Czesław Miłosz: the moment his world turned upside down

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Author, author!

My review of Andrzej Franaszek’s Miłosz: A biography (Harvard University Press) is in the current issue of the Times Literary SupplementI also discuss the publication of the Nobel poet’s fragmentary science fiction novel, Mountains of Parnassus (Yale University Press). Kudos to translators Aleksandra and Michael Parker for the former, Stanley Bill for the latter.

My piece, “Writing Not Fighting,” is behind a paywall, alas. But you can read the first few paragraphs here.  An excerpt:

It may be a cliché that the great poet gives everything to his art, but in [Czesław] Miłosz’s case the platitude appears to have been agonizingly true. Miłosz: A biography  by Andrzej Franaszek, abbreviated and translated from the 960-page Polish edition published in 2011 (TLS, November 25, 2011), describes Miłosz’s unsparing choices. Literary ambition drove him to abandon the woman he called his “true and tragic love” in his native Lithuania in the 1930s (she may have been pregnant as well). After the Warsaw Uprising, he told friends that he would not take arms, because he must survive the war. His death would be meaningless: he must write, not fight.

milosz-biographyAt one shattering moment in his life, however, he rejected his vocation: on February 1, 1951, Miłosz, in Paris as a cultural attaché for the Stalinist government of Poland, stepped into a waiting taxi that took him to Maisons-Laffitte in the suburbs. The thirty-nine-year-old defector spent three and a half months in hiding at the offices of Kultura, an important émigré journal of politics and literature. He wrote: “my decision marks the end of my literary career”. He had walked out on more than five years of service to the Communist government, most recently in the grim, barricaded Paris embassy where insubordinate employees were drugged and delivered to the airport, and where others never left the building for fear of being dismissed. He had longed for “a place on earth where I could wear a face and not a mask”, but still believed he had turned his back on the future by defecting.

parnassusMiłosz was the first writer and intellectual of such distinction to defect from the Soviet bloc, and the first to give his reasons publicly, saying that a lie is the source of all crime and that “the paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth”. For this, he was subjected to vicious slander and attacks from old friends in Poland, the left-wing Parisian intelligentsia, and even other émigrés. Miłosz became an Orwellian un-person in his native land, and would not see his wife and two sons again for more than two years.

At Maisons-Laffitte, he spent his days shouting, pacing, chain-smoking and drinking as he skirted a nervous breakdown. He could not “shake off his attraction towards Stalinism, like a rabbit toward a snake”, wrote Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor-in-chief at the publishing house Instytut Literacki as well as its journal Kultura. The émigrés who gathered round Kultura seemed to be history’s has-beens, fighting a rearguard action for a cause that had long ago been lost. But the “future of history” may not go where we imagine, and the cause that looks lost may, in fact, have time on its side. Today, Giedroyc is a legend, along with Józef Czapski, Zygmunt Hertz and his wife Zofia, who shared the villa in Maisons-Laffitte.

Well, we’ve told some of that story in the Book Haven after our own visit to the villa in Maisons-Laffitte. Again, the full article is here

Postscript: Oh, and we got a line on the cover of the issue. How cool is that?

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