Autobiographical Notes of the Nobel Laureate
Portait of Władysław Reymont
by Jacek Malczewski, 1905
I was born on May 6th, 1868, in the village of Kobiele Wielkie in that part of Poland which was under Russian rule. I was one of 12 children of parents of limited means.
My father was the church organist; the village curate was my mother's brother, a former monk from the order of Pijar, a very well educated and ascetic man who loved nothing but solitude. The most ardent Catholicism ruled in our house. We led a hard life, almost like peasants.
My family had taken a very active part in the January uprising of 1863 against Russia. My mother had participated by serving as a messenger between various armed detachments. All five of her brothers took part. Some of the members of the family had been killed; one of my uncles had been condemned to forced labor in Siberia.
During my childhood I had a long, dangerous spell of illness, and my health has always been delicate. I was hardly a year old when my uncle was transferred to a small locality called Tuszyn, very close to the great manufacturing town of Łódź. There my father acquired a few acres of land without abandoning his post as organist. The management of our property was left to my mother, who was helped by some servants and her oldest children.
When I was six and already able to read and write Polish, my uncle the curate taught me Latin. Since he had no suitable textbook, he simply used the breviary. The lessons were tedious; the long stem of the curate's pipe assisted him daily in his instruction. At that time I discovered very interesting books in the parish library. I plunged into the history and classics of the country. Reading became a passion with me. I carried books hidden under my clothes and read wherever I could. The study of Latin was maintained throughout the winter, but the spring turned me into a shepherd; as before, I was to tend my father's sheep, and I plunged only more eagerly into the Crusades and Walter Scott. That reading led to painful misunderstandings by its very contrast to my ordinary existence.
I spent the first nine years of my life in a peasant setting. At that time, schools in Poland had been Russified. Within the confines of the school one was even forbidden to speak in Polish. I was slowly preparing to enter the college attended by my elder brother. But unfortunately my uncle the curate died. and my father, deprived of sufficient resources to give me a higher education, decided to make an organist of me. He put me behind a piano and thus began my study of sacred music, so vigorously and so often punctuated by the cane that I quickly learned to abhor it.
Apart from my musical studies I had to help my father at the church and keep the parish register of baptisms, marriages, births, and deaths, assist daily at Mass, help the priest with the dying, etc.
I loved these diverse occupations since nobody checked my spare time, which I was able to devote entirely to reading. By the age of nine I had a thorough knowledge of contemporary Polish literature as well as of foreign literature in Polish translation, and I began to write poems in honor of a lady of thirty years. Naturally, she knew nothing about them.
During this period my brother, who had left college, tried systematically to make me pursue a regular program of studies. He took infinite pains, but did not succeed in tearing poetry out of my heart. I was at that time intoxicated by the romantic poetry of our great writers. I arranged the world according to my private use, looking at it through the poems I had devoured.
Within myself I felt vague enchantments, dull restlessness, and uncertain desires. I had hallucinations when I was awake. What wings carried me to unknown worlds!
Already I felt sick and confined at home; daily life was a burden. I dreamed of great actions, of voyages - rovings across the oceans of a free and independent life.
For entire weeks I would keep away from the house and try to live in the woods like a savage. I formed monstrous shapes in potter's clay, or cut them in trees; I filled my notebooks and the margins of my books with rough sketches, and I spent more than one night crying without reason.
I migrated from school to school and was ousted from each one. Such was my life until the age of twelve.
Earning a living
To earn a living, I became, for a time, a commercial salesman, and later a clerk in a telegraph office. I lived in Warsaw and
- being twenty years old - I naturally had a wild imagination and a tender heart. Misery was my inseparable companion; I was a socialist and the punishment was inevitable. The Russian authorities expelled me from Warsaw after suspecting me of having taken part in the strike that had then broken out in Łódź for the first time. Considering me an irresponsible minor, they entrusted me to the custody of my father and the surveillance of the local police. At that time my parents had a watermill and land of some importance in the vicinity of Piotrków, close to the railway from Warsaw to Vienna. I could tolerate neither the tyranny of my father nor the extreme conservatism and Catholicism of my family. After a few weeks I ran away with a small troupe of actors and travelled with them across the country. After a year, I had enough of the wandering artist's life with its miseries and lack of a future; besides, my talent for acting was nonexistent.
I was able to find a job in the technical service of the railway. I lived in the provinces, in a peasant's house between two stations. My income was pitiable, my life hard and tedious, my surroundings primitive. I had hit rock bottom. I was lucky to make the acquaintance of a German professor, a convinced and practicing spiritualist. He dazzled and conquered me. A world of fantastic dreams and possibilities opened before my eyes. I left my job and went to join the professor, who lived at Częstochowa. He had constant and close contact with spiritualist circles in Gennany and England, corresponded regularly with Madame Blavatsky and Olcot, wrote in spiritualist journals, and was always giving ad hoc seances. For him, spiritualism was both a science and a religion - a mystical atmosphere prevailed in his entire house. He was kind, childishly naive, and at every seance cheated by his medium. It was not difficult for me to see that very soon, and once I lost faith in his miracles, I abandoned them immediately. Once more I was free, penniless, and without a tomorrow. For a while I worked for a land surveyor; I was a clerk in a shop that sold devotional articles, then a salesman for a lumberyard. Finally I returned to the theater. For several months I toured small places with a traveling company and did a great deal of acting, but when the company was dissolved I was left on the road. I tried to give recitations, for I knew entire poems by heart. I offered my services as producer in amateur theaters and I wrote for provincial journals. But I soon learned to loathe these occupations. I tried farming and then I begun a novitiate at the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa, but eventually returned willy-nilly to the railway. As before I was employed in the technical service; I was to live in a village lost between two distant stations. There was no office building for the agents of the company; I had to content myself with a peasant cottage very close to the railway.
For a while I had a roof over my head, literally a piece of dry bread, and quiet. I was surrounded by impenetrable forests in which the Czar of all Russians hunted every year. I had installed myself at the end of autumn. I did not have much to do and I had time free for writing and being foolish. I lived on tea, bread, and dreams. I was twenty-two years old. I was healthy, had only one suit, and boots with holes in them. I had faith in the world and a thousand bold projects in my mind. I wrote feverishly: dramas in ten acts, novels without end, stories in several volumes, poems. Then I tore up everything mercilessly and burned it. I lived in solitude; I had no friends; the authorities as well as my fellow-workers were unfavorably disposed toward me; I did my duties badly. I could adapt myself neither to the mentality of those around me nor to the conditions of my existence. All this was painful and hard for me to endure. Misery did not release me; it undermined me, and then the cold... I had to spend whole days in the open supervising the workers; the nights I spent in a room so cold that I wrote wrapped in a fur, keeping the inkwell under the lamp lest the ink should freeze.
I suffered these torments for two years, but as a result I had finished six short stories that seemed to have possibilities. I sent them to a critic in Warsaw, but it took over six months until I received a favorable reply. He even condescended to recommend me to a publisher. After new efforts my stories were printed. My whole being was filled with unspeakable happiness: at last I had found my way. But this good fortune was not without results for my bureaucratic career. The management dismissed me; they needed workers, not men of letters.
I gathered my belongings, consisting chiefly of manuscripts, and with the generous amount of three rubles amid fifty kopecks I went to Warsaw to conquer the world. I began a new Odyssey of misery, roving and struggling with destiny.
No help from anywhere! I broke completely with my family. They did not understand me and lamented my fate. For the first six months I did not know the taste of the most ordinary dinner. I went out only in moonlight. My rags were too shabby for any occasion. I lived with people as miserable as I was. I wrote in the cathedral that was opposite my refuge; it was warm, solemn, and silent. I fed my soul on organ music and the sight of religious ceremonies. It was there, too, that I read Augustine, the Bible, and the Church Fathers, for days on end. I contemplated suicide more and more seriously. The earth was already opening under my feet. An irresistible fascination with terrifying death killed me ahead of time.
The more profound my faith became, the more violent my fascination with annihilation, and then incessant hunger pushed me toward the abyss.
Success at last
At the beginning of spring, in April, I saw pilgrims going to Częstochowa, to the Jasna Góra monastery that had the picture of the Madonna famous for its miracles. I broke my chains and joined them. I do not remember which journal gave me an advance of twenty-five rubles for the description of that pilgrimage.
For eleven days I walked in marvelous spring weather, under the sun and in the green. The account of that pilgrimage (Pielgrzymka do Jasnej Góry, [Pilgrimage to the Czestochowa, 1985]) appeared in a Warsaw illustrated daily and attracted the attention of the critics. Some months later I wrote Komedjantka [The Comedienne; 1896]. It run through five editions and it was translated into a couple of other languages. During this period I made the acquaintance of a group of spiritualists who included the famous Dr. Ochorowiecz. I went to London to pursue spiritualist problems at the Theosophical Society. On my return I wrote Fermenty [Ferments, 1897], the sequel to Komedjantka. I then went to
Łódź to study conditions in heavy industry and after beginning Ziemia obiecana [The Promised Land; 1899]. The Russian Censor's office deleted many scenes involving the factory workers, which is what the factory owners and managers were demanding from that office.
In 1899, I left for Paris to study. I spent hong months in a French village near Tours. I wrote Lili and some short stories. I traveled through Italy in a more systematic fashion and stayed especially at Sorrento. In 1902 1 was wounded in a train accident near Warsaw, and I have never regained my health completely. In that year, I started to write Chłopi [The Peasants.]
In 1903-04 1 published the first version of Chłopi; at first it was only one volume. I burned it and rewrote it. This time it was divided into four volumes (1904-09). Next I wrote Wampir [The Vampire; 19111 - the reflection, set in London, of my spiritualist and theosophical experiences exercises - and Marzyciel [The Dreamer] about the life of a man stuck in a small railway station, and two volumes of novellas.
In 1912, 1 began historical studies concerning the decline of Poland toward the end of the seventeenth century. I wrote a trilogy called Rok 1794 IThe Year 1794; 1913-18] devoted to the demise of Poland and Kościuszko's uprising. The last volume of that work, Insurekcja [Insurrection], was written in Warsaw during the German occupation after the explosion of the Great War. I also published another volume of novellas. In April 1919, I left for the United States in order to visit my compatriots in that country.
I returned in 1920. In 1922-23 I wrote Bunt [Defiance], and I began to have heart trouble. I still have many things to say and desire greatly to make them public, but will death let me?
This biographical sketch is a composite devised by Peter K. Gessner from a set of autobiographical notes Reymont furnished to the Nobel Foundation and a two page autobiography published as an appendix to Leon Orłowski's "Reymont w Ameryce" [Reymont in America; PIW, Warsaw; 1970]