Posts Tagged ‘Józef Czapski’

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 . . .

 

“I can recall no whining.” Polish war hero, artist, writer Józef Czapski is in the news – and I write about him for the WSJ!

Saturday, January 26th, 2019
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No sooner was it up than it was behind a paywall, but my The Wall Street Journal review is nevertheless in print and online here. “Shouldering the Century’s Burden,” discusses a spray of books on a man who has been too little-known in the West, Józef Czapski (1896-1993) – a writer, an artist, a diplomat, and humanitarian during an inhuman era.

Another kind of hero

He was tireless in the fight against totalitarianism, whether it took the form of Nazism or Communism – and Poland got a taste of both. He left behind more than 270 notebooks, as well as hundreds of paintings and thousands of sketches.

The modern hero of the story is Eric Karpeles, who the author of a “moving and strikingly original biography” (my words),  Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski. Also, a new translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones of Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-42. Karpeles has also translated Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. And then a fourth, from the Cahiers series a few years ago. (I had an onstage conversation with Eric Karpeles at the legendary City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in November – I write about it here.)

““I can recall no whining,” Keith Botsford writes in Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation (2009) “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.” Elsewhere, “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.”

You can read the whole thing here.  I’ll be writing more in the days ahead. However, the Wall Street Journal requests a moratorium on excerpts for 30 days after publication. Excerpts published before I was informed have been removed for that reason.

Best New Year’s resolution for 2019 – from the third monkey on Noah’s Ark

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019
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The best resolution of the incoming 2019 may be the one that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, by author and former bank robber Joe Loya, who served Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, with two years in solitary for violent behavior.

Why do I like it? Perhaps it’s because I, too, feel like the third monkey on the ramp of Noah’s Ark. Joe was profiled in the movie Protagonist, directed by Jessica Yu. He worked closely with director Edgar Wright on the 2017 film Baby Driver, which received three Academy nominations.

What’s he doing in 2019? Right now, he told me, he’s in the Bay Area producing a podcast about his recovery from childhood abuse, crime, prison and “an overall violent way of being.”

“I’m script consulting on films. Like Baby Driver 2″ – I consulted on the first Baby Driver film and even had a cameo in which I played a bank guard who was dispatched by bank robber Jamie Foxx. Ironies still abound in my life.”

And below his resolution, my own favorite New Year’s Eve Facebook post from Henry Venema. And below that, a photo from my own solitary (and curiously pleasing) New Year’s Eve over my laptop, with a fine single malt in my mother’s Waterford crystal, Józef Czapski‘s Inhuman Land, and The New York Review of Books holiday issue, which has a review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. As Maria Adle Besson put it, “un reveillon d’intellectuelle.” Doesn’t get better than that.

It’s going to be a busy year – and I hope one as miraculous as 2018 has been. Thank you all for sharing it.


The sentence “People are afraid that all people are equal” is one of the chapter epigraphs and in the text of Evolution of Desire – it’s from a conversation with Stanford’s Dantista, Prof. John Frecceroa lifelong friend of René Girard.

Happy New Year everyone, from The Book Haven!

Postscript on Jan. 2: Well, Joe, it appears there’s a precedent for a stowaway on the Ark, so we’re in luck. From an illustration of Beatus of Liébana‘s commentary, The ‘Silos Apocalypse’; 1091-1109. Thanks to Ennius (@red_loeb) for the find on Twitter. Ennius asks: “Can you spot the stowaway on Noah’s Ark?” (Elisha ben Abuya @Elishabenabuya adds: “There is a Midrash that Noah had to take two of every living thing, so that included demons as well. – Midrash Rabbah Berashit 31:13)

Join me for a talk with Eric Karpeles on his new Czapski biography: Thursday night at San Francisco’s City Lights!

Monday, November 26th, 2018
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Czapski by Czapski

I’d love to see all of you at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29 at the legendary City Lights Booksellers, on 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. And here’s why.

The subject of evening will be a man too little known in the West: Józef Czapski, painter, writer, critic, war hero and prisoner of war, and above all a great humanitarian (the word somehow seems too small for him). We’ve written about him before, here and here. (His self-portrait is at right – he was 6’6″ and the long, narrow canvas demonstrates that.)

And now I will have a “public conversation” about Czapski with his biographer Eric Karpeles.

The occasion is the publication of several books by New York Review Books. First and foremost, Karpeles’s new biography of Czapski: Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jósef CzapskiSecond, his translation from the French of Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (with Karpeles’s introduction), and finally Czapski’s Inhuman LandSearching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, with an introduction by Timothy Snyder.

From the City Lights website:

Biographer and painter, too.

Józef Czapski (1896–1993) was a writer and artist, as well as an officer in the Polish army. In 1918, he enrolled in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, but shortly thereafter he suspended his studies in order to travel to Russia at the request of military authorities to search for officers in his division who had disappeared in action. At the end of the Russian Civil War, he went back to his studies, this time at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, and soon relocated to Paris with some fellow students, thus founding the Komitet Paryski (Paris Committee), later known as the Kapist movement.

That height thing, again.

Czapski was drafted into the army at the beginning of World War II, soon after landing in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. Once free, he was assigned to investigate another disappearance of officers, who he would discover were victims of the Katyń Massacre, the subject of Inhuman Land. Czapski spent the rest of his years painting and writing.

Eric Karpeles is a painter, writer, and translator. His comprehensive guide, Paintings in Proust, considers the intersection of literary and visual aesthetics in the work of the great French novelist. He has written about the paintings of the poet Elizabeth Bishop and about the end of life as seen through the works of Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Rothko. The painter of The Sanctuary and of the Mary and Laurance Rockefeller Chapel, he is the also the translator of Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Lorenza Foschini‘s Proust’s Overcoat. He lives in Northern California.

Hero, writer, painter: it will be his night.

Cynthia Haven is a 2018/19 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. She writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, and has also contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and World Literature Today. Her newest book is Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which was published by Michigan State University Press in spring 2018 and reviewed in the Times Literary SupplementThe Wall Street JournalSan Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work has also appeared in Le Monde, La Repubblica, Die Welt, Zvezda, Colta, Zeszyty Literackie, The Kenyon Review, Quarterly Conversation, The Georgia Review, and Civilization. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, as well as a visiting writer and scholar at Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London, 2005. Her Czesław Miłosz: Conversations was published in 2006; Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003; An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published in 2011 with Ohio University Press / Swallow Press.

Whew! That’s all a lot of words, and there will be a lot more Thursday night, but please do join us! There will be lots of books for signing – and a few of mine, too!

Adam Zagajewski and “the battle to imbue life with maximal meaning”

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018
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A distinctive, insistent, civilized stance.

Adam Zagajewski is an absolutely foundational figure for many of us – not only because of his own poems and essays, but for his quietly insistent, civilized stance towards a world that teeters on the edge of chaos – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. I once asked him, in an email interview a dozen years ago, what do we do in a world that seems to be averting its face from the non-consumerist values of reading, literature, poetry, philosophy? His reply: “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.” It’s starting to sound like a good idea. Yet he remains in Kraków, and I stay put in Palo Alto.

So it was a privilege to review Slight Exaggeration, his book-length essay on… oh, just about everything. It’s up today at The Weekly Standard (and on the home page, too, no less). Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

Gone, but still with us…

Zagajewski’s conversational style is distinctive, and the cadence is recognizable in his poems and essays. (Translator Clare Cavanagh conveys it well.) I was introduced to it a decade ago, an afternoon conversation that stretched into early evening, as we walked along the Planty, the public park that encircles Kraków. His words are tentative, unassertive, provisional, yet self-assured. The slight tonal “uptalk” lift at the end of his sentences as he turns a problem round, exploring its different angles, cannot ruffle his considerable authority. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska are dead: Zagajewski has survived the generation of greats, and matched it with a greatness of his own, a postwar brand of metaphysical heft and gravity that shoulders the singular legacy of Polish literature into the 21st century.

The recurring Romanian…

Slight Exaggeration patiently picks up where the poet left off a dozen years ago with A Defense of Ardor, extending his line of thought on painters, poems, composers, and history. Initially, the observations seem disconnected and a little unpruned, until certain names begin recurring (French-Romanian writer E. M. Cioran, for example, or composer Gustav Mahler, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, novelist Robert Musil)—and each time he repeats, the impression on the reader is richer. Clearly, he is weaving on a very large loom, and the shuttle that disappears out of sight swings back to pull the threads tighter. The disparate reflections weave into a long thought, the result of years, decades, a lifetime. And occasionally his trademark associative musings open into seminal mini-essays.

The battle for clear vision…

Zagajewski wonders why the wartime letters of the lawyer Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, who resisted Hitler’s abuses nonviolently, move him so much with their impeccable moral brilliance; those of a favorite poet, the wily and self-protecting Gottfried Benn, so little. He also admires artist and writer Józef Czapskis integrity, too: “Czapski sometimes speaks of himself—but always in terms of the ceaseless battle he wages for clear vision, for full use of his gifts, the battle to imbue his life with maximal meaning.” And Simone Weil? “Weil tortured Czapski, and she still tortures us.” What does it mean that we celebrate the birthday of Mozart and the “liberation” of Auschwitz on the same day? (He hesitates to use the word “liberation,” which implies a certain energy and esprit, for the Allied soldiers’ entry into hell.)

Time teaches tolerance for what cannot be changed. And in the course of his telling, time overlaps and leaves traces on the present. For example, he observes that the Gestapo occupied his Kraków apartment during the occupation: “A Gestapo officer no doubt occupied the room in which I now write.”

Read the whole thing here.