Proust in Lubyanka

The following excerpt from My Century is made up of taped sections and a separate sketch found in Wat’s papers.

We had no communist literature the entire time when I was in Lubyanka, no Marxist literature at all. I was in many cells where prisoners were given books, at least a few, and everyone confirmed that they were never given that sort of book. My fellow prisoners had a very intelligent explanation for that: it was simply to keep the investigators, who were not terribly intelligent, from being nailed to the wall by Marxist arguments. There was no shortage, however, of religious literature. I read Solovyov there and a great many others. I read the church fathers, St. Augustine on the Kingdom of God.

The books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.

Literature is insight and synthesis, which means that poetry, ultimately, is heroic. Naked, weak, hungry, trembling, endangered by all the elements, all the beasts and demons, the cave men performed that act of heroism for consolation, in the deepest sense of the word. And at that time there in Lubyanka this seemed to me the essence of literature and the source of its legitimacy in the world. Consolation for a weak, naked cave man.

Swann’s Way was in the first batch of books. My first book in a year. To my surprise and, later, almost to my horror, I realized that my entire value system had not been destroyed but had simply been left outside the prison walls. All my knowledge of people and society, all the circuitous paths of psychological inquiry, my industrious study of the passions, my oversophistication—everything in which I had taken so much delight—in Lubyanka seemed atrophied, pretentious, and irritating at times. After the misery of Zamarstynów prison what did I care about a satire on the Verdurins’ salon? What did I care about a world enclosed in a salon like a ship in a bottle; what did I care about lifeless thoughts turned into elegant conversation? It was absorbing, of course, and helped to kill time. But everything in that book that was not poetry, that did not have poetry’s energy and movement, was just costume drama.

Swann’s Way did not emerge diminished from that reading. Quite the contrary, I was more charmed than ever by the power of its energy, its beauty of movement. The poetry in Swann’s Way made everything intimate, an “inward vibration,” and was all the more unusual in that it played off the outermost layers, the epidermis of the sensibility. And what was of more importance to me …

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