I was born on May 7th, 1867, in the village of Kobielo Wielkie in that part of Poland which was under Russian rule.
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 insurrections of 1863 against Russia; some of its members had been killed; one of my uncles had been condemned to forced labour in Siberia. My mother had done her share of collaborating by serving as a messenger between various armed detachments. 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 Lodz. 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 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 honour 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.
Such was my life until the age of twelve. I shall skip the following years until the age of twenty.
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 Lodz 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 province 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 practising 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 Czestochowa. He had constant and close contact with spiritualist circles in Germany and England, corresponded regularly with Madame Blavatsky and Olcot, wrote in spiritualist journals, and was always giving ad hoc séances. 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 séance cheated by his medium. It was not difficult for me to see that very soon, and once my faith in his miracles was lost I abandoned them immediately. Once more I was free, penniless, and without a tomorrow. For a while I worked for a landsurveyor; I was a clerk in a shop that sold devotional articles, then a salesman for a lumberyard. Finally I returned to the theatre. For several months I toured small places with a travelling 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 theatres and I wrote for provincial journals. But I soon learned to loathe these occupations and 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 free time 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 unfavourably 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 surveying 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 favourable 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 and 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.
At the beginning of spring, in April, I saw pilgrims going to Czestochowa, the bright mountain 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 marvellous spring weather, under the sun and in the green. The account of that pilgrimage (Pielgrzymka do Jasnej Góry, 1895 [Pilgrimage to the Mountain of Light]) appeared in a Warsaw illustrated daily and attracted the attention of the critics. Some months later I wrote Komedjantka (1896) [The Comedian]. 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 (1897) [Ferments], the sequel to Komedjantka. I then went to Lodz to study conditions in heavy industry and after beginning Ziemia obiecana (1899) [The Promised Land] I left for Paris. I spent long months in a French village near Tours. I wrote Lili and some short stories. I travelled through Italy in a more systematic fashion and stayed especially at Sorrente. In 1902 I was wounded in a train accident near Warsaw, and I have never regained my health completely.
In 1903-04 I published the first verion of Chlopi; 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 (1911) [The Vampire] – the reflection of my spiritualist exercises – two volumes of novellas, and I began historical studies concerning the decline of Poland toward the end of the seventeenth century. I wrote a trilogy called Rok 1794 (1913-18 ) [The Year 1794]. 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?
Biographical note on Wladyslaw Reymont
W.S. Reymont (1867-1925) died the year after he received the Nobel Prize. His complete works were published in thirty-six volumes (Warsaw, 1930-32), his selected works in twelve volumes (Cracow, 1957).
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Wladyslaw Reymont died on December 5, 1925.