Posts Tagged ‘Józef Czapski’

Czesław Miłosz: the moment his world turned upside down

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017
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franaszek

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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Take a look around Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz’s home in Kraków: it almost breathes!

Thursday, December 1st, 2016
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Czeslaw Milosz- reciepient of Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, his former apartment in Krakow. Desk on which he wrote. Near left is bust of his second wife, Carol Thigpen. Krakow/Poland. 8.13.20016

He wrote his poems here, next to the bust of his wife Carol Thigpen

My visit to beloved Kraków last month was very short – so brief and tightly packed I didn’t have a chance to return to the apartment at No. 6 Bogusławski, where Czesław Miłosz spent the last years of his life. Fortunately, our roving photographer-reporter Zygmunt Malinowski made the journey from New York City, accompanied by our mutual friend, Prof. Aleksander Fiut. Here’s Zygmunt’s report:

Not far from Wawel Castle in Kraków and behind Planty, the park encircling the Old Town, is a street named Bogusławski. It’s a very short street, lined with trees on both sides seemingly closed off by perpendicular streets on either end.

Plaque outside Czeslaw Milosz,s former apartment. In this building in the yr 1994-2004 lived ... CM honorary citizen of Krakow, Laureat of Nobel prize for literature. Community of Krakow. Aug. 14, 2005

Number 6, Bogusławski Street

The three-story gray masonry buildings with tall doors and decorative pediments over high windows give an aura of permanence. Aesthetics rather then economics dictated this nineteenth-century architecture. Among several entrances, one shows the address as Number 6.  The hall inside leads into a sunny courtyard.

In the center of the courtyard there is a round enclosure with plants and lush vines that cover the entire building wall. To the right of the hall, a wide wooden staircase with railing leads to the second floor where Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz, “one of the greatest poets of 20th century, perhaps the greatest,” according to fellow Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, lived and worked from 1996 to 2004, as the plaque on the other side of the arched entrance door notes.

Czeslaw Milosz's, Nobel Lureat in Literaturte, apartment. Bench with poet's shoes and slippers.

His shoes and slippers are still there

I am here with Prof. Aleksander Fiut, a longstanding friend of Miłosz (they met in Paris in 1976) and author of several books about him, to visit and photograph the poet’s former apartment. As one enters through a high door there is a short corridor with a small wooden bench on the side – the poet’s shoes and slippers are still underneath, and his canes lean against the corner. At the end of the corridor a canvas tote bag is hanging on a hat and coat stand with Miłosz’s printed likeness and a quotation from his 1985 poem, “A Confession”: “My Lord, I loved strawberry jam…”

Behind, inclined against the wall is a framed front page news clipping with headlines from The Washington Post: “American Czesław Miłosz wins Nobel Prize for Literature” and The New York Times: “Polish Poet in US gets Nobel in Literature.”

Czeslaw Milosz- reciepient of Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, his former apartment in Krakow. Canvas tote bag with UNESCO logo , Krakoew city of literature, with Poet's likeness and quote from poem 'Confession' My Lord I loved strawberry jam... Krakow/Poland. 8.13.20016

“My Lord, I loved strawberry jam…”

To the left there is a small room with a desk opposite the window – a bookcase; file folders; and cartons of books, mostly unopened and sent by publishers. Author copies are stacked on the floor. This was the office of his wife, Carol Thigpen, who died in 2002. On the opposite side across the corridor, I enter the spacious living room (rather high ceilings add to this perception), which served as work space, library, and sleeping quarters. Soft upholstered sofas, a small glass-top table, and large bookcases crammed with books occupy three walls. Several paintings and lithographs are on walls, including ones by Józef Czapski and Jan Lebestein, friends from his Paris years.

My attention is immediately drawn to the right corner. A small antique wooden desk, with the computer he used in his later years, with large fonts to accommodate his failing eyesight. Two chairs offer a view of the courtyard and vine-covered wall. This is where he worked and wrote poems.

On the right, the books that he authored are arranged in the bookcase so they are closest to his desk. On top of it, some small framed photographs: his mother; Miłosz with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican; beautiful Erin, his granddaughter, whom I met in New York City; Prof. Fiut with Miłosz. To the left of his desk, hanging on the center wall, are photographs of his father, his first wife Janka, a small painting of the aunt that he admired, and his father in a group picture on the deck of a ship with Fridtjof Nantes, the famous Arctic explorer (Nantes visited Siberia in 1900s). A bust he commissioned of his second wife Carol Thigpen dominates the room. The people closest to his heart were closest to his desk.

It’s a bit unnerving to be here. It seems as if the inhabitants have only left for an outing and will soon return, and once again this place will be full of life…

I am grateful to Anthony Milosz and Prof Aleksander Fiut for the opportunity to visit the apartment, also to my friends in Kraków for their help. All photos copyright Zygmunt Malinowski.

Courtyard overloking Nobel Laureat's Czeslaw Milosz's apartment. 8.13.2016. Krakow. Poland

Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation – and a Cahiers Series giveaway

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012
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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.

The Cahiers series/Sylph Editions will be hosting a giveaway on its Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it.

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.”

Polish officer in 1943

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.”

“not just tall, he was elongated” (Self-portrait, 1984)

“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.”

Czapski wrote:

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.”

Check out the giveaway.

(Photos at top and at right reproduced from the Cahiers Series with permission.)

“Anything might happen”: Kultura in Maisons-Laffitte and the politics of exile

Friday, February 17th, 2012
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Kultura’s former digs.

“Absolutely secret, absolutely necessary,” said Andrzej Bernhardt at the steering wheel, driving me from one side of Maisons-Laffitte to the other.  “It was very dangerous. Anything might happen.”

Compared to the hustle-and-bustle of Paris, this little berg, about half-an-hour away from the Paris Étoile, is sleepy and comfortably suburban.  It was not always so.

When Polish poet Czesław Miłosz defected in 1951, he was immediately whisked to the Kultura headquarters here, in Maisons-Laffitte, for protection. Kultura, founded in 1946 in Rome by Jerzy Giedroyć with associates Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz, had become the intellectual and cultural bastion of the substantial Polish émigré community, a circle that included (and published) Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Witold Gombrowicz, Marek Hłasko, Jan Kott, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Józef Czapski, Konstanty Jeleński, and Bogdan Czaykowski.

“Kultura was observed by Polish agents. It was quite delicate to keep him inside.  Very difficult for everybody,” said Andrzej.  “He tried to stay involved – but not even the postman could not be allowed to see him inside.” Hence, he couldn’t go into the garden, or be seen at a window. He had survived the destruction of Warsaw, and Nazi and Soviet occupation, only to find himself imprisoned outside Paris, albeit in an elegant mansion.

During Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Communist government, the writer and painter Józef Czapski, another critical figure in Kultura, had approached him.  If Miłosz should ever change his mind and decide to jump ship, Kultura would protect him, he told the poet.  So here he was, without his family or any means of making a living.

“It’s exciting but difficult to explain today,” said Andrzej. “How can you explain the reality of the 1950s?” How indeed?  It was a time when, for half of Europe, the written word could be its own kind of atom bomb, and its writers were dangerous cultural ninja.

We arrive at our destination, across from the small town’s park. This was the site of the original Kultura, which ran a publishing house and monthly literary journal of the same title, and operated as a sort of Polish kibbutz.

Giedroyc at Kultura, 1997 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

“He was in a difficult position in France, where nothing like Free Europe existed – in fact, the French Foreign Office was cultivating their prewar friendship with Poland as a means of discouraging a revivial of an aggressive Germany,” wrote former diplomat John Foster Leich in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. “Commenting on Miłosz’s defection in Paris, I remember Burke Elbrick, the head of the Polish desk at the U.S. State Department, saying that ‘only a Pole would be so careless to defect in France rather than the United States, where he would have had a much better and safer life.'”

The influential Kultura may have provided an island of calm for the poet, who was denounced by the Parisian intelligentsia who were universally left-wing and pro-communist – but Kultura was no idyll. Zofia Hertz recalled that, in the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle was approached by the Polish authorities and asked to “liquidate us, arrest us, yet he didn’t, De Gaulle came to us and did not listen to them.”

What was Giedroyć like? Wojiech Sikora, Kultura’s president, hands me a brochure for the Giedroyć centenary in 2006.  “He was rather solitary. He hated crowds. He used to work a lot, he was lonely. But he took care of ordinary people – in Poland and France as well.  Everywhere where he knew someone.

Kultura today

“He hated all the manifestations of Parisian life, the high life,” Wojiech continued. “He lived and worked in the same place. He used to work till late at night. So many letters to answer, so many books to read.” He typed all his own letters, on a manual typewriter.

Andrzej added, “He was very simple, in a way. Not very sophisticated.  Someone very easy to communicate with.”  Needless to say, he was a Polish patriot.

Kultura moved to its new digs on Avenue de Poissy in 1954. The new house is capacious but still homey, wooden, stuffed with offices and walls of books – an intimate space, as well as a public one.  A small wooden cross is above the front door, Polish style.

Although the building is empty today, except for my two hosts, they tell me that scholars and students regularly visit and work – sometimes staying a day, sometimes for weeks.  In the final issue of Kultura in autumn 2000, Zofia Hertz and Henryk Giedroyć wrote, “We would like to preserve our house, which is always open for everyone, not as a museum but as a center teeming with life and work.”

Kultura moved here in 1954

And so they have. The Cold War is over, and now Kultura serves as an archive. The empty stables adjoining the house include 150,000 letters to and from Giedroyć. “Every day people come from Poland and ask what one should do, what he thinks,” Hertz recalled – and the evidence is here.  Over a thousand of the letters are exchanges with Miłosz. The Warsaw publishing house Zeszyty Literackie has issued two volumes of the letters, but they otherwise remain unpublished … and many of them are not yet inventoried, or chemically treated for preservation, and so on.  Eventually, they will be digitized as well.

Moreover, Giedroyć and Kultura collected all kinds of documents about Eastern Europe – 180 meters of them. “Letters but not only,” according to Andrzej. That’s in addition to 100,000 books.

“Taking care of our archives – that’s become our basic vocation. Now we are trying to organize it in a professional way,” he said.

They also gave me a xerox of Miłosz’s 11-page essay “Nie” [No] from the May 1951 Kultura (it has never, to my knowledge, been translated into English).  Although Miłosz had asked for political asylum in February, 60 years before my winter appearance on the Kultura doorstep, he did not hold a press conference until May 15, perhaps to coincide with the article’s appearance.

According to the account in the Manchester Guardian the next day, the press conference was a précis of his 1953 landmark book, Captive Mind:

Mr. Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who for the last four years has been Cultural First Secretary of the Embassy in Washington, and had recently ben appointed to the Embassy in Paris, explained at a press conference today why he has broken with the Communist regime in Poland.

His statement was the more interesting because he obviously had for a long time a lively sympathy for the regime and has not much admiration for the West. He summed up his reason for leaving by saying that “Socialist realism is systematic lying.” The writer, under what he called “the New Faith,” communism, was a highly valued member of the community …

“I am here because I have conquered in myself historical fatalism, which is a serpent. An intellectual who lets himself look perpetually at historical fatalism behaves like a fascinated rabbit. Do not believe that historical necessity can be a standard of individual action for a man. Even if this necessity exists I know that my duty is to act against it for I know that the New Faith brings a great misfortune to humanity.

“I do not know any greater misfortune for man. The principal interest of the New Faith is not the economic organisationof society but the creation of a new human type by killing in man what, for lack of a better term, one may call metaphysical being.

“The New Faith is the most perfect incarnation of demoniacal thought history has seen. In front of it there is a bad world divided by eternal contradictions, but a world which is nearly human. I belong to that world and I am going to serve its cause. It is not true that the West is an ichthyosaurus with a small brain, as has been described in Communist propaganda. But it is true that its intellectual potential is at present asleep. The spirit of America is still asleep. The victory of man over this human demoniacal force is possible but not before the West has given man a social system which assures him bread and the excitement of collective effort without all the lies of the new faith.

There were other published letters from Miłosz in the Kultura files – open letters to Polish friends, still explaining his decision, and explaining and explaining and explaining again.

But it’s only a handful among thousands and thousands of letters, manuscripts, documents.  Over the years, Kultura published more than 500 books and more than 600 issues of Kultura.  That, too, is only a fraction of its legacy, and that of its founder.  According to Miłosz, “It was even said sometimes that  Giedroyć had overthrown communism in Poland.”