• Email
  • Print

Return of the Native

The Issa Valley

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Louis Iribarne
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 288 pp., $13.95

Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition paperback edition

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Catherine S. Leach
to be published by the University of California Press in August in a, 300 pp., $7.95

Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision

by Czeslaw Milosz
University of California Press, 263 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Bells in Winter

translated by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Lillian Vallee
The Ecco Press, 71 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Captive Mind

by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Jane Zielonko. (with a new foreword by the author)
to be published by Vintage Books in August in a paperback edition, 272 pp., $4.95

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.

The significance of this was touched on accidentally by Milosz himself in his essay “On Pasternak Soberly,” printed in the collection entitled Emperor of the Earth, published in 1977. Dr. Zhivago, he writes, has been misunderstood in the West because we have forgotten how to read and to recognize a primitive work. All those events and objects and people, the products of that hymn “Eternal Memory” which is being chanted in the first sentence—these are real, with the reality conferred by primary art; they are not the “web of symbols” ingeniously discovered by Edmund Wilson, just as they are not the soap opera, with the “Lara theme” and the sword-waving Cossacks dashing over the snow, into which the publicity agents of the West converted them. But Dr. Zhivago is a primitive tale about a society in an ageless state of barbarism now grown dynamic, full of the chances, the coincidences, the collisions that actually occur in such a society and thus in a story about it. Milosz points out, for example, that Yuri Zhivago’s half-Asiatic natural brother Yevgraf, who appears mysteriously from time to time to sort out his problems, and who has been taken as some kind of symbolic figure, is in fact just the kind of person you find both in Soviet and in primitive heroic societies—the archetypal Great One who offers some protection against perpetual threats and hazards.

Of course there is a strong element of pastiche in Dr. Zhivago, an element of fin-de-siècle fantasy, and The Issa Valley is not free from pastiche either. It could hardly be otherwise with a book written today about a boy growing up in the small valley, the countryside of the author’s childhood. But both Pasternak and Milosz are poets, poets of the first class though of very different kinds, and this difference is shown in the texture of their prose. In the case of Milosz experience emerges as a quality that overrides the impossibilities of translation. A poet so good that he can be translated is a supreme paradox, one which many poets today, and readers of poetry, would refuse to recognize, so strong is the tendency now for poetry only to congeal and inhere in the carefully exploited accuracies and idiosyncrasies of a language.

But if nobody thought Dante and Shakespeare untranslatable it was because of what they said; how they said it was of course another matter. The fact that what Milosz says comes across with such primary force and impact is itself an indication that, as a poet in the largest sense, he is an ideal kind of recipient of the Nobel Prize. It is possible that there are real differences here, though of a wholly indefinable kind, in the nature of languages themselves: some are more amenable than others to moving sideways, to acquiring a kind of international potential. Not for nothing, perhaps, was Esperanto invented in Poland.

In Native Realm Milosz writes with admirable humor and dispassion about the lightness of his native tongue, its adaptability, its centuries-old cultivated Westernness, as contrasted with the poise and weight, the inevitability, as it were, of Russian syllables and syntax. Observing that his countrymen are fascinated by Russian because it “liberates their Slavic half,” because in its menace and seduction it “is all there is to know about Russia,” Milosz tells how he and his friends used to perform a certain exercise which gave them “a good deal to think about.” First they uttered in a bass voice the Russian words for “A deep hole dug with a spade,” and then chattered quickly in a tenor the verbally very similar Polish equivalent.

The arrangement of accents and vowels in the first phrase connotes gloom, darkness, and power; in the second, lightness, clarity, and weakness. In other words, it was both an exercise in self-ridicule and a warning.

Be that as it may, it is certainly true that such Russian syllables, if they become poetry, are untranslatable in consequence. Milosz discovered Pushkin on his own, which is the right way to do it, and was captivated. “My native tongue was incapable of such power of expression, of such masterful iambs, and I had to admit it.” But as an embryonic poet he soon began to distrust the lyricism “which seemed to unfold from itself as if born of the very sounds themselves.” Pushkin doesn’t happen to talk about a deep hole dug with a spade, though if he did it would become poetry, as it does when he writes of “the sea where ships were running,” or “a forest on the banks of the Dnieper.” Such poetry is untranslatable because it says nothing, but exists merely and absolutely in its own tongue, and so in another language is flat and banal.

The poetry of Milosz, as of Mickiewicz, is not like that; it has a timbre, a clarity of desire, an urgency of sense which forces itself out of its own language into others. The Spanish of Neruda, the Italian of Montale, can today still do the same, availing themselves of the Latin camaraderie which is so immanent also in Polish religion and culture, if not in the language itself. In the lines of Mickiewicz’s “Forefather’s Eve,” which Milosz quotes, there is an acoustic forcefulness which proclaims itself as poetry in whatever language. The poet’s hatred for Russian tyranny contrasts with his sympathy for its victims, whom he sees not from the inside, as Pushkin and Gogol did, but with the brutally lucid incredulity of an outsider. He contrasts the faces of Europeans, an articulate record of intelligible emotion and feeling, with the Russian face.

Here, people’s eyes, like the cities of this country
Are large and clear; never does the soul’s tumult
Move the pupil with an extraordi- nary glance,
Never does desolation cloud them over long.
Seen from a distance they are splen- did, marvelous;
Once inside, they are empty and deserted.
The body of this people is like a fat cocoon,
Inside which sleeps a caterpillar- soul…
But when the sun of freedom shall rise,
What kind of insect will fly out from that shroud?

A poem written by the young Milosz, before the war, will serve as an example of his special quality, as well as of his extraordinary translatability. Written in 1936 and collected in Bells in Winter (1978), it is called “Encounter.”

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Even more striking than the fact that this poetry remains poetry in another language—with the advantage, it is true, of having been translated in collaboration with the poet himself—is the sense of a shared experience that Milosz manages to give, a limpid repose upon the way things are that is no less than our sense of wonder at them. What prompted the writing of The Issa Valley in 1955 was the same kind of emotion that found expression in this poem, and Milosz was then an exile in America, collecting and perpetuating the wonderings of his adolescence.

There is in a way nothing personal about them. Milosz’s world is collective—a place for everything and everything in its place. He is one of the few poets who do not give the impression of seeing something in his own special way. The self in his poetry is not impersonal but effortlessly manifold, like the emotions and sensations in its records. As he puts it in his poem “Ars Poetica?” which appears in Bells in Winter:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

We become our relations, our moments, each other, even our graves; at least we do so if we live in the kind of dense and populous relation with the world which Milosz records and celebrates. The relation to the past moment in his poem is the same as that to his grandmother’s grave in The Issa Valley. In The Issa Valley too we see the beginnings of the poem “Diary of a Naturalist,” however much later on that poem was written, in an experience of the young boy.

One winter Thomas spotted an ermine on the bank of the river Issa. Frost and sunlight made the twigs of the bushes on the steep shore of the opposite bank stand out like bouquets of gold, lightly tinged with gray and bluish purple. It was then that a ballet dancer of remarkable grace and ability would appear on the ice, a white sickle that would arch and straighten again. With a gaping mouth Thomas stared at it in bewilderment and ached with desire. To have. If he had had a rifle with him he would have shot it, because one could not simply stand still when one’s wonder demanded that the thing arousing it be preserved for ever.

The overwhelming impulse that wished to have the creature—shoot it if need be—later became the impulse of the poet. Milosz does not sentimentalize the adolescent’s worship of nature, as predatory as the beasts it moves among. The Issa Valley is full of hunting and hunting expeditions, as memorable as those in Pan Tadeusz, or Aksakov and Turgenev. Of particular note is the stalking of the capercailzie (the translation, in most respects excellent, calls it a grouse—quite a different bird) when that fabulous fowl of the spruce woods, as wary as a cat throughout most of the year, is temporarily deafened by the noise of its own ritual mating call.

The characters in The Issa Valley—grandfather, grandmothers, neighbors, the local forester, are all members of a household, even though the Lithuanian peasant shows at moments an atavistic hostility to the Polish pan, or local gentry. As in Tolstoy, the more closely integrated the members of a family, the more peculiarly individual they appear. In this pre-American melting pot the racial and social mix produces not uniformity but a matured exactness of distinction, of the kind found in nature itself and worshipped by Milosz when he writes as a botanist and ornithologist.

That habit of exactness explains the twin paradox of Milosz’s distinction as a poet: his sense of things as they are, and yet his power—almost a conscious power it sometimes seems—of projecting what he writes out of the absolute linguistic form which poetry usually demands. His own poetic temperament and upbringing again offer a clue. He has a sense of a poet as “not just one person,” an instinct akin to Keats’s perception of the poet as a man in whom personality has been exorcised in the intensities of negative capability. But Keats’s poetry, in all its richness, its vulnerability as language, is held down to the very words in which it was first uttered. Milosz’s seems to aspire to some ideal language, almost to Wordsworth’s “ghostly language of the ancient earth,” and not the earth only—the sky too, the steady rationale of a sentient universe.

It is the same with the novel. Despite its immensely local subject and setting there is nothing in the least provincial about it. A friend of Milosz, the poet Tomás Venclova, a native of Vilnius/Wilno, notes the same characteristic about it from the viewpoint of a native professional, a connoisseur, as it were, of the interplay of linguistic factors, and of their transcendence.

It always seems to me that this novel belongs to a certain conceivable, ideal Lithuanian literature. In that literature [as in the work of Donelaitis] we have these types and motifs, there are these landscapes and seasons, but, alas, we have no novel in which everything could be united into such an integral and beautiful entity. The novel belongs to Polish literature. However, from a certain point of view, this is ultimately unimportant.*

Unimportant because a true transcendence of nationalism is produced not by simplification and standardization but precisely by that linguistic interplay, rivalry and synthesis of which the background of Milosz’s writing affords such a remarkable example.

There is another factor involved. The whole movement of American and English poetic writing, of such writing in the West in general, has tended toward the linguistic justification of the individual, of the poet as self-explorer and self-proclaimer. In proclaiming himself, Walt Whitman gave a voice to America, but the modern poet has for the most part settled to invent only his own language and his own self. By belonging to themselves—and to the poet—so completely, his poems elude any authenticity other than their own personal one; they not only avoid any other and wider version of themselves but disown it. Their art is devoted to remaining just one person, one poem, one life-study. This is as true of Lowell and Berryman as it is of Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney. The Irish poet writes fondly and with devout precision of the nature of bogs, of their soft dark provenance in his soul; but this is bog as he owns it, as he has found it—as Yeats found and made his own Ireland. That bog so dependent on its personal verbal artifact (“The squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge”) is a far cry from the forest swamps of Lithuania, which, through Milosz’s mediation and advocacy, are an open place alive with invisible guests and no longer centered in his own self.

This is not to attempt a qualitative judgment. Milosz is not better than the best poets of the West, but he is certainly different, and the difference declares itself as a question of open poetry and an open mind, an openness manifesting itself out of a society now closed by the Iron Curtain. The formidable talent of an American artist in our time seeks in one sense relief from freedom: it needs the prison of its own self-creation, one suggested in that grimly revealing little exchange between the painter Edward Hopper and an admirer—“What are you after?” “I’m after me.” Perhaps one can pay too high a price for one democratic tongue and one democratic kind of solitude.

Milosz is not after himself but after that old European goal of cultivation and understanding, enlightenment and humanitas. Often, no doubt, his open poetic pronouncements upon that goal may look like cliché, to poets and their readers conditioned to come at it—if at all—through the honing and perfecting of the ego. And there is a certain irony in the fact that while a poet and critic like Donald Davie may have learned from Milosz and deeply understood his old-fashioned creative intellectualism, Milosz is also admired in America by an open tradition of poetry which is the reverse of intellectual. As Milosz himself has recognized by quoting it in his own poetry, Ginsburg’s Howl is paradoxically closer to his own poetic outlook than is that of the sophisticated and egocentric poetic styles of today.

Openness in Milosz as an artist is also rare in terms of his openness of genre. By writing in every form, he writes virtually in one: and he instructs in all. Native Realm and his earlier essay The Captive Mind, which first appeared in English in 1953, are among the most illuminating books to come out of recent history and its debate on ideology. It is so much an index of how good Milosz is as a critic, historian, and philosophical commentator that if one knew his work only in those reflective forms one would not guess that he is also a novelist and poet. Only very good poets and novelists have these comprehensive and Goethean abilities, though Milosz’s creative outlook has none of Goethe’s deliberative importance. He excels at the rapid focus, the quick glimpse that finds the inner dimension of a subject.

In one of his essays, “Brognart: A Story Told Over a Drink,” collected in Emperor of the Earth, he relates almost as Conrad might have done the story of a young Frenchman of peasant origins, who visited a friend in Poland in 1939 and was caught by the war. Because he remained bent, in his logical French fashion, on finding a consul and repatriating himself, because, in effect, he persisted in behaving as if he were not in a world where civilization had ceased to have meaning, he was eventually picked up by the Russians and shipped off to a camp near Archangelsk, where he lasted until 1951, still making efforts to get in touch with a French consul.

As a Pole, eternally caught between two incompatible power centers, Milosz profoundly understands the total incomprehension that exists between states and individuals of quite different provenance. No other phenomenon is historically more important, and its importance today continues to increase. It made any mutual understanding impossible between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler in 1939, and equally impossible between poor Brognart and his persecutors. Incidentally, this terrible little true story has something in common with Conrad’s meticulous tale, “Amy Foster,” in which a shipwrecked immigrant pathetically attempts to adapt himself to life in an English village.

Milosz’s essay on Apollo Korzeniowski, in Emperor of the Earth, the doomed, tormented, and idealistic father of Conrad the English novelist, is more illuminating in a few pages than most of the critical books on Conrad’s novels. So, in a different way, is his passing reference to the fact that the Poles who would not let Jews join their first partisan detachments during the war would have been genuinely amazed if their behavior had been criticized as racial discrimination—not that this was any comfort to the Jews. Such things to them were facts of nature; and as such were intimately connected with the fact that prewar Poland had nothing resembling the fanatical and hysterical anti-Jewish policy carried out in Germany. The “gentrification” of that great Polish-Lithuanian respublica which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea may have been politically disastrous, as was shown in its easy liquidation by the servile empires of the Teutons and Slavs, but it also means that an idea of civilized behavior, of moral comme il faut, penetrated from above into the humblest reaches of Polish society.

And yet Milosz’s uncle, Oscar Milosz, himself half Jewish and a distinguished French poet, used to admonish his young nephew on his rare visits to the East to remember that “in Europe there is nothing more stupid or more brutal in its petty hatreds than the Polish gentry.” And that was true too. The remarkable father of this cosmopolitan poet, who became the first Lithuanian delegate to the League of Nations, had been a Polish landowner who saw a portrait of his future bride—she happened to be a beautiful Jewess—in a Warsaw shop. The fact that he determined on the spot to marry her was itself a manifestation of the proud independence befitting a Polish gentleman, but it also meant that his caste ostracized him and his family. For all his French domicile and reputation the son expressed as plangently as Chateaubriand a homesickness for what he regarded as his native Lithuania—“une vaste étendue de lacs obscurs, verdâtres et pourissants, envahis par une folie des tristes nymphéas jaunes,… O Maison, Maison! pourquoi m’avez-vous laissé partir?

Milosz regained that home through writing about it in The Issa Valley. He was conscious always of the precarious and provisional nature of the country in which he grew up, and how complete would be its extinction when the moment came. France, he points out, survived a German invasion and conquest without undue discomfort, and would have done so even if the Germans had remained the winning side. For Poland—the new nation—defeat would mean calamity and extinction. The young Milosz got the nickname of “catastrophist” from the tone of the poems he wrote in the years before the war, but, though history was to prove him altogether too accurate a prophet, his own survival during the time of apocalypse chastened him. He was too honest not to see that survival is its own form of humiliation, one that subdues not only the pride of the ideological visionary—and Milosz then was a believing Marxist and revolutionary—but the impulse to denunciation of such ideology, a counter-attitude.

Life itself, and the reverence for it, becomes then the precious thing to be explored and celebrated. It is this lucid humility which sets Milosz apart from Solzhenitsyn, a self-martyred soul who inhabits a country where conviction is more important than reflection, where the vowels are deeper, the shapes of speech more minatory. Solzhenitsyn’s power as a writer demands that life should be intensified, directed, and organized in the Russian style; Milosz’s provenance makes him conservative and freedom-loving in a wholly different sense. In his novels and poetry, life and time are caught in an unending study of awareness: the gesture of a man pointing to a hare that runs across the road.

  1. *

    Tomás Venclova, “Despair and Grace,” from the Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, Summer 1978.

  • Email
  • Print