Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

Why do inmates of Soviet prison camps love Proust?

Saturday, May 30th, 2020
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Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Patrick Kurp, who blogs at the matchless Anecdotal Evidence, has some thoughts about the curious attraction of Soviet prisoners to Marcel Proust… this time it’s Varlam Shalamov‘s sequel to Kolyma Tales…

What are we to make of the unexpected fondness inmates of Soviet prisons and labor camps had for Marcel Proust? In 1940, the first book Aleksander Wat read in Lubyanka prison after a bookless year was Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. In My Century, Wat describes it as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” The following year, in a prison camp 200 miles north of Moscow, Józef Czapski lectured his fellow inmates on Proust’s novel, a book he was “not sure of seeing again.” His audience “listen[ed] intently to lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at that time.” And here, in his story “Marcel Proust,” Varlam Shalamov describes the theft in a Gulag camp of Le Côté de Guermantes, the third volume of Proust’s masterwork: “Who was going to read that strange prose, so weightless that it seemed about to fly off into space, a world whose scales were displaced and switched around, so that there was nothing big and nothing small. […] The horizons of a writer are expanded extraordinarily by that novel.”

He would have been surprised…

He and the book’s owner, a paramedic named Kalitinsky, “recalled our world, our own lost time,” but the volume is never recovered. Shalamov’s stand-in portrays himself as a civilized man, an inheritor of the Western tradition who cherishes books, though he knows his values mean nothing in the alternate universe of the Gulag: “You might meet admirers of Jack London in that world, but Proust? It could only be used to make playing cards: it was a heavyweight large format book. […] It went to make cards, cards … It would be cut up and that was it.” Like morality and religion, art means nothing. Only survival counts. The lives documented by Shalamov are Hobbesian: “[S]olitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In 2018, New York Review Books published Donald Rayfield’s translation of Kolyma Stories. With this second volume, Sketches of the Criminal World, we now have all 145 stories written by Shalamov after his 17 years in Stalin’s prison system. …

Read the rest here

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 . . .

 

The girl who didn’t make it to creative writing school: Dubravka Ugrešić on Scheherazade

Friday, April 5th, 2019
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Ugrešić with Ane Farsethås and Kari Jegerstedt at LitFest Bergen 2019. Photo: LitFestBergen

“What did you do in Norway?” everyone asks. It’s always hard to summarize a few chaotic days and nights in Bergen. But this Q&A goes some way to explaining. My interview with the Neustadt International Literary Prize-winning writer Dubravka Ugrešić, titled “Who Is the Enemy?”  just went online at the tony online site for Music & Literature. It’s here

This was my favorite passage in the interview:

CH: You write about the fox as the totem for the writer—adhering to the convention of the writer as dangerous, edgy, shape-shifting. But aren’t most writers’ lives rather boring? I think of what Philip Roth said: “Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing.” It’s not exactly gripping stuff—which is why it’s so hard to make a good movie about writers or the life of the mind.

What could be duller than Proust’s life? Most of us live lives that are rooted in our heads, and it’s isolated and isolating—what can be more boring than that?

DU: Yes, but there is something else, too. I’ve suggested that Scheherazade is the fox, Scheherazade is the writer who didn’t go to creative writing school. It’s too expensive, and she would have had to pay twenty thousand euros for two years. But she passed at the school of a thousand-and-one nights, okay? She gave as a fee, as a “scholarship,” her own head. So we can’t spit and be cynical about that. It’s a serious thing, to tell a story under such circumstances.

I’ve chosen the fox as a symbolic representation of a writer. The fox is rich with meaning. In the Western cultural tradition, the fox is mainly a male creature. In Eastern cultures, the fox is mostly a female creature. In Slavic folk culture, the fox is also predominantly female. The fox is not a superior creature: she is a loser and a loner, wild and vulnerable. The fox is one of the most popular hunting targets: her skin, her fur, has a commercial value, a detail which makes the fox a deeply tragic figure. The fox is betrayed more often then it betrays. Representations of the fox differ from culture to culture. I was raised on the fox’s representation in Aesop’s fables and Western European medieval novels. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythology, the fox is a semi-divine creature, a god’s messenger, a demonic shape-shifter that passes the borders between realms—human, animal, demonic. The fox is also seen as a cheap entertainer, a liar, a cheater, a little thief with a risky appetite for the “metaphysical bite,” a thief with a constant desire to grab a “heavenly chicken.”

CH: Let’s go back, for a minute, to Scheherazade. I can’t disagree with your comments. And yet, “storytelling” has become this all-purpose cliché for the very complicated art of writing.

DU: I am irritated by these global buzz words that appear and disappear. However, they are in a way coordinates, or traffic signs, that regulate “intellectual traffic.” They do not mean much. They are just little helpers, and, yes, a sort of intellectual affectation. Most often such little structures are put into wide circulation by the global marketplace. The majority of participants in literary zones do not know anything about literary theory—or literary narration, for that matter. Nor are they obliged to know. That’s why such little inventions, like storytelling, help an ordinary participant to feel more comfortable in literature.

Read the whole thing here.

Early sci-fi: how Dante warps time and space

Saturday, March 2nd, 2019
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Was Dante a precursor to modern notions in sci-fi? Perhaps so. I was recently reading Disorder and Order, the book that came out of Stanford’s remarkable 1981 conference of that name organized by René Girard and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. I had seen the volume before, but somehow overlooked the brilliant essay, with the unalluring title, “Cosmology and Rhetoric,” written by one of the world’s leading Dante scholars, Stanford’s own John Freccero. In it, he makes the case for the written language as a spatial representation of time. He begins the discussion this way:

He recaptured time too.

“…I would like to cite the representation of the solar disc and zodiac in the pavement of the baptistry in Florence. Surrounding the Romanesque wheel of the heavens is a nearly effaced inscription – En giro torte sol ciclos et rotor igne – which may be roughly translated, “Behold the sun in its cyclical gyres and the wheel of fire!” Its significance is not in what it says but rather how it says it. The phrase, in fact, is a palindrome which reads the same from left to right and from right to left. In a tradition that goes back at least to Plato‘s Timaeus, the two apparent motions of the sun diurnally moving from east to west and zodiacally from west to east were described as a motion to the right and to the left. …

Dante’s disciple, John Freccero

“Dante’s literary cosmology is infinitely more complex, although elements like this can be discerned here and there in his voyage through the heavenly spheres. The complexity arises from the fact that the tautological structure of his poem warps the categories of time and space so that his voyage ends where it begins and time is recaptured. The arrow of temporality is also reversed in the final part of Proust‘s work where Le Temps retrouvé marks the end and therefore, paradoxically, the beginning. But the space was Paris, or at least the corklined study. In Dante’s work, however, space is a figure for this temporality so that it too bends back upon itself, boundless and all-encompassing, yet encompassed by the time that it takes to traverse it. The space-time continuum was familiar to Dante through the metaphor of written language which is a spatial representation of time. We are made surprisingly aware of this each time we run across phrases such as ‘as we saw above’ or ‘as we shall see below.’ The surprise comes from our temporal representation of space which is, in fact, the act of reading, in which we lend to space our own temporality as does a machine to the film frame placed before it. In the case of a book, however, the claim to totality is implicitly made – bound up and bounded by its covers, encyclopedic in the etymological sense of the word. When such a claim is translated into temporal terms, then all of time must be contained within it. When Dante refers to the primum mobile with one of his most bizarre images, referring to the outermost heavenly sphere as the flowerp0t in which time has it roots, he is making a claim not only for his voyage but also for the poem, which is coextensive with it. Since his story is in part how this story is written, it is inevitable that the closing of the book be its ending in which all of time and space are contained.”

And speaking of Proust … another wonderful quotation on the anniversary of his death

Monday, November 19th, 2018
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Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber is on a roll with Marcel Proust, and we posted his quote on the anniversary of the French author’s 1922 death yesterday. He followed up with this one today, and we couldn’t resist reposting it (see below). The reason: we use the same citation from Proust at the tail-end of the introduction to Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Why? Why? Why?

I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as ‘my readers.’ For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to off er to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say,if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.

The passage I cite was translated by the matchless Richard Macksey, a colleague of René Girard’s at Johns Hopkins University.

Incidentally, the whole introduction to Evolution of Desire was published in America Magazine over the weekend here. Notre Dame published it earlier, and it was linked in Hacker News, here. (Several people wondered why Artur Sebastian Rosman picked a golden image for the article, entitled “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” – you might note that it’s the “Mask of Agamemnon,” one of the findings of Heinrich Schliemann at the Troy excavation, an archaeological adventure described in the first paragraph of my intro.)

Remembering Marcel Proust, on the anniversary of his death…

Sunday, November 18th, 2018
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We’ve been awfully busy in Denver for several days talking about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girardand it’s time for bed, but we didn’t want to let the weekend pass without observing that this is the day Marcel Proust died in 1922. Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber helped us remember with the quote below: