Czesław Miłosz: A Biography

Andrzej Franaszek
Czesław Miłosz: A Biography
  • Znak
    Kraków 2011
    1104 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-240-1614-3

Andrzej Franaszek’s book is fascinating not only because it is the biography of a man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and who happened also to have quite a dramatic life story, a distinguished poet whose life bridged the early twentieth century and the beginning of this century. This Miłosz biography can be read in several different ways: it is conceived as a guidebook through Miłosz’s life, though with a supplementary map of his thought and imagination (a wealth of excerpts from his work, as well as commentary on it), and also information on the flora and fauna found in the Land of Miłosz. It is also, then, the panoramic story of a life in a European place and time that British historian Norman Davies has called “God’s playground.”  Of course the main figure is the poet, shown in all his complications, in his greatness, but with his idiosyncrasies and complexes. His contemporaries are included in this biography, too: his Parisian relative, the esoteric Lithuanian diplomat and poet, Oskar Miłosz, as well as Albert Camus, Albert Einstein, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Merton, Joseph Brodsky and a number of others, Polish and non-Polish friends and chance acquaintances whose lives somehow became intertwined with his, writers and thinkers who were close to him in a literary or philosophical sense or simply fellow men of letters, his wives and lovers—which gives Franaszek multiple occasions to tell a variety of colorful stories and to make sharp, not necessarily fair appraisals. The key locations in the Miłosz geography are highlighted here: the familial Szetejnie in Lithuania, Vilnius, Paris in the first half of the 1930’s, prewar Warsaw and the city under Nazi occupation, post-war France in the first years of his exile after he decided to give up his position as a diplomat for the Polish People’s Republic and seek political asylum, France during his work with the Congress for Cultural Freedom and with Kultura in Paris, the intellectual center of the Polish émigré community, America—the America of his time in Washington in the service of the Polish People’s Republic and the America of California, when he was teaching at Berkeley, as well as the America of New York, when he was already enjoying one literary triumph after the next.  And finally Krakow, which he chose as his home from 1992 on. There is a lot of information here about the vicissitudes of Miłosz’s life, which raised controversy, giving rise to debates, slander, and accusations.  But above all we have here a human, very human portrait of an extremely perceptive intellectual and witness of an epoch, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. 

- Marek Zaleski

Andrzej Franaszek (born 1971) is a literary critic whose work focuses on twentieth-century Polish poetry, including Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert.

“In November 1980 I was in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk if only because it was the most exciting place in the world.  I went over to a worker in blue, spattered coveralls and asked him how, in a country where Milosz’s poems were banned, a line from ‘The Poet Remembers’ had ended up on the monument to the workers killed by the regime.  ‘We always knew Milosz,’ said the worker.  It was a moment that would either have delighted, or horrified, Karl Marx,” recollected Richard Lourie.  “When I came back from Poland in late November 1980, Milosz was at Harvard, living in Cambridge. At the door, after the hug, he put the question to me: ‘And Poland?’ For a second it was my Ph. D. orals all over again, Milosz posing a tough question, his blue eyes sparkling with glee under fox-tail brows. ‘There’s no alienation there,’ I answered. He smiled. I’d passed.”
The story of Polish shipyard workers reciting stanzas of Miłosz sounds like a fairytale today, but there were many extraordinary and beautiful things that happened during the “Solidarity Carnival,” when ten million people joined in protest, repeating Miłosz’s line to Lech Wałęsa, “that crown would fall right down to my ears,” and all-night lines formed not only at the butcher shops, but also at the bookstores.  One way or another, in spite of the censors and border control, Miłosz’s books made it into the country during the years of his exile, including in 1970, when the poet sent Zygmunt Hertz a postcard from a town called Poland, located in the state of Maine—the only Poland he had been able to get to up until then.
We must turn again here to Hertz, who among other things came up with all sorts of ways to manage to smuggle into Poland tapes containing recordings of Miłosz’s poems.  A letter from 1965 indicates that Cardinal Wyszyński had taken one such package from Rome (…).  In January of the following year Polish athletes stuffed a pack of the Paris publication Kultura into their luggage, planning to sell them on the black market, and a pleased Hertz informed Miłosz that the highest prices were paid for the issue with his Treatise on Poetry.  In the second half of the 1960s, Herbert wrote encouragingly, “the youth look to you like a superstar.  Really, Czesław, you’ve made a huge splash in Polish poetry, and no prohibitions, no cordons, can do anything about it.”  Similar initiation experiences crop up in many readers’ recollections of Miłosz: they get the book from a professor, borrow it for twenty-four hours, it’s been copied by hand, miraculously saved in a second-hand bookshop or a public lending library—perhaps the finest such experience is described by Krzysztof Czyżewski, who would later become the custodian of Miłosz materials in Krasnograd: “it was 1977, or maybe the beginning of 1978.  The Workers’ Defence Committee had already been formed.  I was in my first year of Polish Literature at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.  We were gradually getting used to reading books that had been printed underground, using a xerox machine, on terrible paper, bound with whatever could be found, and that would make our eyes hurt because the type was so small to save on costs.  To us these were real treasures. ...  We went to classes at the ‘flying university’ held in private apartments.  That evening in Jacek Kubiak’s apartment, one of the leaders of the student underground,  Ryszard Krynicki came along.  Instead of reading his own poems, he started to talk about this Polish émigré poet, whose name many of us heard for the first time that night.  He held a book reverently and started to read out the poems, never taking his eyes off it for one moment.  We were all waiting impatiently to get our hands on it ourselves and look through it.  It was pretty, with a nice green canvas cover, with gold letters stamped across the front: CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ UTWORY POETYCKIE POEMS.”
Adam Michnik, a decade older than Czyżewski, the happy owner of the volume The Daylight, which he had bought in a second-hand bookshop, notes that he and his friends represented the first generation of intelligentsia in the Polish People’s Republic to recognize the intellectual and cultural value of the émigré population without considering that population an anachronism.  He was also one of the people who decided that the underground publishing house NOW, whose densely typed publications had fallen into Czyżewski’s hands, would print books by Miłosz.  Michnik’s meeting with Miłosz in Paris in the fall of 1976 may have also influenced this decision: “after the third bottle of wine,” recounts Michnik, “I started to recite Miłosz’s poems from memory, highly unusually not stuttering.  I knew a lot of them.  At some point, to my great surprise, I saw that the poet had tears rolling down his cheeks.  Saddened, of course, by this, I stopped, and at that point I heard him say with emotion: ‘I didn’t think young people in Poland knew my poems by heart.  I thought I had been excommunicated.’”
The history of the struggles of writers with communist-era censorship often involves microscopic signs in which the initiated were able to decipher subtle changes of course by the authorities, or tension among the top brass.  Someone had managed to refer in an article to “the author of Three Winters,” someone else had gained permission to stage As You Like It in Miłosz’s translation, with his name on the posters, and there were rumors abroad that he was coming back to Poland, then someone managed to get a few of his poems into an anthology, and then finally in 1974 the Pen Club ... was able to award him a prize—for his translations of Polish poetry into English.  “What is this?  Have I ceased to be demonized?  But I understand that it must have been a major effort for the Pen Club ...  The only awards they can give are for translation, which shouldn’t be scoffed at,” he commented in a letter to Jerzy Giedroyc.  A year later he addressed Błoński in a reflective tone: “If I have this kind of respect in Poland, I need to ask myself why that is, i.e. how much of it is misunderstandings masked by distance ....  Because I don’t know, for example, whether the ancestral myths are  at work (exile, the West, and those types of things), or whether it’s the collective instinct that never stops searching for characters for national consumption, and among today’s literary figures in Poland there isn’t much fit to be consumed.”
He was only able to level with that collective instinct six years later, during his first visit to Poland in three decades.  At this point the authorities were in no position to obstruct him ....  June 1981, when—not without delaying and hesitating— Miłosz flew into Warsaw, was a time of great emotion.  A year before there had been an assassination attempt on the Polish pope, and two weeks later Cardinal Wyszyński had died.  The Party and Solidarity were both constantly testsing their strength, although the union activists didn’t realize that lists of people to be arrested had already been drawn up.  The country was roiling, and its citizens’ expectations of the poet, or rather, the Poet, with a big “P,” were very high.

Translated by Jennifer Croft