Kafka, who loved and was beloved by a great many friends. Przybyszewska carried her internal perfectionism into her social affairs, and was therefore incapable of conducting them, incapable of making, letting alone keeping, friends outside of her small circle of correspondents. ‘I have cut myself off from all social contacts,’ she wrote her aunt, ‘[because] in the first place, these people were not on the same intellectual level with me,’ and ‘in the second place,’ she had decided not to have ‘any social life at all until I can stop being a pauper. Which probably means never.’

Przybyszewska’s social life was further limited by her tendency to rage, evident even in her letters. Probably none of these letters puts her rage more fully on display than the one she wrote in colourful English to her half-sister Iwi Bennet about Proust, whom she felt she resembled, and not just in her vampiric sleeping habits:

Do you think anybody would read, let alone publish, Proust — had he not got by purest accident into the deadliest glare of fame?! Not much. They would laugh at him — as they should. That is, his acquaintances would. For nobody else’d be aware of his shameful morbid hobby—dirty old graphomaniac. Do you know why I just can’t refrain from thinking about him and calling him names? Because I get every day more evidence that if there is in me a particle of kinship with any of my colleagues — that particle I share with him, the mangy cur. In other words — my outlook and my manner of relating things is alarmingly kindered with his. Oh, would God I had never put myself, braced myself to wade through a sentence of that (so-called) man!

The abuses that Przybyszewska heaps on Proust (later in the letter, she says that in photographs he looks like a ‘lymphatic oldish hag with bad digestion’) are also abuses heaped on herself. Her hatred for Proust was a particular kind of hatred, reserved only for members of an immediate family. Having read somewhere that Joseph Conrad despised Dostoevsky, Przybyszewska remarked: ‘I can well believe it, since on the one level of their fundamental natures they are as similar as twins.’


Not much of Przybyszewska’s writing has made its way into English. If the Anglophone reader has heard of her at all, it is likely to have been by way of the 1983 Andrzej Wajda film Danton — adapted from Przybyszewska’s play The Danton Case — or else by way of the English historical novelist Hilary Mantel, who apparently is at work on a biography of Przybyszewska, but who has so far been content to paint her with a broad brush, as the woman so obsessed by the French Revolution that she ‘died of Robespierre.’

It is true that Przybyszewska had a passion verging on the pathological for reading and thinking about the French Revolutionary epoch. ‘I remember like yesterday the day on which Danton and his followers were executed,’ she wrote her aunt, the month after she had finished The Danton Case. In Danton, she found a corrupted rogue who thrilled her (‘Heavens, how I love scoundrels! Danton down to Al Capone’), and in Robespierre, she found an unadulterated hero, a man of pure mind — the Incorruptible, ‘thanks to whom I discovered morality, the highest spiritual concept of humanity.’ There’s no question that Przybyszewska had the autodidact’s insatiable hunger for her subject, and provincial pride in her hard-won learning. But it seems a shame to treat a writing life so strange and sad and yet fired with genius as a mere curiosity, a sideshow in the circus of letters. ‘Here she is, folks — the Woman Who Died of Robespierre!’

Despite her eccentricity, Przybyszewska was a serious writer, and a serious reader who studied the works of Mann, Bernanos, Cocteau, Proust, Shaw, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Büchner, and many, many others. The perfectionism she brought to her writing, however, prevented her from finishing most of what she began. Her account of her composition methods in a letter to Iwi (first drafts divided and numbered according to Arabic numerals in red pencil with the best passages underlined and numbered according to Roman numerals in blue pencil, then reorganized into new configurations and written up fresh on a second pad…) bear out her claim in another letter, to Jean Cocteau — one of many letters she never sent — that she was ‘above all a mathematical writer.’ Indeed, in one of the many letters she did send, Przybyszewska wrote: ‘I never send 90% of my letters.’ And elsewhere, in an effort to redeem her solitude: ‘my life, without entertainment, without friends, without sex, without the possibility of spending money on luxury items, is much, much richer than the lives led by 99% of the people…Literature is truly the best thing in the world.’ And elsewhere again, as if it needed to be re-formulated, in no uncertain terms: “by nature I am 100% a writer.”

Unfortunately, in her lifetime, Przybyszewska would remain a 99% unpublished writer. Although The Danton Case was produced twice in Poland in the early 1930s (she did not attend or approve of either production), the play was not printed until after her death. It is a fascinating play: epic in scope, tense in tone, and shot through with deep feeling for the details and drama surrounding the Terror in Paris. Yet her most enduring work may be her quadrilingual letters, which she never intended to publish, but which have now appeared in three volumes in Poland, as well as in a fine abridged English translation by Jadwiga Kosicka and Daniel Gerould (A Life of Solitude, Northwestern University Press, 1989; out of print).

In these letters, we encounter not Przybyszewska the neo-classical dramatist but Przybyszewska the prolix Proustian observer. Yet there remains something classically dramatic even in the miserable conditions of her life as she describes it to her correspondents. The unitary setting is her room, where ‘the mirrors are veiled by a coat of smoke; the kerosene lamp…drowses in a lingering agony. The cat is asleep. The air has soaked up water like the cold ground in a cemetery.’ The unitary action consists in the clack of her typewriter, the sound of pages being turned, the filling of the stove, the feeding of the cat, the doses of morphine. And, on every page, there is tragedy: Przybyszewska calling out from her hole to be heard, to be recognised as the writer she is sure she is.


From the letters, it’s clear that Przybyszewska’s life was a continual round of pain and humiliation growing worse with time. The northern cold, to which the morphine made her extremely sensitive, incited ‘such raging pain in my forehead, nose, and feet that I shriek on the street, to the delight of the passers-by.’ The Gymnasium schoolboys whose antics in the courtyard outside her window obliged her stop up her ears with wax beheld in her a perfect victim, and they assaulted her with noise, pranks, and once, when she made the mistake of going out for five minutes without locking the door, stole two pens, a penknife, and some other trifles from a drawer. ‘I don’t lament the loss of the things,’ she told her aunt; ‘but the stealing itself is so hideous that I still can’t get over it…I feel sick about it.’ All the while, Przybyszewska’s addiction took its dreadful toll: in addition to the cold, she suffered from heart palpitations, insomnia, tuberculosis. By 1933, she was begging cigarettes on the street or hunting for butts in the can, repairing torn papers, worrying about the proposed demolition of the building in which she lived, the Nazis’ ineluctable annexation of Danzig, her vulnerability, her body now so weakened she could no longer do the exercises her doctor recommended and, to move about the room, she had no choice but to crawl.

Przybyszewska seems to have had thoughts of suicide as early as 1931, about the time she began strenuously denying having these thoughts to her Aunt Helena. This woman, who never came to visit Przybyszewska in Danzig but who often sent money along with what must have been sympathetic, infinitely patient replies to her niece’s voluminous letters, was Przybyszewska’s most loyal friend. Other than her aunt, all that kept her tethered to life in her last years was her work, her hope for her work, and her cat. There is nothing easier to mock than the affection a recluse, especially a female recluse, feels for her cat. (A Swedish production of The Danton Case took full advantage of this, incorporating Przybyszewska herself as a character, observing the play in rehearsal, commenting on the action, and holding her cat on her lap.) But the fondness and responsibility Przybyszewska felt for this creature — whom she’d saved from being struck by a motorcycle in the street — was real. When her health was beginning to decline in earnest, she wrote Helena:

But I don’t want to die at any price…I have barely started my business on this earth…And besides, there’s the cat, the cat, the cat!

A few years later, the poor cat would play a gruesome final role in Przybyszewska’s story, when its disquieted mewing alerted the neighbours to her death.

Przybyszewska was not a healthy woman. She was an addict, ridden with social anxieties. She starved herself, sometimes on purpose. Her commitment to her work was insane. However, the only letters in which Przybyszewska reveals herself to be unquestionably unhinged are the ones she wrote (but likely never sent) to Thomas Mann. Mann, for Przybyszewska, was a father figure unlike her father, sober — and single-minded in his devotion to literary art. It was to Mann that she confessed: ‘Master I am alone, truly alone…All the nerves of my body, my blood, my entire being calls out for money, that frightful sacred oxygen of social life.’ And it was to Mann that she addressed her last letter, which I quote in full:

Once more I’ve restrained myself from sending this letter. Now I can’t any longer. I’ve run out of bread, and I can’t get along without it. The cold is torturing me. Every object in my room is laden with pain: in each ‘bent’ muscle there lurks pain, unimaginable spiritual and bodily pain. And nothing and no one provides an answer. And nowhere any love. And the self-torture of my exercises is no longer possible; I don’t have any courage left.
Had I known that such suffering is possible — I simply would have refused to come into the world.
I can neither live nor die.
Against my wishes, my thoughts blaspheme. I don’t want anything. Or anyone (oh, Lord, oh, God, that this must be true!): only peace and quiet.
Yes — peace and quiet…!
That’s easy to say!
I’m not pure enough. I’ve used myself up, I’ve misused myself. Then…
I know only one thing: I can’t go on.

This was the end, it’s impossible to ignore. But there is much more to Stanisława Przybyszewska’s story than this last howl of agony. Her letters are not only documents of hardship; they are literature of the most genuine kind. In their vivid imagery and polyglot wordplay, their expressions oozing self-loathing and wounded self-love, they conjure up a life that wasn’t lived on the surface, in any sense — a life that many people would say was hardly lived at all. And yet to encounter them in Kosicka and Gerould’s translation is to encounter, yes, a suffering soul, but also a secret sharer, and a writer unparalleled in the history of prose.

Alex Andriesse‘s writing has appeared in Granta, The Quarterly Review, and The Millions. His translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave is published by NYRB Classics and a translation of Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 25th, 2019.