Joanna Roś

Polish émigré writers: Thinking of Albert Camus

part 2: Józef Czapski and Witold Gombrowicz




Józef Czapski. Unknown artist. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division


Józef Czapski

The library of Maria and Józef Czapski, gathered for years in Maisons-Laffitte near Paris, contains over one and a half thousand Polish and foreign books: many of them decorated with dedications and notes in the margins. The publications of French authors occupy an important place in the library - we can find among them several of Camus's works, which made a strong impression on Czapski. The interest was bilateral - Camus was happy to see the paintings of the Pole at a painting exhibition in Paris (Rutkowski, 1997, p. 88).

Czapski, a resident of Maisons-Laffitte, denied whenever somebody claimed that he had familiar relations with important French writers. However, the fact is that when he came to Camus asking for support for "Kultura", the author of The Rebel reacted immediately and accepted the request.

"I had a strange impression with this man," Czapski recalled years later, "that he was constantly ashamed of something, that I was an immigrant, and that he was already a great writer. That he had the feeling (...) that I was an unhappy man while he had such a career in life. Something that is difficult to say (...). That he was somehow obliged to help other people who were in a difficult position"

(Okruchy pamięci, 2015).

Czapski had one more important meeting with Camus. Fascinated with the literary output of Vasily Rozanov, a Russian writer and philosopher, Czapski edited a selection from his writings.  The book was published in the Gallimard publishing house, but only after Camus had recommended it. "I owe it to Camus" - recalled Czapski. - "And I remember those last conversations with him, very short.

Yes, with him I always had that feeling which I probably have not had with any other writer - the feeling of such a completely unique relation to a human being. And I have the greatest personal admiration
for this man"

(Okruchy pamięci, 2015).

Textual testimonies of the reception of literature are an important part of Czapski's essayistic output (several dozen sketches). The co-founder of the Parisian "Kultura" was not interested in trifling, spiritually unhelpful books, but his sketch about The Plague proves that he occasionally squandered energy on fashionable books - in 1947, The Plague was definitely a fashionable novel in France. In the first Polish review of this work, he called it a fantasy story. Of course, Rozanow's aficionado mentioned that Camus had edited the underground "Combat", so inspiring for the Parisian "Kultura", but he paid attention primarily to the "purity" of his prose and his special way of treating words. So he did not avoid Camus's poetics and he did not focus only on the fact that the novel gave testimony to the "truth" of the time of war (Czapski, 1947, p. 168-170).

In addition, Czapski's encounter with this novel may have influenced the fact that it is Joanna Guze who is known as Camus's Polish translator. First, she prepared a Polish version of The Plague - the writer was interested in it and asked Józef Czapski, who assessed Guze's rendition very highly, about his opinion. Then Guze got permission from Camus to translate all his works (Język gładki, 2015). Her translations are so characteristic and full of spirit that they have forever defined Polish thinking about Camus.




A fragment of the titular page of the last issue of the magazine "Combat". The editor of "Kultura" hanged it in his office in Maisons-Laffitte "as a memento" ("", access:


Witold Gombrowicz

When The Rebel by Camus appeared in France, Witold Gombrowicz asked Czesław Miłosz to send Camus his drama The Wedding, as a sign of solidarity and thanks. Soon after, Gombrowicz received a letter from Camus asking if he could recommend The Wedding to some Parisian directors (Gombrowicz, 2013, p. 167; Letter). How did Gombrowicz react to the proposal of Camus? He was afraid that no one but him would be able to direct the drama and that the performance, even directed by a Parisian personality, would be rather unsuccessful, ruining the drama's career for many years (Gombrowicz, 1989, p. 101). Although Gombrowicz's opinions on the proposed cooperation, which he posted in his Diary, suggest his great distance to Camus's mediation proposal, in fact, in private letters the writer boasted that Camus had promised to promote The Wedding (Giedroyc, Gombrowicz, 1993, p. 160,422).

Nothing came of this project, but in the work of Gombrowicz we are lucky to encounter what grew out of his reading Camus's works. The correspondence between the playwrights took place after Gombrowicz had included notes concerning The Rebel in his Diary.

It is most often written about Gombrowicz's philosophy, to whom French existentialist thought was well known, that he rebelled against abstraction as an advocate of concrete life. In his Diary, he praised The Rebel and his author's moral philosophy. He wrote euphorically that he would have wholeheartedly agreed with the thoughts of the French writer if he had not encountered an obstacle - the individual conscience did not have the same power for him as for Camus (Gombrowicz, 1989, p. 70).

Camus was an individualist convinced of the autonomy of the moral subject. Gombrowicz was troubled by the question of how much it was possible to talk about the moral subject at all. He was more inclined to believe that conscience is constantly determined by the social space, so the motif of action lies not in the individual's conscience, what Camus would have accepted, but in the relationship between the individual and other people. Gombrowicz claimed that the path to the individual leads through other people, but this is a different path from that which Camus would have pointed out. On "the Gombrowicz path" people mutually impose morality on each other, their choices flow from the outside, the world creates them and formulates them. No morality can indicate how to proceed (this thought brings us closer to Sartre), everything influences and is being influenced by everything. Gombrowicz had a grudge against Camus that having in his hands the destiny of "the rebellious man", he did not explain what morality is - how it works, how to justify it. Instead, he filled his Prometheus with rigorous canons and his own subjectivism - he made him an embodiment of abstract morality. The author of The Wedding maintained that, at the elementary level, the concept of Camus was at least suspicious... Yet the rebellious project provoked his approval:

"I go in that direction - and not because I want to,

but because I have to"

(Giedroyc, Gombrowicz, 1993, p. 72).


Next week we will write about:

Polish émigré writers: Thinking of Albert Camus, part 3:

Kazimierz Wierzyński and Jan Lechoń



Czapski, 1947: Czapski J., La Peste, "Kultura" 1947, issue 11.

Giedroyc, Gombrowicz, 1993: Giedroyc J., Gombrowicz W., Listy 1950-1969, edited by A. Kowalczyk, Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza Czytelnik, Warsaw 1993.

Gombrowicz, 1989: Gombrowicz W., Dziennik 1953-1956, edited by J. Błoński, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow 1989.

Gombrowicz, 2013: Gombrowicz W., Kronos, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow 2013.

Język gładki: The smooth language is the most difficult. Jacek Szczerba talked with Joanna Guze, "Gazeta Wyborcza", 3.01.2008.

Letter: The letter of Camus to Gombrowicz is available at the Witold Gombrowicz Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Okruchy pamięci, 2015: Fragments of memory. Recordings with Józef Czapski,  talked Andrzej Mietkowski, "Polish Radio",

Rutkowski, 1997: Rutkowski K., Raptularz końca wieku, "słowo/obraz/terytoria", Gdańsk 1997.


The text is based on the doctoral thesis of Joanna Roś entitled Albert Camus in Polish literary and theatrical culture in the years 1945-2000, Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw, 2018.