Update on 3/26: Still some editions of this treasure available for free for a retweet (or Facebook “share”) during the giveaway: Go to Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today. I wouldn’t miss it. The New York Review of Books called this series “exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated, and lovingly edited”
“…but knowing him at all was my good fortune.”
With those words – iambic pentameter with a stranded, falling syllable at the end – Keith Botsford begins his “autobiography” of artist, author, and critic Józef Czapski in the Cahiers Series’ Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.
While visiting the Cahiers headquarters in Paris, Daniel Medin casually handed me Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation. I didn’t realize until some time later, after my return to America, what a gift it would prove to be.
Botsford uses Czapski’s own words, interrupted with his commentary and illustrated with twelve of Czapski’s paintings. He calls this a “biography from within,” but he begins on the outside, with externals: Czapski was “not just tall, he was elongated…enormously wide awake behind his glasses.”
“There were two odors about him: the saddle-soap smell of the Uhlan officer and the more delicate perfume of the diffident man of delicate sensibilities, a whiff of the ascetic.”
Czapski seems to have cast a salutary spell on Botsford: “How could one fail to love such an Eye?” he asks. But it’s not just the artist’s vision that haunts him: “I am setting down a quality of his mind: the way he made connections. Not table-talk. He spoke ill of no one; even about Picasso he changed his mind.”
It’s hard to read much of 20th century Polish literature without running across the name Józef Czapski, one of the founders of the influential Polish emigré monthly Kultura.
My visit to the Kultura office in Maisons-Laffitte last month more insistently reminded of the remarkable man I had so far overlooked. A crucial chunk of Czapski’s bio is necessary to understand him: he was one of about 400 officers to survive the Katyń massacre, in which the Soviets slaughtered 20,000 Polish officers. In 1941 and 1942, Czapski was sent as an envoy of the Polish government to look for the missing officers in Russia. After the war, Czapski remained in exile in Maisons-Laffitte. He was in a key position to offer help to dissidents and defectors. And he did.
During Czesław Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Soviet government, Czapski had told him that if he decided to jump ship, Kultura would protect him.
Miłosz had other reasons to be grateful to Czapski, the man who introduced him to the writings of Simone Weil through her first published book, Gravity and Grace. Czapski also showed him Arthur de Gobineau’s pages about ketman, which would become a key concept in the poet’s influential denunciation of communism, Captive Mind.
Botsford writes of Czapski: “In fact he was serene, and good order reigned in his mind. I take it as significant that from a man who had, like every Pole, suffered greatly from Poland’s German and Russian neighbors, I never heard a word against either nation, only a very pure love of his childhood and Poland.”
Yet, “Poland, and his exile, weighed on him.”
“Striking is the fact that I can recall no whining. As he’d faced all he alterations of his long life, that Tolstoyan and Catholic streak in him was powerfully directed towards what was actively good, to what could still be celebrated about life.”
Matisse was visited by Rouault. The two men had not spoken to each other in years. Matisse had survived two major operations. He told Rouault: How quickly life goes by! It’s terrible. Yet he was quite calm, blessed the blue sky he saw out the window, and wished his daily work was more like prayer.
How does one escape history? One doesn’t. There is something unbreakable about one’s being who one is, how formed, what seen and heard, where been when.
I think that Miłosz would have characterized him by the word he repeatedly emphasized in my own interview with him, “piety,” a term that embraced a respect for an aesthetic hierarchy. Joseph Brodsky would likely have called it “a plane of regard.”
The Nobel laureate said of Czapski: “He was deeply religious. So many of his major influences were men who thought of a divine order in the world. He read Rozanov, he debated with Simone Weil. All that was private and internal to the man. He had an idea of the Good in his head.”
This “idea of the Good in his head” permeated Czapski’s views of his art: The fullness of art is reached by the strait and narrow path of absolute humility, by veneration for the world as we see it, the use of the hand to draw it. (Words that remind me an awful lot of the poet Julia Hartwig.)
Botsford, however, met Czapski when the artist was 70 – and this short, 42-page study becomes truly remarkable when describing Czapski’s old age. Czapski’s words again:
Akhmatova said: I kissed boots among the higher officials to get some news of my son, whether he was alive or dead, and got nothing. So many extraordinary people I’ve known. Why do I recall my fellow-officers in Griazovietz? Why did Herling-Grudziński listen to the stories of his fellow-prisoners, and tell them? Because the stories they had to tell deserve to be remembered. They are gone, but who they were should not disappear. The Communion of Saints, the talk of the living and he dead, goes on.
Somewhere I read or heard of a woman who begged God to show her – even if just for a second – what paradise was like. An angel visited her and told her to shut her eyes and He would grant her wish. When she opened them again and looked about her, she said, But that is what I see every day.
Czapski’s old age lasted decades. He soldiered on until 1993, and was more than ready for his death at 96.
But at eighty-three: I see death differently: as a form of salvation, a deliverance, as an ‘enough.’ What remains is what is poetry and what is goodness.
And elsewhere – “die and become. As a moth alters.”
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(Photos at top and at right reproduced from the Cahiers Series with permission.)