“A few days ago I received a request to review an advance copy of An Invisible Rope: A Portrait of Czeslaw Milosz, edited by my friend and Stanford colleague Cynthia L. Haven (Ohio University Press, to be released shortly). Among other recollections of Milosz (he left an indelible mark in those who knew him), there was ‘Spring in Berkeley,’ by Tomas Venclova. It contains Venclova’s account of the same evening that he and I spent with Bella Akhmadulina and her husband, as it turns out, at Cheshire Cat, a Berkeley pub that is no longer in existence. Having read Tomas’ recollections, I now realize that I must have left the party shortly after Milosz joined it and, fool that I am, missed the rest of the conversation that, unbeknownst to me, continued well into the small hours of the morning.”
He didn’t want to divulge too much of Venclova’s essay, except to note that the evening turned into a battle between Venclova, Milosz, and Akhmadulina over the term central to Milosz’s Captive Mind: ketman. The term was born in Persia, but revived by Milosz, signifying the double game by which we keep a public face that serves a totalitarian authority, while nurturing a private world of our own values.
Venclova, Lithuania’s foremost poet and one of Europe’s greatest modern poets, is too little known in the U.S., though his name surfaces regularly on the Nobel shortlists. He was born in 1937, and capped his dissent at the 1956 invasion of Hungary with his outspoken involvement in the 70s with dissident politics – which included being a founding member of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. He was banned from publishing, stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1977, and, exiled. He now teaches at Yale. According to the Bloodaxe blog:
“Venclova’s experience of growing up in the shadow of these post-war ruins is an integral part of his work. For, as in many European cities, the ruin that surrounded him was not merely metaphorical: in his writings he tells how, on his very ﬁrst day of school, he got lost in Vilnius’ ruins and wandered for four hours in search of his house. Half of the city was destroyed, and on certain streets, every other house was burned out. Yet by some miracle, all the city’s churches had survived, together with certain other monuments from the capital’s architectural past. As a young man, Venclova came to regard these vestiges as a sign – one that ‘made a statement and exacted a demand’. During the years of Communist monotony and repression, he memorised Vilnius’s architectural details down to the last window frame and column, and at difﬁcult moments in his life he would stand in one of the city’s squares and allow the sheer presence of their historical continuity to lift his spirit. These vestiges represented the remains of a coherent world, a world that – however far off that eventuality might be – could one day, given enough patience, rise from the debris.”
The poet was a sweetheart to deal with on An Invisible Rope — professional in all his dealings, on time with deadlines, invariably courteous and responsive to email requests, not at all big-headed. I have yet to meet him, but perhaps our paths will cross during 2011, the Milosz centennial year.
Meanwhile, I got a copy of his The Junction: Selected Poems, published by the preeminent U.K. poetry publisher, Bloodaxe. I liked especially this poem, “Commentary,” which opens:
Above all, though it’s hard, love language -
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,
in third-rate theatres, secret police offices, on lavatory walls.
In grey buildings where the stairwell’s shaft is guarded
by steel nets, so that it is not a man, but the century,
which selects the instant of his death;
this language, almost collapsed, littered with sound
and fury. That’s it, love language –
banished to earth beside us,
though carrying with it the primordial Word, …
Postscript: Don’t miss Grisha Freidin’s 500-word history of Russia here. Rather like Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, which I bought on Jonathan Miller‘s recommendation but haven’t really given more than a cursory look. Or the ten centuries in five minutes I posted some time ago.