12 Dec 2010

Andrzej Bobkowski and his journal

 En Guerre et en Paix, Journal 1940-1944

I was recently given this book, translated from Polish into French. It also exists in English, under various titles and in various forms. Pen Sketches is one of the English titles used. If you want to know who Andrzej Bobkowski was, various sources on the web will give you some facts, but there is nothing like reading what someone writes about their own lives and thoughts, and this book, which is his private journal for the period between 1940 and 1944, is not only the best account of occupied France that I have ever read, it is also one of the best diaries I know. 

Sadly, Bobkowski left few other writings, other than articles, but this is an unassuming masterpiece that shows an amazingly detached (and therefore acutely observant) view of various stages of the war seen from someone caught in France, having fled Poland. He recounts, in detail and with talent, first the pandemonium that reigned during the evacuation of Paris following the Nazi invasion, then a strangely exhilarating odyssey on a bicycle through much of southern France and back to Paris, wherein Bobkowski is a sort of athletic Don Quixote and his work colleague, Tadzio, an enduring Sancho Panza, to finish back in Paris with his wife, as from September 1940, where he spent the rest of the war. His irony on French behaviour during the debacle and the occupation is scathing, as well as his disdain for the Vichy regime, but he has little indulgence either for Polish romanticism, English cynicism, or, his pet hate, the Russians and communism. He is naturally totally hostile to Hitler and his thugs.

Bitterly disappointed by political behaviour in general and all forms of totalitarianism in particular, his tenderness is for individuals who are independant and courageous, and for the beauty that everyday life reveals from time to time. For example this passage, which follows a description of the landscape somewhere near Carcassone, when resting during his bicycle marathon:

"I contemplate and listen to the landscape. Beauty is sometimes as hard to stand as pain. One can stand it up a certain point, and one can feel it only to a certain depth. Beyond that, one faints inside."

Yet Bobkowski is no melancholy, self-indulgent intellectual. Mens sana in corpore sano is clearly his motto and he proves it by his achievements on the bicycle expedition, during which he never ceases to write either. His work throughout the war is (apart from surviving with his wife) to assist his fellow countrymen: a task which he clearly accomplishes with intelligence and courage, although he speaks sparingly of it in his journal. 

He reads extensively and is obviously well read: Conrad, Balzac and Flaubert come to the surface regularly. But above all it is his lucidity about current events, and their consequences, that impressed me. He knows from the outset that the war is going to be long, and he sees very soon what kind of Europe, divided in two, was being prepared by Stalin. In facts he fears, until the Americans enter the war, that Stalin will take over Europe. His comments on the petty behaviour of many people under the circumstances of war are another sign of his lucidity, but there is also a form of stoicism that runs through the book and his attitude. He is alternately admiring and deeply ironical about different aspects of the French character.



Andrzej Bobkowski never returned to Poland, and stayed in Paris for only a few years after the war. Disappointed with Europe he went to live in Guatemala, where he died (of cancer) in 1961. A man whom I would have liked to know.