I arranged to meet David Streitfeld at a Palo Alto coffeehouse. The New York Times reporter said he is a devoted Book Haven fan, as well as an avid reader of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. How would we recognize each other in a crowd? He would have his hardcover edition of my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. “Everybody else will be reading the paperback,” he reassured me. And so it was.
He had a bibliographic puzzle for me to solve that had stumped him. He pulled a slim and aging booklet from his capacious book bag. What, he asked, was the provenance of this Wiersze, a selected “works” from the poet, which David had found for a few bucks online? I checked the WorldCat online, and couldn’t find it. It was beginning to stump me, too.
Some background: for much of his career, Miłosz was a banned writer in the land of his native tongue, Poland. After years as a attaché for the Communist government of Poland in Paris, he decided to chuck it in 1951, and asked for asylum in France. He was ostracized in Paris, where the the intelligentsia was fervently pro-Stalin, from the comfort of the city’s cafés. In 1960, he accepted an appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, which to a European seemed like the backside of the moon.
As he wrote in “Magic Mountain” during those lonely years:
So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.
Until Solidarity arose in the 1980s, he thought he was a forgotten writer in Poland, and had no real notion that he had a huge audience in samizdat, smuggled writing reproduced in patiently recopied editions, or mimeograph editions, or even silkscreen. This appeared to be one of those smuggled works. But when, how, and by whom? It was a mystery.
The publication has no date, except for a tiny “1957″ someone scribbled lightly in pencil in the top margin of the first page, which couldn’t be trusted as anything more than a guess. David thought this short Wiersze was more recent than that, possibly the 1970s.
The outline of the Statue of Liberty on the cover might suggest that its provenance is American – the CIA and others had a role in making Boris Pasternak‘s Doctor Zhivago available to Russians (I wrote about that here). But, if so, why wouldn’t they have signed their efforts somewhere in this booklet, which has no dates or publication information?
The short (48 pages) Wiersze includes Miłosz’s “Treatise on Poetry,” which was published as a book by the émigré press Instytut Literacki in 1957, so would there be a need for a bootleg edition that year, as the penciled date suggests? Of course, the Instytut Literacki books wouldn’t have safe passage to Poland. (The book received a literary prize from Kultura in Paris – we wrote about visit to the Kultura offices in Maisons-Laffitte here.) Yet 1957 was the height of the thaw that preceded the crackdown – would it be that hard? Miłosz’s 1947 “Treatise on Morality” is also included in the Wiersze.
There is a hero to this story, and it’s Agnieszka Kosińska, Miłosz’s longtime assistant in Kraków and editor of the mammoth Bibliografia druków zwartych, a book she had given me back in 2011. I’d forgotten I had it on my bookshelves – at 816 pages, it’s not easy to overlook, but I had. I finally ran across it in my search for my copy of Miłosz’s 1,406-page Wiersze Wszystkie [Collected Works]. On page 305 of Agnieszka’s volume, item #710 – there it is: “Wiersze. [B.m.w.: ok. 1980], 48 s.” It was published circa 1980.
In August, 1980, the Communist government signed the agreement legalizing the trade union, Solidarity, in the now famous Gdańsk shipyards. So this may be the last souvenir of the Cold War era in Poland – or who knows? Perhaps the first breath of the new era.
I also learned in my online peregrinations that the admirable Agnieszka is publishing a book of her own with Znak in the next few months, Miłosz w Krakowie, that is, Miłosz in Kraków. You can read about it here. And if you’d like to read an interesting retrospective in English (though its English is a bit problematic), check out this: “Czesław Miłosz Died Ten Years Ago” over at the Polish Book Institute here.
Images of the mystery book below. With David’s fingers.