#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews FOUCAULT IN WARSAW by Remigiusz Ryziński

Towards the end of the 1950s the French philosopher Michel Foucault spent several months in Poland, having been put in charge of the University of Warsaw’s Centre Français. According to researchers of Foucaults work, this stay might have been one of the more important episodes in his life, heavily influencing his later work. It was in Poland that he wrote his PhD thesis, which was later published as The History of Madness and became his first major book. And yet very little evidence of Foucault’s time in Poland remains, meaning that the Foucault of Foucault in Warsaw is more of a ghost than a real presence. As one reviewer has pointed out, this book is more about the memory of Foucault and about those who remember him than it is about the man himself.

So Ryzińskis book is not just – or perhaps not even foremost – about the famous Frenchman. The ‘Foucault’ in the title is more of a red herring, with Ryziński using the philosopher chiefly as a pretext to explore gay life and culture in Warsaw during the communist period. He details various meeting places, clubs, bars, shops and baths frequented by homosexuals – both famous thinkers, writers and artists, and everyday workmen and soldiers – in order to paint a rather lively picture of gay Warsaw, with its own map, social rules and codes. Ryziński also depicts the official (and the less official) stance of the communist authorities towards sexual minorities, who were legally tolerated, reflecting a supposedly liberal outlook, but socially frowned upon. This discrepancy is exposed through an exploration of the contents of Security Service files on various gay people active in Poland at the time. In fact, the use of the gay card‘ resulted in Foucault being removed from Poland in 1959.

The author is an academic, specialising in queer and gender theory. This is appreciable in Foucault in Warsaw, Ryzińskis first foray into reportage, as the book is clearly very meticulously researched. I, for one, am curious to discover where his reportage might lead next, especially if it entails further exploration of the history of homosexuality in Poland. This is a subject that very much needs researching, particularly now, at a time when the authorities are again persecuting sexual minorities. I will be all the more eager to read Ryzińskis next book if, like this one, it is translated into English by Sean Gasper Bye, who had a difficult job of reconstructing several very different registers in English – from the clunky, official tone of Security Service notes to the more colloquial, personal recollections of numerous Warsaw girlfriends‘. Gasper Bye has definitely pulled it off. So, more please!

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak

FOUCAULT IN WARSAW

By Remigiusz Ryziński

Translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye

Published by Open Letter (2021)

December 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.

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Category: ReviewsDecember 2021

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