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19 June 2017

What the poet saw: the extraordinary life of Czesław Miłosz

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

By David Herman

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.

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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

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel