The Kingdom of Insignificance: Miron Białoszewski and the Quotidian, the Queer, and the Traumatic
By Joanna Niżyńska
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013
Miron Białoszewski (1922-1983), a Polish poet, prose writer, and playwright, is perhaps one of the most enigmatic and overlooked writers of his generation. While respected for his unique, oral style that focused on the quotidian rather than the ideological, Białoszewski was initially considered by many a kind of self-indulgent avant-garde poet of linguistic experimentation. However, he would go on to consolidate his place in the Polish literary canon with the publication of his Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising (Pamiętnik z powstania warszawskiego, 1970), a text that scandalized for its disavowal of the typical patriotic, Romantic paradigm that dominated representations of the Uprising, but quickly brought him critical acclaim and a popular readership. The rest of his career was mostly devoted to writing a series of diary-like, poetico-prosaic narrations, dubbed “life-writing” (życiopisanie) by the writer, detailing various, everyday situations and observations. Marginal and canonical, a poet who turned to prose and continuously confounded genre distinctions, an uncloseted homosexual who cultivated his own alternative literary niche yet was never really considered a dissident, a writer who often shocked Communist authorities but managed to gain a degree of critical, popular, and official recognition, Białoszewski was a man of paradoxes, an integral part of Polish literary history, but seemingly always bracketed off in his own little world. He continues to remain something of a riddle, a compelling, but essentially elusive Polish postwar writer.
Białoszewski’s paradoxical, incongruent nature is precisely what Joanna Niżyńska grapples with in her masterful study of the writer, The Kingdom of Insignificance: Miron Białoszewski and the Quotidian, the Queer, and the Traumatic. Echoing other literary scholars, Niżyńska notes that Białoszewski primarily engaged with the everyday in his writings, but always in such a way that alluded to something more. Attempting to tease out this “something more,” Niżyńska argues against previous interpretations of Białoszewski as a writer who was primarily concerned with retaining his autonomy from the literary mainstream, examining some of the circumstances in his life, namely his experience of World War II and his sexual orientation, and their effect on his writing strategies. Deftly applying trauma and queer theories to Białoszewski’s Memoir and life-writings, Niżyńska offers readers a distinct and comprehensive interpretation of his oeuvre and paints a fascinating portrait of a complicated, dynamic writer.
The traumatic and its relation to the everyday becomes a key aspect in her analysis, forming the main theoretical impetus of most of her text. Niżyńska demonstrates how Białoszewski’s Memoir, dealing with a major historical event of war but emphasizing its civilian dimension, gives voice to a kind of traumatic everyday, fusing the ordinary and routine (retrieving water, for example) with the radical and extreme (the constant threat of death). Whereas previous scholars have often viewed Białoszewski’s Memoir as a singular, disconnected text, having little to do with the poetic experimentation of his earlier work or with the quotidian nature of his later life-writings, Niżyńska shows that it fundamentally shaped his work. Indeed, she argues that, while the quotidian becomes the focus of Białoszewski’s later writings, this everyday retains a kind of traumatic residue. The “Miron” of these works, for example, often has dreams about the war or has traumatic flashbacks while involved in a routine activity. For Niżyńska, his life-writing offers insight into his experience of the war and this trauma’s continual and residual effect on his life and writing.
In the last section of her analysis, Niżyńska applies queer theory to Białoszewski’s life-writings, examining how his sexual orientation affected his writing and how a knowledge of the writer’s homosexuality affect how his texts are read. While this section stands a bit apart from her analysis of the traumatic and the everyday, it does emphasize one of Niżyńska’s main arguments; namely, that while Białoszewski reveled in the everyday, his texts are far from the ahistorical, wholly private ruminations disengaged from public life other scholars have labeled them as. Rather, his writings, as his Memoir perhaps most directly shows, are deceptively dense and polyvalent, and engage with Poland’s social, cultural, and political identity in various ways. But, instead of constituting a distinct counter-narrative that stands in opposition to the accepted grand narrative of history, Białoszewski’s works subtly point to the alternative, marginalized, oftentimes unvoiced micro-narratives that can be found within this history. In this way, Niżyńska aptly argues, Białoszewski encourages readers to open themselves up to different modes of knowledge and new ways of seeing history and traditional formulations of identity.
Lucidly combining theoretical concepts and nuanced textual analysis, Niżyńska presents an insightful reading of Białoszewski’s work that can serve as an engaging introduction to the man and his oeuvre, while offering those already familiar with the writer a fresh, thought-provoking perspective.