• The Island

February 2020


The Island bring back into publication after thirty years a forgotten classic by an extraordinary Polish writer

Gustaw Herling was best known for his autobiographical account of imprisonment in a Gulag, A World Apart, which received wide acclaim as a classic of contemporary literature. The Island brings together three equally remarkable stories of timeless and enduring quality. They are linked by their converging themes of passion, suffering and violence related with mastery of form, psychological depth and symbolism.

The title story is a tale of doomed lives centred on a decaying monastery and the isolated inhabitants of an island near Naples during the Second World War. The passion of an artisan stone-carver for an island girl moves inexorably to its tragic climax, influenced by their strange relationship with a local priest.

‘The Tower’, also set in Italy, narrates a search for shadowy outcasts bound together by their isolation from a hostile world. The central character is an leper who seems to embody Herling’s belief in the capacity of the human heart to triumph over suffering and alienation.

The last tale, ‘The Second Coming’, is set in the medieval city of Orvieto at the time of the Black Plague. It explores, through a visiting pilgrim, the possibility of redemption in the eternally questing spirit of man as he falls victim to the terror of the city’s inhabitants. His fate is to have lasting repercussions, and the enigmatic conclusion seems to suggest that suffering may result in human salvation.

Translated by Ronald Strom.

'A marvellous storyteller . . . The prose is measured and beautiful. Herling is a master craftsman splendidly in control of his material.' — Observer
'The publication of The Island is an important event: first, because it makes available in English to American readers a collection of three tales that rightfully belong to the canon of great works of literature, and, second, because it will serve to make more widely known a Polish writer of extraordinary talent and scope.' – New York Times
'Like Conrad before him, Gustaw Herling possesses an exceptional ability to evoke the essence of cultures alien to his own. His penetration of the Italian peasant ethos carries complete conviction.' – Irish Times
'Reading The Island I felt an exhilaration that was like the exhilaration of that first moment of being touched and in some way shattered by great prose.' – Edna O'Brien
'Gustaw Herling is a genius and by now the most famous Polish writer; small wonder because he combines a sort of brilliant razor sharpness with solidity and probing fingers . . . This volume is a collection of three stories I thought astounding. You feel in safe hands, as if he were Gorky or Chekhov . . . In the first one we get a meditation on history, or on its sediment of colour and of light. It is more accurate than travel writing, more precise and far bigger in scale than a love story. His sense of time and of space is faultless, while the other two stories are as powerful and deeply written as the first . . . Here is a writer as passionate and as terrible, as terribly convincing as any now writing. In psychological analysis Herling is subtle, ambiguous and drifting – as if he scarcely controlled events. These works are consciously fitted together; he builds all into a mesmerizing context. One is trapped, as happens only with a master. Herling is one of the greatest European writers.' — Peter Levi, Independent


GUSTAW HERLING was born near Kielce, Poland, in 1919. In 1939, after war interrupted his university studies, he helped found an anti-Nazi underground organization in Warsaw. He was arrested the following year in a Russian-occupied sector of Poland and spent two years in a Stalinist slave-labour camp on the White Sea. His experiences there are described in his acclaimed novel A World Apart. After his release he joined the Polish army, went to the Middle East and then Italy where he fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino and was awarded the highest Polish military honour. After the war ended he lived for a time in London and Munich, then moved to Naples where he married Lidia, daughter of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, contributed to a number of journals and wrote four highly regarded works of fiction and non-fiction. He died in 2000, aged eighty-one. His writing has achieved international status, and his work has been translated in more than seventeen languages.


Bibliographic Data
Date Published 20 February 2020
ISBN Number 9780720620924
Pages 176

The Island

  • £10.99


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Tags: Herling, Gustav Herling, Island, The Island, World Apart, Polish