book cover imageDiary 1954
by Leopold Tyrmand.
Northwestern University Press, 2014.
Paperback, 400 pages, $28.

A few months ago, a small piece of history arrived in the post. It was a window that allowed us to catch a glimpse of the world of the Polish People’s Republic: Diary 1954, written by the Polish man of letters Leopold Tyrmand. During 1954, in a communist-governed Poland, this contrarian, jazz enthusiast, writer, and editor kept a diary detailing daily life in Poland. The possibility of going to pick up a book of his liking wouldn’t have been as easy for him as it was for me the other day. Heavy censorship, imposed with an iron fist by the will of the Party, made a seemingly mundane issue like reading a book into a potential crime. Censorship also shut down the Universal Weekly, a Catholic publication, and left Tyrmand without a job. As this diary starts, Tyrmand had published only one book and felt like he hadn’t accomplished much. He was in his mid-thirties, single, out of a job, and a member of the Writers Club—largely, he admits, for its cheap food.

Leopold Tyrmand’s diary is full of short and fun statements such as “Diaries are Proustian,” general truisms like “Marriage can’t survive if you don’t together fight through the travails of daily life,” and humorous remarks such as “no one in Poland is a complete unbeliever, even in the Atheist’s Association.” Tyrmand clearly had a broad cultural frame of reference. In the diary we get his view of thinkers like Sartre, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and—inevitably—Marx. He also introduces us to the cultural elite of Poland at the time, many of whom were his personal friends.

Tyrmand was born in 1920, lived in Germany and Norway during the Second World War, spent time in a concentration camp in Norway, and worked variously as a tutor, agricultural worker, railroad worker, librarian, hotel porter, and journalist. It is clear that he preferred writing and delving into the realm of culture. A theme that runs through the diary is his love-hate relationship with writing. He is tormented by the fact that he hasn’t published more than one book and that he doesn’t have a job at any of the major weeklies, but he won’t take on any job due to his staunch anti-communist stance and his unwillingness to compromise his values.

Another theme that runs through the diary is ordinary life in Poland during the 1950s. As a diary it represents only the view of one particular man, but much of what is described is of a more general character, witnessed and attested to by others, and recognized by historical scholarship. What makes this diary stand out is the way life is portrayed, with all its contradictions used by Tyrmand to maximal comic effect. One example is the fact that he, as a former critic, is allowed to watch films in the cinema. These films are American, and therefore deemed “imperialist” by the regime. Such films were consequently forbidden to the populace. The government officials, however, have no problem whatsoever spending an evening imbibing American propaganda. As Tyrmand writes, the “delights of wallowing in imperialist lies at the film screenings of Central Cinematography are the elite’s ultimate privilege, its pride and glory and its bliss, twice a week.” Another example comes from the fact that Poland didn’t produce usable toothbrushes. They had to be smuggled in from America at great risk and sold on the black market for forty zlotys apiece. Queues, black markets, political violence—all these aspects of the effects of communism on Poland are mentioned. The book therefore provides much-needed context for a country that has suffered much under both Nazism and communism, and which still carries its wounds.

Tyrmand doesn’t confine himself to pointing out the hardships of daily life but also discusses his dislike of Marxist theory. He recounts the after-hours schooling many Polish citizens were subject to, where lectures in Marxist-Leninism had to be attended, and where the citizen sits “voluntarily for several hours like a pupil on a bench and listens to bullshit which in other circumstances might have been laughable, but in this context utterly shreds a person’s mental strength.” He calls these the cardinal laws of communist life: work discipline, and after-hours schooling. Tyrmand comments that “Marxists believe that if the practice fails, the error lies in the practice, not in the theory that launched it.” There can therefore be no real crime in the Marxist utopia, so the newspapers rarely write about it. And if they do, it’s society’s fault, refusing to distinguish the Marxist regime from the masses. Thus, it would be hard to convince someone that the victim of a crime is just as much to blame as the criminal under the weight of collective responsibility, the source of which is to be found in the last remains of capitalism. The only problem, writes Tyrmand, is that most of the hooligans work for the state, and there isn’t even a privately owned bar to get the hooligans drunk in.

The reader must at least be cautioned. As the translators note in the introductory note, Tyrmand likes women. A lot. The book is full of detailed accounts of romantic—or rather, occasionally unromantic—encounters with women. For him, sexual encounters were a way of enjoying life in a society with a regime that had done its best to suck every vestige of life out it. He repeatedly confides to the diary that he would be unfit to settle down and have a family, and he is aware of his contradictory stance of high moral standards in the realm of sexuality for others, but lax morals in his own life. After the diary was published, he did however get married, and eventually settled in America with his third wife and two children. Once in America, he continued to write, becoming the first president of the Rockford Institute and editor of is journal, Chronicles of Culture.

Controversy has often haunted the legacy of Diary 1954. Some have wanted to suggest that the diary was written long after the time period presented in the book. This stance, however, is untenable. Many contemporaries witnessed the diary in the time it was being written, and others have confirmed events referenced there. Tyrmand is also considered controversial for his uncompromising attitude; even after he emigrated to the United States he found himself disassociated from by friends he had made, for criticising American culture from a broadly conservative perspective. The fairest assessment that can perhaps be made is that the diary presents us someone well aware of the fact that we are beings with conflicts of interest in our own lives, and that we must stick to our ideals if they can be justified as just, even when a regime may hunt and shut you down for this. Leopold Tyrmand was a flawed and fascinating man. His greatness consists partly in his ability to acknowledge these faults.

The diary concludes with a reflection, where he attempts to describe himself both in appearance and his inner life. It ends mid-sentence, as he intended to return to writing but got a job the following day, and went on to publish many books, the most famous being Zły (“The Man with the White Eyes” in English). The diary includes a particularly interesting self-assessment as a man interested in and a product of culture, rather than an academically formed intellect. By this he means he is the type of person who would rather read Dickens or Remarque than Jaspers or Maritain; that he is a classical liberal, but shaped by the passions of the moment, rather than reading Locke and Lord Acton. He is a sort of Polish Tory anarchist. But the diary shows that however much he laments the fact that he lacks the intellectual training to be able to “grapple with everything that I want and intend to grapple with,” he clearly does have a grasp of the topics he discusses in this volume.

The diary shows us a person who, rather than publishing academic papers, writes on intellectual matters intended for the general public. That is why I initially referred to him as a Polish man of letters. It is evident that he intended to have the diary published, and many of his cultural and theoretical discussions are likely written with the readership in mind. At one point he states that he wants someone in the twenty-first century to read this diary. We should heed his admonition.  

Karl Gustel Wärnberg studies the history of ideas in the Master Programme in the Humanities at Uppsala University, Sweden. He sits on the editorial board of The European Conservative, is chairman of the Swedish Conservative Association in Stockholm, and is an intern at the UK’s oldest conservative think-tank, The Bow Group.