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Józef Czapski: painter, prisoner, and disciple of Proust

Czapski survived his incarceration in a Soviet prison camp and went on to produce vivid paintings and prose. But his life and work was haunted by the massacre that he escaped.

On the morning of 2 September 1939, the Polish painter Józef Czapski, then 43 years old, slipped a slim volume of the memoirs of André Gide into his greatcoat pocket and headed off to war with invading Nazi forces. In a secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet pact guaranteeing non-aggression between the two powers, formalised on 23 August, Stalin and Hitler had agreed that the Polish state would be destroyed and its territory and people divided between them. Sixteen days after the German invasion, Soviet troops entered Poland from the east. Surrounded by German and Soviet forces at Lwów, Czapski’s unit had to surrender. The Germans turned over the Polish forces to the Soviets, and he began two years of incarceration in Soviet camps.

Though he did not know it, he and the others held with him were marked down for death. In March 1940, the head of the NKVD (later KGB) Lavrentiy Beria and three members of the Politburo signed a memorandum in which the Polish officers were condemned to execution. The operation, which was completed in eight weeks, began with the prisoners being transported to sites in and around Katyn, a forest near the Russian city of Smolensk. In all, around 22,000 soldiers – mostly officers who in civilian life had been lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, scientists, engineers and other professional people – were shot by a single bullet in the back of the head. Over a 28-day period a single individual, Vasily Blokhin (1895-1955), the chief executioner at Lubyanka prison in Moscow (where he killed the writer Isaac Babel and the avant-garde theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold), is said to have shot around 7,000 prisoners. He used German revolvers, which he brought with him in a suitcase, as he found the Soviet-made variety unreliable. For his services to the Soviet state Blokhin received the Order of the Red Banner.

For reasons he never discovered, Czapski was among 395 prisoners who were not sent for execution. He was released in September 1941, when Stalin amnestied his Polish prisoners in order that they could fight his former Nazi ally following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of that year. Joining up with a new division of the Polish army composed of released Gulag prisoners, Czapski set about trying to find out the truth about the officers who had disappeared, travelling to Moscow as an envoy of the Polish government-in-exile in London to question NKVD officials.

These were extremely harrowing years for Czapski. Born in Prague in 1896, a scion of an old and distinguished family, he graduated in St Petersburg before moving to newly emancipated Poland to take up his studies in art. He spent eight years in cosmopolitan prewar Paris, exchanging ideas with French and Russian artists and writers, forming passionate attachments with both women and men (including one with Vladimir Nabokov’s younger brother Sergey, who would perish in a Nazi camp where gay men were subjected to hideous medical experiments) and devoting himself to realising a vision of painting he found pursued in the work of Cézanne.

Yet Czapski made light of his experiences in the camps. An account by a fellow-prisoner describes him lying in a primitive camp hospital, a long emaciated figure – he was six and a half feet tall – blue-lipped and coughing blood, feverishly reciting lines from Baudelaire and whispering remembered passages from Proust. Czapski himself wrote: “I’ve kept an almost happy memory of that three- or four-week stay in the hospital.” He appreciated the clean shirt he had been given, and the relative privacy of being in a room of five and not a hundred people.

He was determined that his time in the camps would not be wasted. He read whatever he could find, including pages of Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty, and made drawings and paintings on scraps of paper. Not much larger than postage stamps, many of these works depicted life in the camp, among them some unblinking self-portraits. Others were miniature recreations of his prewar paintings, left behind in a studio in Warsaw, where most of them disappeared in the course of the war. It was in the camp, without any access to Proust’s writings and drawing solely on memory, that Czapski gave the talks that have now been published by the indispensable New York Review of Books. Translated into English for the first time by Eric Karpeles, author of Paintings in Proust, a painter himself and Czapski’s biographer, Lost Time is one of the most remarkable and inspiring texts to have emerged from the experience of surviving and resisting 20th-century barbarism. (Czapski was not the only Gulag inmate to find in Proust a window to another world. Varlam Shalamov – whose stories I reviewed in these pages last summer – tells of finding a copy of La Côté de Guermantes at the bottom of a package of clothing sent to a doctor in his camp and reading it voraciously. “Proust,” he wrote, “was more valuable than sleep.” The book was stolen after he put it down on a bench while talking with another prisoner.)

Delivered in the evenings of the winter of 1940-41 in the chilly refectory of a former convent, with an audience of around 40 fellow prisoners who had worked outdoors all day in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees, Czapski’s talks are unlike anything else that has been written on Proust. He emphasises Proust’s detachment from the haute bourgeois society that is coolly dissected in the novel, and his dispassionate analysis of the vagaries of the human mind. But the core of Czapski’s talks is Proust’s portrayal, through his narrator, of the indifference to death that comes when the mind is filled with memories that seem to come unbidden from outside of time.

In a stroke of genius, Czapski compares Proust with Blaise Pascal. Pascal may seem a curious lens through which to view Proust. A 17th-century French mathematician and physicist, a founder of modern probability theory and one of the first inventors of mechanical calculating machines, he became one of the pioneers of modern science before turning towards the “super-terrestrial” salvation spelled out in the aphoristic observations of the Pensées. “Devoured by a yearning for the absolute,” Pascal “considered all the ephemeral joys of the senses unacceptable.” For Proust, on the other hand, only the world of the senses existed and had value. In a letter to a friend, he confessed he desired only one thing: to take pleasure in life and physical love. Yet as Czapski writes, Proust’s work “leaves us with a Pascalian taste of ash in our mouths”.

As much as any of Pascal’s Pensées, Proust’s monumental novel is a meditation on death and the vanity of life. Swann, “a refined and intelligent man of the world”, receives a sentence of death from his doctors. When he tries to pass on the news to his aristocratic friends, they tell the quaking cadaverous figure that he looks marvellous, then leave him standing in front of their magnificent townhouse as they walk off, talking of the mismatch between the duchess’s shoes and her ruby necklace. Odette, the beguiling courtesan who captivates Swann, appears in the final volume as “a nearly idiotic old woman huddled in her daughter’s salon”, a “human wreck” virtually ignored by guests, or else mocked by them. The passion of love is no less evanescent. When Proust’s narrator learns of the death of Albertine, the young girl by whose image he has been possessed, he is preoccupied by other matters and barely reacts.

But there is a crucial difference, noted by Czapski, between Pascal and Proust. Whereas Pascal turns from the world with disgust, Proust seeks salvation in its fugitive sensations. Born and buried a Catholic, carrying a small oilcloth Bible with him when he travelled in Russia in search of the truth about his fellow prisoners, Czapski was a religious man. A Tolstoyan pacifist in his youth, who resigned from the Polish cavalry because he did not want to kill other human beings, he was attracted to the mysticism of Simone Weil (1909-43) and became a close friend of the God-seeking Russian philosopher Dmitry Merezhkovsky (1865-1941). Czapski was not mistaken in finding in Proust’s work a kind of religion: not a story of redemption, but a struggle to defy time and disillusion, and eternalise the passing moment in memories of meaning and beauty.

Inhuman Land is Czapski’s account of his travels in the Soviet Union. As the American historian Timothy Snyder – author of Bloodlands (2010), the path-breaking study of the countries that experienced both Nazi and Soviet mass killing – writes, the book is “an unsurpassed document of everyday Stalinism”. Unlike many Western travellers to the Soviet Union before and after him, Czapski, who was fluent in Russian, engaged with ordinary people whenever he could. In the camps, he had been given the impression that the Soviet Union was a land of plenty, or at least sufficiency, which the people accepted as their due. What he found was nearly universal hunger and deprivation, endured with a mix of impotent anger and listless resignation. The German civilians he came across in his travels were no different. He describes an old German woman he met in a third-class carriage of a train:

Her shoes were made of rawhide, and she had a dull, haggard complexion and the terrified eyes of a beaten dog… This woman had always lived in Russia, and like a large number of Germans was entirely assimilated there. She lived in a small Ukrainian town where she gave German language lessons and worked at an institution for the deaf and dumb. She was on her way to Germany, a place with which she had almost no connection. Hitler did not exist for her; all she knew was that she was leaving Russia. Once we were in Poland, in the empty carriage, she told me about it in a whisper. It was nothing remarkable, just everyday fare for anyone who had ever been to Russia as more than a tourist: she told me that when Kirov was assassinated, the next day hundreds and hundreds of people had been deported to an unknown destination… Several dozen people had been taken from one of the factories, loaded on to open railcars and driven dozens of miles in severe frost. They were packed in so tight there was only room to stand; most of them had no warm clothing, and when the railcars reached their destination they had to be carried out like wooden logs. Many had frozen to death.

Czapski concludes his account: “She was a shadow of herself as she told me this story on the train, her eyes flashing with terror.” His tone is restrained and almost calm. Events of the sort the old woman reported, after all, were quite normal at the time.

Karpeles fills out Czapski’s travels with an abundance of telling details. While searching for the truth about the vanished officers in Moscow and being brushed off by the NKVD, he wandered through bookshops, finding a beautifully bound 1868 edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, which he bought for 10 rubles. A pound of butter would have cost 30 rubles. He met the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose ex-husband, fellow poet Nikolay Gumilyov, had been shot in 1921 as an enemy of the people. She “wore a dress made of very poor material, somewhere between a sack and a pale habit… and spoke little, in a slightly strange tone, as if half joking, even about the saddest things”. (More than 20 years later, during a trip to Oxford, Akhmatova gave her Soviet handlers the slip and visited Czapski in Paris.) There are dozens of such haunting vignettes. Seamlessly weaving together Czapski’s life and work with the vast geopolitical events in which he was caught up, Almost Nothing is a labour of love, and in its way as extraordinary as the life it portrays.

Czapski’s attempt to determine the fate of his fellow officers yielded nothing. Mass graves were reported near Katyn in 1942 and 1943, and used in Nazi propaganda in an attempt to split the Allies. The Polish government raised the issue with the American and British authorities, who, for the rest of the war, officially accepted the Soviets’ account that Germany was responsible for the killings. Yet Czapski’s efforts were not wholly in vain. In 1991 the Russian journalist Vladimir Abarinov used information from recently opened Soviet archives to present an account of the massacre, which quoted at length from Inhuman Land.

For the rest of his long life (he died at the age of 96) Czapski was troubled by the massacre and why he had not been killed along with his fellow prisoners. What mattered most to him, however, was painting and what he called in a letter to his former lover the painter Ludwik Hering, “the most important and personal living connection”.

Czapski and Hering were separated by the start of the Second World War but the two men corresponded for 30 years, writing hundreds of letters to one another. Having worked during the Nazi occupation as a nightwatchman in a tannery near the Warsaw Ghetto, Hering wrote a story on the 1943 uprising, ending with the words: “The ruins of the ghetto tremble like printed words on a piece of paper that is coming apart.” After the story appeared in 1946 he ceased writing. When they met again in Paris in 1972, Czapski tried to lift his friend from despair. In 1984, by then suffering from cancer, Hering committed suicide. Czapski drew a line through the entry in his journal where he recorded his friend’s death. But he left the entry legible, preserving both his sense of loss and his gratitude for what his friend had given him.

Living in a modest studio in Paris, Czapski was producing vividly expressive paintings saturated with strong colours into his late eighties. Asked why his work featured “lonely people, deserted café tables, faces half-concealed in the metro, minute daily events glimpsed in passing”, he replied: “Each time, it is almost nothing. But that ‘almost nothing’ signifies everything.” When he was buried the grave had to be lengthened, more than once, to accommodate the specially built coffin that contained his remains. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp
Józef Czapski
New York Review of Books, 128pp, £9.99

Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia 1941-42
Józef Czapski
New York Review of Books, 480pp, £13.99

Almost Nothing: the 20th Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski
Eric Karpeles
New York Review of Books, 496pp, £13.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal