The Issa Valley
Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition paperback edition
Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision
Bells in Winter
The Captive Mind
“Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” (I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German.) The twelfth line of The Waste Land, a fragment from the poet’s reading in a German memoir, raises more echoes than even T.S. Eliot was likely to be aware of, and certainly more than are grasped by most of his readers. The connection with the poem is minimal, but as in so many of its other lines randomness has achieved an air of inevitability, in its suggestion of unhappy and not-so-far-off things, unknown lives, and fates, the product of complex histories, the inspissated rivalries and relations of Lithuanians, Balts and Letts, Jews, Germans, and Russians.
With them no one could have a more natural familiarity than the poet and winner of the 1980 Nobel prize for literature, Czeslaw Milosz. He too stemmed from Lithuania. But not with any conviction of purity; and during a century when the now small but once enormous country has been successively Russian, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, German, and now Soviet Russian again. Like most of the native sons of the town known in Polish as Wilno (German and Russian Wilna, Lithuanian Vilnius), Milosz is a Polish speaker, and it was in Polish that he began to write his poems. With a hint of irony he remarks that natives of his province are more inward, with the deeper intimacies of the Polish language, than are their metropolitan cousins at the center in Warsaw. The “Polish Pushkin,” Adam Mickiewicz, foremost of native poets, began to write under the inspiration of the land of Polish Lithuania.
But whereas a poet from Dublin or Edinburgh would advance in all seriousness the proposition that the English language at its liveliest and most sensitive was to be found in those towns (and a bookish native of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles might do the same), Milosz is unquestionably amused by the complacency of his own claim that languages are richest at their cultural edges. Nationality is not a thing he can take seriously: it would be hard to imagine a greater writer more emancipated from even its most subtle pretensions.
Nevertheless his genius flourishes and finds its subject in the many degrees of consciousness nationality implies; and to feast on such things and yet remain free of them is in itself a gift of genius. Language and nationality are haunts of the irrational. They are also the root of the well-grown ego, the base of that samodovolnost—self-satisfaction—which Tolstoy (whose forebears, before rising in the Tsar’s service, had themselves stemmed from Lithuania) perceived as the beginning of all lively and healthy human activity. Our natures grow and flourish by denaturing those who are not planted in the same bed. The snobberies of race and language are even more needful in us, more deeply intertwined in the unconscious, than the associated snobberies of class. And, so far from diminishing, this tribal mentality is now everywhere more virulent, more local, than ever before.
Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition—which has just been reissued—is thus an autobiography with a real title, and not just a fashionable quest for roots. The genius of Milosz is far too confident for him to wish to “rediscover” himself: it is a question of seeking to embody in consciousness and in poetry the individual’s complex and precious sense of itself. Looking back in 1968, when the book was first published in both Polish and English, he saw the forests and swamps of Lithuania as a rich manure heap out of which grows the butterfly of a detached and poetical awareness. With his secret fastidious humor, his natural delicacy, Milosz is fascinated by the vagaries of class in such a situation, no less than by those of race and language. Abruptly, when Milosz was a child, Lithuania became a sovereign state again, a minor result of the cataclysm of the First World War, which had severed one Tsarist province from another, as if New Jersey abruptly found itself an independent neighbor of New York, a contiguity that brought out every old sort of enmity and rivalry and fostered a whole lot of new ones.
Lithuanians now reserved their animus particularly for Poles, whom they assumed, not without justification, to be gentry, landlords, and oppressors, disaffected from the new state, as in the case of Ireland or Finland, but with a special degree of complication that could only be found in the marches of Eastern Europe. With the incomprehensible logic of time the Lithuanians, tardy converts to Catholicism, had slipped into the position of perpetual peasants, uncouth younger sons, their new religious devotion confirming their ineradicably junior status. In the days of their pagan ascendancy, worshippers of Peruna, the god of thunder, of the oak tree, and of Ragutis, the leering corpulent satyr hewn from it, had conquered all Eastern Europe to Kiev under their grand dukes Gudimin and Olgerd, and in the spirit of such a conquest had entered into partnership with the Poles. With the help of religion the Poles soon reduced them to the state of country cousins.
Northward, superiorities were of a Teutonic kind, bourgeois and Lutheran. It is significant that in Milosz’s wonderful autobiographical novel, The Issa Valley, a Lithuanian peasant speaks admiringly of life in Sweden—the Swedes too, like everyone else in that quarter, have been through Lithuania in their time—and of the prosperous northern neighbor as a model state for rural egalitarianism. And though the gentry spoke Polish, Lithuania still had its language, one of the oddest and most ancient of Indo-Germanic survivals, akin to Sanskrit, the object of studious enquiry by philologists in Munich and Berlin. To have such a language was itself a form of superiority.
In The Issa Valley, which has just appeared in translation, Milosz portrays himself as Thomas, grandson of a minor landowner whose gentility is based on Poland and Polish, though his name and some of his forebears are Lithuanian. The novel is an idyll of immense charm and poetic depth, a story without much conventional plot about a boy growing up in the Lithuanian countryside and raised largely by grandparents proud of their Polish background. The sensitive translation by Louis Iribarne gives at least a good idea of what must be the quality of the original, first published by an emigré press in Paris in 1955. Its quality lies in its solidity—it is as solid as the oakhewn figure of Ragutis himself.
The portraits in this novel will remind readers of those classic figures drawn from Tolstoy in Childhood and Boyhood, and by Aksakov in his family memoirs. But Milosz is more humane than Tolstoy and less “creamy” (in literary historian Prince Minsky’s word) than Aksakov. The child of The Issa Valley accepts his elders with unconscious and uncomprehending love, but the pattern of their days and their being is created with a great poet’s unobtrusively vivid power. As the book progresses we understand more and more of the nature and outlook of the hero’s grandfather, who is at first a painting in words, like Ghirlandaio’s Old Man. The hero’s grandmothers are similarly memorable. One despises regular meals and nibbles tidbits of sweet and sour, lifting her skirts to warm herself at the porcelain stove. The other, raised in cities, lives a more anxious life like a squirrel in its hole. Her death near the book’s conclusion is a sign to the young hero—his first—of his true identification with the ground she goes to rest in.
Meantime he’s growing up, hunting and dreaming, taking in portents both from nature and from the age-old accessibility of the human consciousness around him. He communes, too, with lives that form subplots to the novel: the mistress of the priest who killed herself with rat poison when he sent her away; the forester haunted by the Russian soldier he has stalked and killed in the forest; a Polish small landowner who teaches the hero to shoot, and whose Lithuanian housekeeper—primitive, contemptuous, and bewitching—leads her own mysterious life in a corner of the narrative.
It is an ancient world over which Milosz has mastery here, but there is nothing self-conscious in its ancientness. I have stressed the Lithuanian provenance of Milosz because it seems to me the clue to something in his work that is unique today: the reality of the thing, the return of the thing. It is no accident that structuralism and deconstruction, as critical and reading techniques, have banished physical realities from literature, replacing them with the abstract play of language, “the game of the signifiers.” They were on their way out anyway; they were leaving literature; and the critical process, as usual, found ways of explaining and rationalizing their departure, even of suggesting they had never been there.
Why “things,” in this profound sense, should have faded out of literature, leaving not even the grin of a Cheshire cat, is a question of great complexity, but one reason is certainly what has to be termed the Americanization of the field of literature itself. Things, in the sense in which the nineteenth-century novel—Dickens and Hardy and Tolstoy—both assumed and created them have not been central to the American literary consciousness. In their place have been legends and ideas and consciousness itself. The Deep South and Wild West with its Indians and cowboys which captivated the European imagination (Milosz often refers to them as part of his own boyhood awareness) did so because they had never existed. Like so many other American stories these were an effort of consciousness to create experience, to give itself something to live by.
In Europe things preceded consciousness; in America they had to be created and commemorated by it. Most literary creation in America is factitious, in the sense that it has to be an advertisement for itself; and this leads naturally to the world of actual advertising—of news, of life-styles, of literary fields—which dominates the modern consciousness. New styles of reading and of analyzing texts represent a recognition and an intellectualization of this process, which has come to be the norm in every contemporary culture.
It takes a masterpiece to reveal the sheer unreality of our modern creative modes and poses, and Milosz’s novel is such a masterpiece. Its account of childhood in a valley inhabited by an “unusually large number of devils” has no obvious originality, nor is it in any sense a strikingly distinctive work; but, strangely enough, even the fact that it is a translation only appears to accentuate its closeness to real things, for it seems to be about those things and not about the author’s invention of them, odd or novel. It makes us realize the extent to which an American masterpiece tends to be about itself only, and has to be. Winesburg, Ohio; Appointment in Samarra; The Great Gatsby; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—they all have to clutch their discoveries to themselves, creating a new consciousness that does duty as a new world. Such comparisons are not wholly invidious: it is a fact that a writer like Milosz is effortlessly master of a primeval world, of which the art of the West no longer has any conception, and can only reconstitute in solipsistic magic, the supermarket gothicism of Edna O’Brien or Joyce Carol Oates. Even Faulkner’s world is as willed as theirs, crafted straight from vacancy into myth and symbol.