Czeslaw Milosz: One of the most fascinating poets of the past 100 years

At 4 in the morning on Oct. 9, 1980, Czeslaw Milosz’s phone rang. The caller was a Swedish journalist who informed him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It can’t be true,” Milosz said, and hung up and went back to sleep.

This, at any rate, is the story Milosz told later. Most likely it isn’t true. But there is at least a grain of truth in it: Many people, not just Milosz himself, must have thought, “It can’t be true” on learning that the 69-year-old Lithuanian-born poet and author, who since the early 1960s had been laboring in obscurity as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, had suddenly been transformed into a celebrity by winning the most prestigious literary prize on the planet.

In America, he was practically unknown as a writer; most of his work had never been translated into English. In Poland, his writings had been banned for decades, ever since his 1951 defection to the West, which followed several years during which he worked as a diplomat for the Soviet-controlled government that had run the country since the end of World War II. There were those in Eastern Europe who remembered him, some with antipathy, labeling him a traitor, others with fondness and admiration. His work circulated, unofficially and in often in small, hand-produced formats, despite the efforts of the Polish regime to squelch it.

Those efforts could be considerable. Readers of Andrzej Franaszek’s new biography of Milosz — published in Poland in 2011 and now available in English thanks to translators Aleksandra and Michael Parker — will discover, in a passage that recalls Milan Kundera’s “Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” how the government physically removed copies of Milosz’s books from libraries and deleted him not only from encyclopedias but “even from the list of employees . . . using a retouching technique.”

Through the 1960s and ’70s, Milosz indeed felt erased. “I begin to doubt more and more,” he wrote to a friend in 1970, “whether my existence is not just the existence of a ghost at a spiritual séance . . . who cannot tell whether his knocking is picked up by anyone.” His doubt did not keep him from writing; neither neglect nor recognition could do that, and to the end of his life — he died in 2004 at the age of 93 — he remained astoundingly productive. But was there an audience? He said in a 1991 interview that he had at times resigned himself to being “a distinguished poet, satisfied with a dozen or so readers.”

After the Nobel, he had to resign himself to different things: to being categorized as a political writer, for instance. He had, of course, written about politics. Having endured World War II in occupied Poland, and having witnessing Stalinist repression firsthand in the Eastern Europe of the postwar period, he could hardly avoid doing so. His classic 1953 book, “The Captive Mind,” remains a powerful and insightful diagnosis and critique of totalitarian ideology and collaboration. The Polish writer Tadeusz Kwiatkowski said that as a result of “The Captive Mind,” Milosz was “regarded in the intelligentsia and literary circles as the voice of our secret thoughts.”

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