The Land of Ulro
by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Louis Iribarne
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 287 pp., $17.95
The Land of Ulro opens with a warning: “Dear Reader, this book was not intended for you, and I feel you should be forewarned before you enter its bizarre tangle.” It was conceived, the author tells us, as “an act of perfect freedom,” the “personal whim” of a writer who decided to let us eavesdrop on a longstanding and personal dispute with a phantom audience, an audience that perhaps has very little to do with most of us. “This time I gave free rein to my meditations,” Milosz writes, “and didn’t try to reach anybody in particular, except perhaps a few fastidious people able to read my Polish and belonging to the same circle of the literati.”
This seemingly arrogant remark poses a dilemma that pervades Milosz’s work and is central to the book under review. Freedom from the demands of a literary audience—or, today, of the literary marketplace—can be both a blessing and a danger for the artist, especially for an artist in exile, living far from his own country and his native literary tradition. The question whether such freedom will lead to clarity of vision or become a destructive force is a question that seems to obsess Milosz in The Land of Ulro. For him exile can take several different shapes: it can be the personal exile of a poet from his native land, the historical condition of an entire society or nation, or the philosophical predicament of modern man. The Land of Ulro can best be described as a meditation on exile and the possibilities of transcending exile through the imagination.
For Milosz himself the experience of exile has included virtually every conceivable kind of personal, social, and historical estrangement. He was born in 1911 in provincial Lithuania, where, as he recalls in his memoirs, the people were still living in a seemingly primordial past, a unique blend of traditional rural paganism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. Milosz, like the great Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, chose to call himself a Lithuanian poet writing in Polish. As a boy he traveled through Russia with his father, who was then an official involved with the construction of railroads. Milosz’s early poetry was shaped by the circle of young Wilno writers called “catastrophists” because of what Milosz calls their “vision of massive convulsions, cataclysms, of a crisis of cosmic proportions and of unspecified duration.” To the older generation this was a mere literary pose, but Milosz, in retrospect, believes that these writers were genuinely possessed by premonitions that the Last Judgment would soon come.
Milosz visited France in 1931, when he was twenty, and there he met his distant cousin, the poet Oscar Milosz, whose influence on him he recalls many times in The Land of Ulro. Oscar, a Lithuanian by birth, “one-quarter Italian on his grandmother’s side…half Jewish on his mother’s,” living in France and writing in French, became for Milosz a portent of his own future exile.
Exile, before it became a …