Archive for June 28th, 2019

Józef Czapski. Haven’t heard of him? Here’s a chance to learn about one of the 20th century’s greatest men. With a podcast, too!

Friday, June 28th, 2019
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Keith Botsford’s very short “Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation,” in the Cahiers Series

 

 

It’s been quite a year for writer and artist Józef Czapski, thanks to his biographer, the California artist Eric Karpeles. Some time ago, I reviewed four books on or by Czapski for the Wall Street Journal: the review is printed in full below. At the bottom of the page: the Czapski book is now in Polish – and we’re blurbed! And my  interview with Eric Karpeles at San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore last November is linked above (the Q&A begins around 28 minutes, after his short talk): 

In 1917, a Russian imperial cavalry cadet named Józef Czapski faced Bolshevik forces. He informed his commanding officer that he couldn’t kill his fellow man. The idealistic 21-year-old expected to be court-martialed or shot. Instead, his division chief told him, “When I was young, I also wanted to change the world. Go. Try.”

And so he did, for the rest of his 96 years. Czapski (1896-1993) was a writer, an artist, a diplomat, a humanitarian whose life spanned almost the entire 20th century. He was tireless in the fight against totalitarianism, whether of the Nazi or Communist stamp. He left behind more than 270 notebooks, as well as hundreds of paintings and thousands of sketches. As his renown grows, more works surface.

This gentle, tenacious, adamantine figure has been far too little known in the West—until now. New York Review Books recently published a moving and strikingly original biography by Eric Karpeles, Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski; a new translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones of Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-42; and Mr. Karpeles’s translation of Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp.

Together these books document Czapski’s physical and spiritual survival during a nightmare era, but, more than that, they re-create an overlooked life, one marked by an exemplary measure of modesty, moral clarity and artistic richness. Moreover, Mr. Karpeles, a California-based painter and art critic, has ignited international interest in Czapski’s artwork.

Czapski was a larger-than-life figure (literally so—he was 6-foot-6) who early in life dropped his hereditary title of “count.” He had no fixed nationality: Of aristocratic Austrian, German and Russian heritage, he was born in Prague and reared in what today is Belarus. He chose to identify with his father’s Polish blood—a near-fatal decision, for the Poles had the distinction of losing World War II twice.

Czapski, a member of the Polish Reserve during that war, was among the 22,000 officers taken prisoner by Russia, which had made a secret pact with Nazi Germany. The soldiers were sent to three camps: Starobielsk, Ostashkov and Kozelsk. Czapski and some 395 others were later removed to Gryazovets, the site of a derelict Orthodox monastery. The others vanished without a trace.

The five Lost Time lectures that Czapski gave at Gryazovets in 1940-41 were delivered to a few dozen fellow officers. He had no access to the text, but worked from what he remembered. Proust’s masterpiece is a meditation on memory; Lost Time is one step further removed—a memory of memories.

He lectured in French, then recapped the lectures for two men to transcribe in the monastic refectory “under the watchful eye of a politruk who suspected us of writing something politically treasonous.” It was a way to save his sanity—and a Scheherazade effort to keep his fellow officers alive through a shared experience of literature. The half-starved, lice-ridden soldiers in threadbare rags juxtapose jarringly with Proustian salons; the tension between life and art could not have been greater, yet the chain he forged through time forever links Proust with Gryazovets. Not just for Czapski: for the rest of us, too.

In 1941, Hitler attacked Russia and the Polish prisoners were freed. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, tortured and barefoot, emerged from the Lubyanka prison to form and lead an independent Polish army. He charged Czapski with finding his 22,000 missing comrades. Inhuman Land is his record of that fruitless search, of wandering the Soviet Union, badgering Soviet officials, and chasing down rumors of mass drownings in the White Sea or Arctic Sea and transports to faraway labor camps. Only in 1943 did he learn the staggering truth: Polish officers were systematically killed with a bullet in the back of the skull, then thrown into pits at Katyń and other sites. These men, his friends, were to have been Poland’s future.

“Inhuman Land” is not an easy read. It is not meant to be. It is an exhaustive 435-page witness to official lies and evasions and the methodical murder of Poland’s ruling class, as well as the spiritual and material degradation Communism had wrought on millions of Soviet denizens. Czapski says he had “more and more precise information about those missing, and less and less hope that the Soviet authorities were willing to take an interest in these people’s fate.” Later, he recounts the multilateral betrayal of Poland by its “allies.” Nevertheless, he finds moral action even in the darkest corners of human history.

Mr. Karpeles foregrounds what Czapski himself would have wished to be his legacy: his painting. Czapski had called it an “apprenticeship of looking.” Like a detective, Mr. Karpeles follows the leads to track down the original works so that he can gauge Czapski’s “mettle as a painter.” He wanders the dark corridors of museums in Warsaw and Kraków, making special requests for viewings, exhuming the neglected paintings in museum storage, and finding others in the homes of Czapski’s descendants—he even tracks down a painting at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago.

You can always paint, Czapski maintained, no matter what your mood. And yet he was an artist interruptus, his vocation sidelined by war, illness, imprisonment, grief. Perhaps in that sense he is a patron saint for our own hectic, disrupted lives in virtual space. As our lifespans extend to a century, readers may find Czapski a salutary companion for the road ahead in our era of distraction. But a better reason for his companionship is his conscience and sense of duty, for, in Mr. Karpeles’s phrase, he was a man “constitutionally incapable of not shouldering the burden.”

“How could one fail to love such an Eye?” Keith Botsford writes in his last book, “Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation” (2009)—a scant 41 pages, but it captures something of Czapski’s spirit. Botsford, who met Czapski in the 1960s, calls his little book a “biography from within,” but he begins from without: Czapski was “not just tall, he was elongated . . . enormously wide awake behind his glasses.” “I am setting down a quality of his mind,” Botsford writes, “the way he made connections.” In the hybrid text, Botsford intersperses his own commentary among excerpts from Czapski’s writings and color reproductions of 12 of his paintings. “I can recall no whining,” writes Botsford. “As he’d faced all the 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.”

Biographer Karpeles

After the war, Czapski moved to the outskirts of Paris to edit and write for the legendary Polish cultural journal Kultura. There, in its offices, he eked out his days in communal life with some of the foremost Polish intellectual émigrés. He continued to paint, sketch and write until he was nearly blind—a late-winter bloom on old gnarled stock.

Once, in his frail final years, a relative found him lying on the floor. He had been unable to get up for hours. She asked how he had occupied himself. “Smiling, he hugged her and tried to calm her agitation. ‘Oh, no need to worry about me,’ he replied. ‘I just lay there, perfectly happy, thinking about Proust.’ ”

He kept writing and painting until he could no longer hold a brush or pencil. At the end, he kept scrawling one word over and over in his diary, in capital letters: KATYŃ . . . KATYŃ . . . KATYŃ . . .