Next month is the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Boleslaw Prus. Seen as one of the greatest – to some the greatest – of Polish writers, Prus made a massive impact. His writing, his political activism and his legacy, still providing support for youth from the countryside, make him an important national figure. On an international level, UNESCO is marking the anniversary on its cultural calendar this year.
Prus was born Aleksander Glowacki in Hrubieszow around 1845, though the exact year is disputed. His pen name came from his family coat of arms, both parents came from noble families that had been deprived of their estates in the Russia-controlled part of partitioned Poland that he was born into. Little is known about Prus's childhood, but both his parents died when he was young and various relatives including an aunt with whom he got on very well, looked after him.
Life and times
As a teenager, Prus participated in the unsuccessful January Uprising of 1863 against Imperial Russia. He suffered a serious blow to the head and was imprisoned for his participation. This is thought to have persuaded him that social upheaval was not the right means to achieve political ends, but he continued to support Polish independence in his ideas and through his work.
He went to Warsaw in 1866 to study mathematics and physics in what later became Warsaw University. While living in the city, Prus also worked a journalist, writing about life in the city. This paid the bills and provided travel money although he rarely left the city, other than for medical trips to Naleczow and a couple of trips to Cracow and the Tatra Mountains. He also travelled abroad once, to France, Germany and Switzerland. Later he began to write short stories then moved on to the novel.
Prus continued to be politically active and was a co-founder of the Positivist Movement in the early 1870s. The movement sought to improve Poland's economic situation, develop technology, science and education, improve the situation of the poor and end what was seen as an element of backwardness. All members of the society were seen as vital to the programme, with solidarity and social justice the key to improving the lot of the Poles and serving to bring about independence.
Memory and work
Prus is remembered at the Boleslaw Prus Museum in Naleczow, which was set up in the early sixties. The rooms that are now the museum today house family photographs, personal mementoes and correspondence. Between 1882 and 1910 the same rooms served as a sanatorium, which Prus stayed at for health reasons related to mental health. His home town also has a monument. Another oversized statue of Prus is situated in Warsaw.
Prus is best honoured, however, in the work that succeeds him and continues to be widely read and viewed, as his works were also adapted for stage and film. UNESCO calls Prus "the leading figure in Polish literature of the late 19th century and a distinctive voice in world literature". Though his four novels The Outpost, The Doll, The New Woman and Pharoah – completed between 1884 and 1895 - are considered the most important of his works, his whole output as short story writer, chronicler of life in Warsaw and commentator on scientific, economic and technological developments are also highly significant.