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What the poet saw: the extraordinary life of Czesław Miłosz

Andrzej Franaszek's biography captures the Polish writer's complexity and darkness.

Czesław Miłosz was one of the great poets of witness of the 20th century. He was in Russia during the 1917 revolution; in Warsaw during the Second World War where he saw the fate of the Jewish ghetto; and he lived through the rise and fall of communism in eastern Europe.

He turned these experiences into great works of literature, including several outstanding poems about the Holocaust and his masterpiece, The Captive Mind (1953), one of the most remarkable accounts of communism during the Cold War. Lines from a verse by Miłosz were engraved on a memorial in Gdansk to honour the 42 Polish shipyard workers shot dead by police during the strikes of December 1970. They end: “The words are written down, the deed, the date.”

Now at last we have a biography of Miłosz. At five hundred pages it is half the length of the huge Polish original, published in 2011, and it has a new introduction by the trans­lators, Aleksandra and Michael Parker, along with maps and a very useful chronology.

Andrzej Franaszek’s book provides an admirably clear account of Miłosz’s long and troubled life. He was born in Lithuania in 1911 and spent the first 40 years of his life moving between that country, Russia and Poland. It was his early years in rural Lithuania that had the greatest impact. Raised a Catholic, he once said: “If I were asked to say where my poetry comes from, I would say that its roots are in my childhood. In Christmas carols, in the liturgy of Marian and vesper offices, and in the Bible.”

Lithuania’s countryside, its rivers and forests, were also important influences.

As a student in Vilnius, Miłosz moved in avant-garde circles, publishing his first ­poems and co-founding a literary group. Its politics were left-wing, its poetry experimental. More than 50 years later, the Polish refugee Leopold Łabędź wrote of this group: “One was executed during the occupation by the Polish underground for helping the Soviet secret police. Two were killed by the Russians in Katyn in 1940. Two others became very prominent figures in communist Poland after the war.”

Miłosz passed most of the Second World War in Warsaw, where with his brother he helped Jews find hiding places. In 1989, for these efforts, he received the Righteous Among the Nations medal at Yad Vashem. He continued to write poetry, including “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” and “Campo dei Fiori”, both about the destruction of Poland’s Jews. In the words of Joseph Brodsky, a fellow Nobel Prize-winning poet, “Out of the scattered ashes emerged poetry which did not so much sing of outrage and grief as whisper of the guilt of the survivor.”

After the war, Miłosz and his wife moved to the United States, where he worked for the Polish diplomatic service. In 1950 he was transferred to the embassy in Paris. What is extraordinary is that, from across the Atlantic, he somehow learned everything there was to know about what it was like to live under Soviet communism.

He defected in 1951, and in 1953 he published The Captive Mind, which, like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, became a classic text of the Cold War. It was an astonishing evocation of the compromises forced on writers and intellectuals in eastern Europe, of how so many ended up betraying their ideals and embracing Stalinist oppression. “Terror,” he wrote, “is not, as Western intellectuals imagine, monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance . . .”

Miłosz spent the next decade in Paris as a writer, attacked by Polish émigrés for taking so long to break with the communist regime and by French communists for betraying the left. Only Camus and a few Polish literary figures stood by him. This is the most original part of Franaszek’s book, showing how isolated Miłosz was and how he was driven to depression, almost to the point of suicide.

In 1960 he was invited to teach Polish and Russian literature at Berkeley. He lived more than 30 years in California. At first, he was barely known outside a small circle of students and translators.

The great turning point came in 1980, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. His poems were soon widely translated; they appeared in the New Yorker and were reviewed in the New York Review of Books. He also made important friendships with other poets such as Seamus Heaney and Brodsky. Crucially, around this time, central Europe emerged from the deep freeze of the Cold War. There was a Polish pope; Solidarity was founded; Soviet communism fell.

Miłosz returned to Poland a national hero and settled in Kraków in 1993 for the last decade of his life.

Franaszek captures this life in all its complexity and darkness. Miłosz was a modern Job, tried by personal sadness and historical catastrophe. He outlived two wives and countless friends. However, as he said in his Nobel Prize lecture, “. . . on a deeper level, I believe, my poetry remained sane and, in a dark age, expressed a longing for the Kingdom of Peace and Justice.” 

Miłosz: a Biography
Andrzej Franaszek. Translated by Aleksandra Parker and Michael Parker
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 526pp, £30

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.


Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder