Witness to a Century - Czesław Miłosz

Any single decade of Czesław Miłosz’s life was eventful enough to provide ample material for a volume of biography on its own. He lived to the age of ninety-three and his collected poems form a volume of 1,400 pages, so this 500-page study of his life and work is a miracle of compression. Only the physical strength of a bear and the patience of St Simeon Stylites, plus a degree of luck, could have enabled Miłosz to survive the many catastrophes and disappointments he experienced before finally receiving, aged almost seventy, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.
His childhood was scarred by the devastation wrought on his native land, the Lithuanian-, Polish- and Jewish-populated area around Vilnius (then Wilno), during the First World War by the German and Russian armies, a period when his family had to flee to survive. This conflict was followed by the Polish–Soviet War and skirmishes between Poland and Lithuania. Miłosz’s turbulent student days in Vilnius required him to negotiate a way between fiercely antagonistic groups of left-wing radicals and Polish reactionaries, to whom, as a Lithuanian, he was a figure of suspicion. As an adult living in Poland he endured both the German and the Soviet invasions of that country. He spent much of the Second World War in Warsaw, one of Europe’s most devastated cities, and was a witness to the Warsaw Ghetto’s uprising and its suppression. He bravely aided the resistance and helped to maintain, against all the odds, Polish cultural life, saving the university’s library from the Germans and even publishing books using almost unobtainable paper and machinery.
Following the communist takeover, Miłosz tried to reconcile his hatred of living under totalitarianism with his desire to continue battling for cultural freedom. He accepted an appointment to the Polish embassy in Washington, DC, soon becoming cultural attaché. Recalled to Warsaw in 1950 by the communist regime, which had grown alarmed at his pronouncements, he was subsequently sent to France, ostensibly as a diplomat, but in fact to allow him to defect in a manner that would not cause the Polish government to lose face. His wife stayed in the USA, too afraid of abduction to return to Europe; Miłosz, slandered by Polish émigrés in the USA and feared by McCarthyites to be a communist tool, was stuck in France. In this miserable state he produced his finest prose and poems. In the 1960s, after finally emigrating to the USA, he became the doyen of Slavic studies there and it was in 1980, after receiving the Nobel Prize his wife had been predicting for forty years, that he emerged onto the international stage. In the 1980s, together with Pope John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa, Miłosz forced the Polish regime to pay attention to demands for reform, in the process helping to initiate the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.
Miłosz’s poetry is never loud or formally innovative, and rarely indignant. When it is intimate, the reader is politely shut out from the details of that intimacy. He recalls moving or horrifying scenes in tranquillity and spurns verbal fireworks, preferring a subtle build-up of images and sound. Sometimes he reminds one of Job, but a Job who is polite to his comforters and grateful to God for the replacement camels and daughters. Miłosz conceded that if God is all-powerful, then he cannot be good, and that if he is good, then he cannot be all-powerful, but was prepared to live with that paradox. Hell on earth, to which he bore witness, seemed to prove to him the existence of heaven also. The nightmare of Warsaw under the Nazis and the Soviets is described with the chilling detachment of a gallery curator explaining a series of Bosch paintings. It may be that the Polish language, with its light and fixed stress, and its requirement that consonant clusters be enunciated distinctly favours poets who underplay their material. Miłosz’s verse, particularly when it turns to philosophical matters, like the mills of God, grinds the reader’s mind slowly, but exceeding small.
Miłosz was a good man, but, like the heroes of the novels of Albert Camus (whom he admired and resembled), he was no saint. A number of affairs sustained him during his marriage, and he was absent for much of the upbringing of his sons (one of whom became seriously mentally ill). With his Lithuanian and Polish background, and his fluency in many languages (along with Lithuanian and Polish we must add Russian, French and an English competent enough for him to be his own translator), he was immune to any strong national or ideological pressures: he had left-wing sympathies but loathed dictatorship; a freethinker, he came gradually to see belief in a Christian God as indispensable to a sense of freedom and purpose. His progress somewhat resembles that of T S Eliot, but Eliot’s hell was private and Miłosz’s was public. Miłosz admired Eliot’s poetry, but understandably despised the self-indulgence of The Cocktail Party.
If anyone influenced Miłosz, it was Joseph Conrad, and one of the many merits of Andrzej Franaszek’s biography is that it reminds us of Conrad’s importance as a Polish essayist and as a guide to how men of goodwill can act in an evil world. Miłosz did not hate Russia with Conrad’s single-mindedness (as in Under Western Eyes), but he saw tsarist and Soviet Russia in the same light as him. Conrad also taught Miłosz, as someone who had likewise experienced the Heart of Darkness, to see life as an honourable defeat. Perhaps it would have been helpful if Franaszek had also considered Miłosz’s status as the senior figure in a trio of poets – the others being the Lithuanian Tomas Venclova (still alive today) and the Russian Joseph Brodsky – who emerged as defectors from communist Europe to achieve even greater success in American exile and who interacted with one another in a way rarely seen among poets in the 20th century. Miłosz’s sibilant Polish, Catholic background and Polish romanticism may seem far removed from Venclova’s highly accented but mellifluous Lithuanian and obsession with Greek mythology, and from Joseph Brodsky’s frivolous paradoxes and wildly inventive, often song-like Russian, but these three poets had much in common. They all made the best of exile, and of the USA and its universities in particular, with gratitude, eschewing the scorn shown by Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn. They all revered W H Auden and, like him, persisted with poetry, even though they realised it doesn’t make anything happen. In that hopeless fight, they are the three musketeers of verse.
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