Ursula Phillips on Polish Author Zofia Nałkowska


Today The Thornfield Review warmly welcomes translator Ursula Phillips, as she reflects upon the prolific Polish feminist author Zofia Nalkowska. Welcome, Ursula!

 . . .Who was Zofia Nalkowska?

Zofia Nalkowska (10 November 1884 – 17 December 1954) is sometimes referred to as the grande dame of Polish literature. She was an active member of the Polish PEN Club, the only female (and a founding member) of the Polish Academy of Literature (1933-1939) and recipient of major awards including the state prize in 1936 for her novel Boundary (Granica, 1935) and again in 1953 for her life’s work. Other well-received novels include The Romance of Teresa Hennert (1924), Choucas (1927), The Impatient (1939) and Knots of Life (1948). Her play House of Women (1930) enjoyed enormous success.

Nałkowska was born in Warsaw. After World War II, Nałkowska was one of several established literary figures who remained in communist Poland. Twice elected as a member of parliament, she served on the Parliamentary Commission for Culture and Art.

Immediately after the war, she also served on the official government Commission for Investigating Nazi Crimes on Polish Soil, which resulted in the short-story collection Medallions (1946), one of the first literary witnesses to the atrocities, and certainly her best-known work outside Poland.


Zofia Nałkowska (1884-1954) has been my greatest discovery in Polish literature. Her stance on political violence and particular brand of feminism seem strikingly relevant today. A founder of the modernist psychological novel in Polish, addressing universal as well as local themes, she writes in a controlled yet empathetic narrative style. The ways in which she is popularly remembered, however, do not necessarily conform with the person that emerges from close reading of her fiction and personal diaries.

She is the author of fifteen novels, eleven collections of stories and three plays as well a life-long diary published posthumously,  Photographs taken in the 1930s at the height of her career, when she was a prominent presence in cultural life, portray a tall stylish figure, posing elegantly and tastefully dressed. Nalkowska was a recipient of major awards including the state prize in 1936 for her novel Boundary (Granica, 1935) and again in 1953 for her life’s work. She held a regular salon and is often credited for encouraging a younger generation of writers, including Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz and Tadeusz Breza.

At the same time, she enjoyed a series of intimate friendships with several male artists and intellectuals, including writer Michał Choromański, composer Karol Szymanowski, and the Croatian novelist Miroslav Krleža.

On the surface, her love life may have appeared colourful. Her first marriage, to the minor poet and later well-known pedagogue Leon Rygier in 1904 at the age of twenty, lasted only until 1909. Her second in 1922, to Jan Gorzechowski whom she met in 1916, a close associate of Józef Piłsudski, member of his legions and Polish Socialist Party, is intriguing: why did an intellectual woman in her late thirties marry a soldier quite unsuited to her character, who was jealous even of her writing? The couple separated for good in 1929, though they were never formally divorced. In 1935, the much younger minor novelist Bogusław Kuczyński became her live-in companion, but this relationship too did not last.

“I don’t want to be in relation to a man some ideal or priestess of the domestic hearth. I want to be only a woman, I want genuine love. […] I envy them [men] their real joyous, animal love, those orgies that for a woman are like crossing the Rubicon, but for a man are just a small fragment of his life.” — Zofia Nalkowska from a diary entry of November 1899

After World War II and the establishment of communist power, Nałkowska was one of several established literary figures who decided to remain in Poland. Twice elected as a member of parliament and serving on the Parliamentary Commission for Culture and Art, she never joined the Communist Party. She also served, immediately after the war, on the official government Commission for Investigating Nazi Crimes on Polish Soil, which resulted in the short-story collection Medallions (1946), one of the first literary witnesses to the atrocities, and certainly her best-known work outside Poland. Hence it is as a striking and attractive woman with many male admirers, a self-confident presence in public life before and after the war, mentor to younger writers, writer on the Holocaust, that Nałkowska is usually remembered. The only exception perhaps are the generations of Polish secondary-school students forced to read her best-known novel Boundary as a set book.

Examination of her personal diaries and fiction reveals a more nuanced, complex and even contradictory parallel portrait, including her views on womanhood. Nałkowska began writing a diary in 1896 when she was twelve years old, though the extant notebooks date only from 1899, and maintained it until the year of her death. It is a moot point whether she intended it to be published, though she hinted at wishing to write an autobiography for which the diary was to provide material. It was published only gradually, from 1970 until 2001, and so it was some years after her death before the “real Nałkowska” emerged from her own words—a thoughtful, ethical personality, a lifelong struggle against poverty (in contrast to the cliché of her grande-dame status) and frequent illness, relationships with parents, sister, lovers and husbands—all of whom Nałkowska had to support at some stage from her meagre earnings—but above all the development of a woman and artist, her vast self-education and reading of European literature, as well as critical witness to her times, culminating in her dramatic record of the occupation years 1939-1945.

The diary is also fraught with self-doubt concerning her abilities as a writer. It should not be taken as the only route into her novels, but it is fascinating to see diary material recycled in her fiction, sometimes several years later: details of a visit to a Swiss sanatorium in 1925 and the people she met there, for example, are meticulously recorded at the time and then reappear in the novel Choucas (1927); a trip to the south of France in 1928 resurfaces in Boundary (1935); precise and horrifying details of the flight of ordinary citizens from Warsaw under air bombardment in September 1939 form the final chapters of Knots of Life (Węzły życia, 1948), her novel reflecting the interwar state under the generals following the death of Piłsudski in 1935.

Nałkowska’s parents were of the nascent “urban intelligentsia”, a class that emerged in the mid to late nineteenth century from impoverished descendants of the land-owning class (ziemiaństwo) who moved to cities with ambitions to acquire educational and professional qualifications. Zofia enjoyed close relationships with both parents. Wacław Nałkowski (1851-1911), graduate of the Jagiellonian University (Kraków), was a geographer, publicist and social activist. Together with Andrzej Świętochowski, he produced one of the largest atlases ever published in Poland (Wielki atlas geograficzny, completed 1906). He had no sympathy for the social class of his ancestors and was of socialist leanings with no attachment to the Roman Catholic Church, an ideological outlook that profoundly influenced Zofia. Along with cultural critic Cezary Jellenta and poet Maria Komornicka he authored Forpoczty (1895), an early manifesto of the Modernist Young Poland movement. Her mother, Anna Šafránek, to whom Nałkowska remained emotionally close until Anna’s death in 1942, was from a polonized Czech family that had settled in Galicia—Zofia would recall how her maternal grandmother spoke Czech.

The young family moved frequently from one tiny flat in central Warsaw to another, until in 1895 they purchased a modest wooden house in Wołomin (near Kobyłka, east of Warsaw) known in the family as Górki and later immortalized as the “house above the meadows” (Dom nad Łąkami, autobiographical novel of this title, 1925). The house is now a museum and research centre devoted to the writer and her father (Muzeum im. Zofii i Wacława Nałkowskich “Dom nad Łąkami”)

Nałkowska’a career as a writer may be divided into two distinct stages, before and after 1915, when in response to the German occupation of Warsaw in August 1915 and the human cost she witnessed of fighting, a dramatic change took place in her perceptions. As she put it herself in a diary entry of November 1917, “Now the world is certainly more interesting and important to me outside of me than inside me. […] I am truly writing about others, I think about others.” She turned towards society, political commitment, Polish national and independence issues, and also to the more universal question of violence and war in human interaction. Until this point her main focus had been her own womanhood and intellectual development, but this too is important because it represents an interesting individual stance distinct from the stated ideals of the contemporary women’s movement.

The young Nałkowska was very much influenced by her father’s egalitarian and agnostic opinions, and also by the Modernist literary circles in which he moved. At the same time, we might speculate about the mixed messages she could have received about the position of women within the family, or as artists in their own right, from the example of her parents: theoretical emancipation alongside wifely devotion and maternal self-sacrifice. Wacław was supportive in principle of women’s emancipation and of the artistic ambitions of his daughters (Zofia’s younger sister Hanna became an acclaimed sculptor). Anna Nałkowska, however, studied geography after her marriage in order to support her husband’s work and subsequently became the author of geography textbooks; within family life, her role appears to have been entirely traditional.

Nałkowska’s attitude to her own sexuality and her take on the contemporary New Womanhood was rooted in the individualism, dionysianism and narcissicism derived from her reading of Nietzsche, whom she adapted to her own case as a female individual, thereby disregarding his misogyny, and in the aestheticism of Young Poland. It was a self-focused project, in which she took pleasure in her own beautiful body, mind and inner life. She clearly believed in the essential difference of women from men, and never in fact departed from the Modernist belief in the incompatibility of the sexes; almost all sexual relationships portrayed in her novels are tragic. She also wished to be what she conceived of as womanly, yet free to express her sexuality.

And here, above all, is where she perceived injustice: the double standard—society did not allow women to freely express their sexuality; this was the privilege of men, whereas women were expected to be chaste wives and mothers, irrespective of what men did. In diary entries for November 1899, when she was fifteen, she declares “I don’t want to be in relation to a man some ideal or priestess of the domestic hearth. I want to be only a woman, I want genuine love. […] I envy them [men] their real joyous, animal love, those orgies that for a woman are like crossing the Rubicon, but for a man are just a small fragment of his life.” As Hanna Kirchner explains in her biography, this is no claim for Romantic love, for the kindred soul, which she seems to regard as delusional, but for sexual fulfilment, what she describes elsewhere as “the whole of life.” At the same time, as Kirchner notes, she already identifies one of the central and lasting features of patriarchal perception, and the accompanying dilemma for feminists who believe in the essential difference of women—namely, that society treats women first and foremost as women, as gendered beings, and only secondarily as human beings:

“A man may know the fullness of life because in him dwells both the man and the human being. For a woman, there remains only a fraction of life—she has to be either a human being, or a woman. She is never a perfect creature. So now the moment is approaching when I must choose. That is, to become a cripple, and halt the development of half my being.”

In the conditions of the time, this was the fundamental choice facing a woman who wished to lead any form of life outside proscribed norms and conventions, not only as a liberated sexual being, but also as an artist—to pursue an artistic career meant denying her sex, becoming “unsexed,” the very thing she did not wish to do.

Kirchner also emphasizes how Nałkowska had no time for contemporary feminists who denied their femininity, cut off their hair, or tried to imitate men in order to be taken seriously. Nałkowska played no part in the Polish women’s movement, which after all was very active in Warsaw and other Polish cities at the turn of the century, represented by such figures as Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit, editor of the feminist magazine Ster (The Rudder), Maria Turzyma, Kazimiera Bujwidowa, Cecylia Walewska, Ida Moszczeńska, Maria Dulębianka, who were fighting for the legal right to organize, greater access to higher education, economic emancipation. Nałkowska did not write about these things in her diary; she was not against them, on the contrary, but they were not what she cared about most, or perceived as the core of the problem. In July 1900, she writes, “I have never yet encountered a proper grasping of the women’s question: some women go on about physical liberation, others devise associations against men’s dissipation, others keep explaining that their desire for knowledge and economic freedom should not be seen as ‘freedom from morals’ […], and they all hate men”; she seems to see efforts for economic equality as relatively unimportant “in face of the fundamental difference between man and woman.”

In her 1906 novel Kobiety (Women) she even has a negative portrait of a contemporary feminist, which seems rather cruel and unjustified: Smiłowiczowa is a working wife, highly educated, but also a mother struggling in poverty, whom the main protagonist of the novel Janka Dernowiczówna perceives as physically repulsive and whose lifestyle she rejects. The multiple heroines of this novel are caught between their longing for sexual fulfilment—wishing however for monogamous relationships and in some cases also motherhood (although in Nałkowska’s novels, this too is a conflicted topic)—and the continual unfaithfulness of lovers and husbands, felt as a deeply wounding existential betrayal.

And here, the young Nałkowka (twenty-two when this novel was published) catches another dilemma: the desire of women, including when they reject traditional married roles, for exclusive sexual relationship, something she perceived as contrary to men’s nature. Unfaithfulness, betrayal, was something which Nałkowska experienced in most of her relationships with men. Janka in Women, after several unsuccessful relationships, opts, to avoid further emotional hurt, for the “ice fields” (the title of the first of the novel’s three parts)—a reclusive intellectual life based on platonic marriage to an elderly scholar. In two subsequent novels, Contemporaries (Rówieśnice, 1909) and Narcyza (1910), the dualism between the search for fulfilment in love and the “ice fields” extends to the realms of professional work and social responsibility, where one of the “contemporaries,” Małgorzata, earns her own living and denies herself love. Narcyza, in the eponymous novel, likewise resists love for the sake of her own independence; self-protective loneliness is the price she, like Janka, is prepared to pay.


Zofia Nalkowska

An important context for understanding this phase of Nałkowska’s writing is the speech she made to the first Polish Women’s Congress in 1907. As in her private diary, she demanded for women the same sexual rights as men and an end to the double standard—“we want the whole of life,” was how she expressed it. At the same time, she defended prostitutes and attacked the hypocrisy of patriarchal middle-class women, who, she claimed, were complicit in the status quo and thereby undermined female solidarity. The speech shocked the Congress. It was published under the title “Remarks on the Ethical Tasks of the Women’s Movement” (“Uwagi o etycznych zadaniach ruchu kobiecego”) in Krytyka prompting a polemical debate in this journal (1907-1908).

One of her defenders was the above-mentioned Maria Turzyma (c.1860-1922), despite Nałkowska’s unflattering portrait of contemporary feminists. It is difficult, however, given the radical nature of her claims and continual focus in every subsequent novel on some aspect of specifically female experience, not to regard Nałkowska as a feminist. The culmination of the earlier period was the novel Snakes and Roses (Węże i róże, 1915). Here, in the words of painter and diarist Erna and emancipation campaigner Modesta, the role of art is explored as a means of expressing a woman’s nature as well as her independence from rigid social norms prescribing for women only marriage and motherhood. Marital and family relations are portrayed as claustrophobic and toxic to women’s emotional and mental well-being, the most extreme example being Marusia Orych, the mother of a severely impaired child, betrayed by her husband, who eventually kills the child and commits suicide. Misogynist theories, meanwhile, such as those of Otto Weininger, are debunked by Modesta in her public lecture.

After the publication of Snakes and Roses, Nałkowska never focuses again on overtly feminist topics in the sense of explicitly challenging conventional roles. Yet her concern for how life issues, marriage and maternity, pregnancy, illness, ageing and various forms of discrimination affect women remains continually interwoven into the fabric of later novels. In Choucas (1927), she introduces the figure of Madame Saint-Albert, the wife of a much younger husband who is devoted to her, and yet she is unable to forget her first husband who abandoned her for a younger woman; while the former husband is still alive, there is always the faint hope that he may contact her, but on hearing of his death, Madame Saint-Albert sinks into depression and commits suicide.

She is also unable to come to terms with her own ageing, and identifies the positive attributes ascribed to youth as a moral as well as existential problem: “I was already flaunting my youth when I was fifteen years old. But only now do I understand that youth is not a state. It is a value added to everything, it imparts reality to life. And old age is the removal of value from everything, from the least thing.” Significantly, the character of Madame Saint-Albert, unlike others in this novel, is not based on any individual encountered in Switzerland; instead Nałkowska, forty-one at the time, transfers diary statements written at the time about her own fear of ageing into the novel. In the later Boundary (1935), Cecylia Kolichowska throws an annual name-day party for her similarly ageing female friends. Seen through the eyes of Cecylia’s niece, fifteen-year-old Elżbieta, this “coven” of deteriorating, physically repulsive bodies, initially appears grotesque; yet in the course of the chapter, the narrator—and with the narrator, also Elżbieta—moves to a position of empathy and total identification. Behind the elderly women’s “lonely drama of arthritis and menopause” lie traumatic stories of abandonment by “dead husbands, slaughtered sons, and distant, indifferent families.” And Elżbieta eventually realizes that old age is only the continuation of youth: they were once like her, and one day she will be like them.

Boundary also introduces the topic of abortion. Pregnant and abandoned, Justyna decides to undergo the illegal procedure. Following the botched operation, she gradually—not immediately, since for months she is able to sustain a job—sinks into depression and lethargy, which she interprets to herself as a mixture of regret and guilt. In revenge for the dead child (she was “sent from the dead,” she tells the police), she attacks its father, the novel’s main protagonist, by throwing acid into his face. It would be misguided, however, to interpret the novel as having a pro-life agenda; this is not the point, and Nałkowska was not a practising Roman Catholic. She shows rather that interference with biology—interrupting the natural biological processes of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood—can unhinge a woman mentally, that the human psyche is intimately interconnected with the body.

There are other, less extreme examples in the novel, of single women who, despite the social stigma and difficulty in finding employment, opt to have their babies, including Justyna’s own mother. On the other hand, Nałkowska also presents women who care much less about motherhood, such as Elżbieta’s mother who abandons her to the care of her aunt. The novel contains a whole range of female types from various social classes, and their sometimes contradictory attitudes to such issues. The same may be said of Nałkowska’s last novel published shortly before the German invasion of September 1939: The Impatient (Niecierpliwi, 1939), the story of two branches of one family driven by a disastrous psychological urge to self-destruction, or “impatience”. Here, for example, the contrasting reactions to pregnancy are especially striking: on the one hand, some women find fulfilment only in this one thing, their bodies overflowing with excessive fecundity, while others experience it with physical revulsion and existential terror.

Returning to 1915 and the change in Nałkowska’s outlook referred to above, the other aspect is her focus on war, and criticism of violence as a way of resolving human conflict. I would suggest, however, that this too was linked to feminist empathy, to Nałkowska’s remarkable ability to identify with suffering. In both her contemporary diary and in the short stories inspired by witness of war close at hand Secrets of the Blood (Tajemnice krwi, (1918), as well as in the war novel Count Emil (Hrabia Emil, 1920), she focuses on several ethical issues: the human cost of physical violence, the question as to whether it is justifiable to kill in the name of an idea (a key question in the light of the struggle for Polish independence by legionaries fighting on all sides in the First World War conflict), and also the psychological phenomenon of war itself, irrespective of motives and causes: “The psychology of war—not what is fought over.” Furthermore, she understood war as an inevitable aspect of human nature, not as the diametric opposition to peace: war was merely a more violent version of how human beings treated one another anyway. Entirely pessimistic, yet borne out by her reception of later events in European history to which she was a witness, it is not nevertheless a pacifistic position: although she was deeply concerned about violence, she saw it as an inevitable aspect of being human.

In today’s world, it is difficult not to sympathize with such foresight. The chapter in which Emil’s manor is converted into a field hospital on the German-Russian front contains shocking images of injury, suffering and death. Witnessing the unbearable suffering in the hospital, Emil “began to calculate defeat and victory in that very same currency.” First articulated at this time, the same underlying moral position and empathy with pain is evident in all her subsequent work: in the portrayal of relations between the representatives of different nations in Choucas and that novel’s record of the Armenian genocide (1915-1916); in the descriptions in the short-story collection Walls of the World (Ściany świata, 1931) based on visits Nałkowska made to inmates (common criminals, women as well as men, but also ethnic minorities and political prisoners) in the Grodno prison in the early 1920s when she lived there with Gorzechowski when he was chief of military police; the various mechanisms of corruption and arbitrary methods of enforcement in the independent state referred to in The Romance of Teresa Hennert (1924), Boundary and Knots of Life; culminating ultimately in the Holocaust stories Medallions (1946), the epigraph to which expresses deep pessimism yet lack of surprise: “People dealt this fate to people.”

In 1932, Nałkowska published a fascinating essay entitled “The Organization of Eroticism” (“Organizacja erotyzmu”) that tries to identify, albeit only tentatively as if she were articulating something she intuited yet couldn’t quite rationalize, the connections been violence, cruelty, atrocity on the wider scale (not just in personal relationships) and the “degradation” or misdirection of sexual drives, thus trying to capture once again the essential link between biology and the psyche, and also revealing the fact that to her sexuality was not simply a private matter. An insight she sadly does not develop elsewhere.

A writer who experienced the major upheavals of the twentieth centre in one of their most traumatic epicentres, Nałkowska deserves to be better known. Several of her works have recently been translated by myself or others in order to introduce her to a wider audience outside Poland.

A bit about Ursula Phillips . . .

Ursula Phillips. Courtesy of photographer Elżbieta Piekacz and the Polish Cultural Institute, London

Ursula Phillips is a British translator of Polish literary and academic texts and a writer on Polish literary history, with degrees in Russian and Polish, and a PhD in Polish 19th-century literature. She is currently Honorary Research Associate at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. She was the winner of the Found in Translation Award 2015 for her translation of Zofia Nałkowska’s 1927 novel Choucas (Northern Illinois University Press, 2014). Her translation of Nałkowska’s novel Boundary (1935) was published (also by NIUP) in June 2016. She is the translator of works by other Polish women writers including Maria Wirtemberska (Malvina, or The Heart’s Intuition, 1816) and Narcyza Żmichowska (The Heathen, 1846), both published in 2012. Her translation of contemporary writer Agnieszka Taborska’s The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks is forthcoming from Jantar Publishing. Recent academic translations include Jarosław Czubaty, The Duchy of Warsaw: A Napoleonic Outpost in Central Europe (Bloomsbury, 2016). She is the editor of the volume of critical essays Polish Literature in Transformation (LIT-Verlag, 2013) and joint editor of Women and Feminism in Polish Cultural Memory (Cambridge Scholars, 2012).


To learn more about Zofia Nalkowska, check out these websites of interest:

English PEN World Bookshelf: Ursula Phillips “Translating the unknown and recovering Poland’s Virginia Woolf” (January 2015)


Recent review of Choucas by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (European Literature Network):


Interview with Mikołaj Gliński largely on Nałkowska: “Taking Polish literature out of is ghetto.” (July 2016)


Muzeum im. Zofii i Wacława Nałkowskich “Dom nad Łąkami”: http://www.muzeumnalkowskich.pl/


Zofia Nałkowska, Boundary, translated with afterword by Ursula Phillips. DeKalb, Il.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016.

Zofia Nałkowska, Choucas, translated with introduction by Ursula Phillips. DeKalb, Il.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014.

Zofia Nałkowska, Medallions, translated with introduction by Diana Kuprel: Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

Zofia Nałkowska, The Romance of Teresa Hennert, translated by Megan Thomas and Ewa Malachowska-Pasek with foreword by Benjamin Paloff. DeKalb, Il.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014.

Zofia Nałkowska, Count Emil [Chapter XXXII only], translated by Jerzy Strzelecki, Barbara Strzylewska and Agnès Cardinal, in Women’s Writing of the First World War, edited by Agnès Cardinal, Dorothy Goldman and Judith Hathway. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 220-224.

Zofia Nałkowska, Dzienniki, edited by Hanna Kirchner. 6 vols. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1970-2001.

Zofia Nałkowska, “Organizacja erotyzmu”, in Widzenie bliskie i dalekie, edited by Wilhelm Mach et al. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1957, pp. 455-457.

Zofia Nałkowska, “Uwagi o etnicznych zadaniach ruchu kobiecego”, in Widzenie bliskie i dalekie, edited by Wilhelm Mach et al. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1957, pp. 235-240

Hanna Kirchner, Nałkowska albo życie pisane. Warsaw: W.A.B., 2011.

One thought on “Ursula Phillips on Polish Author Zofia Nałkowska

  1. Pingback: Ursula Phillips on Zofia Nałkowska | Global Literature in Libraries Initiative

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