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My Europe

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Louis Begley
Louis Begley at the age of four, at his grandparents’ country house in Poland, summer 1938

My Europe begins with Poland before the war. World War II, of course. Soon, there will be no one left who knew Europe as it was before World War I, the Great War that destroyed the old order and gave the continent a new map, which, with relatively small changes, is its map today. Until she died in December 2004, my mother was one of the two persons with whom I talked about Europe before World War I. The other was Gregor von Rezzori, the protean novelist from Chernowitz, in Bukovina. He died in 1998. The war broke out in August 1914, when my mother wasn’t quite four years old, but she remembered her family’s flight, in the late fall of that year, spurred by the fear of pogroms that came in the wake of advancing imperial Russian troops, from Rzeszów, the town in Galicia where she was born, to Brno in Moravia. They remained in Brno until the end of the summer of 1917. My mother went to kindergarten there, and acquired the almost native knowledge of German without which she might not have succeeded, less than twenty-five years later, in saving her own life and mine when the Third Reich undertook to exterminate the Polish Jews.

At the core of my first memories of Poland is a summer in the remote countryside where my grandparents had a small property. The low manor house was made of wood so weather-beaten that I thought of it as black. One reached it after a journey from the nearest railway station over blindingly white dusty roads that seemed to stretch into eternity. The fat horses drawing my grandparents’ carriage moved at a trot so unwilling that the slow beat of their hoofs and the swaying of that ancient contraption soon put me to sleep. The inside of the house was as dark and somber as its exterior—a cocoon of silence interrupted only by vague barnyard noises during the day, the lowing of cows coming home to be milked at dusk, and, at night, the dogs that my grandfather’s coachman let off their chains.

My grandmother saw to it that I ate copiously, at the five regular daily meals (there was a second breakfast, as well as a late afternoon meal that preceded dinner) and, as though that were not enough, whenever she happened to think of a sweet, or a choice morsel of meat, for instance a chicken or duck liver, that I might profitably ingest. She did not speak much, and neither did my grandfather; the house servants, local peasant women, left me alone. The summer stretched into golden early autumn. I went with my grandmother or one of those rough and silent serving women to the edge of the forest that began just beyond a meadow adjoining the house. In the profound shade, we picked mushrooms. Then vacation was over. It was time to return to Stryj, the town where my parents lived.

My memories of Poland during World War II are set down in the first novel I wrote, Wartime Lies. Wartime Lies is a work of fiction, based in part on recollections of what happened to me and, in at least equal part, on stories I heard during the war and soon afterward about what happened to others. Necessarily, my sharpest recollections were of interiors: the rented furnished rooms in Warsaw in which my mother and I waited and wondered which would come first: the defeat of Germany that would put an end to the nightmare, or the fatal pounding on the door announcing the Gestapo that would put an end to our lives. We went out of those rooms as infrequently as possible, but there were, to be sure, certain notable outdoor events I could also recall vividly, such as the arrival of Germans in our town, the Judenaktionen and scenes of individual violence and murder that followed, the burning of the Warsaw ghetto, which I experienced only vicariously, looking on from the outside, and the burning and destruction of the rest of Warsaw during the uprising that started in August 1944.

When I was writing Wartime Lies, I realized that I had forgotten the topography of every place I had known in Poland, except Stryj, the town in which I was born and where I lived until I was almost nine. But even it had been stripped down to a few essentials: my parents’ house and the street it stood on, the marketplace, the street leading to the railway station, and the riverbank from which one could go swimming. I had to pore over the street map of Warsaw to construct Tania’s and Maciek’s itineraries on their rare walks in the city, to place the boardinghouses where they found shelter, to get them to the old city so that they could, like my mother and me, remain in Warsaw until the final days of the uprising, and then from their cellar to the great square before the central railway station. Such, in the case of that novel, was the paltry store of my specific recollections.

Before World War I, so far as Poles and the Lithuanian upper class were concerned, Lithuania was a part of Poland. It had been so ever since the Lithuanian Grand Prince Jagiełło was baptized in 1386, married the Polish queen Jadwiga, and ascended to the Polish throne. A year or two after World War II ended, when I first read Pan Tadeusz, Adam Mickiewicz’s great verse epic about Lithuania, written in 1834, I thought that I recognized very faintly, in that supremely beautiful elegy for the perished way of life of the provincial Lithuanian gentry, as the poet remembered it from the time of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, something like an almost forgotten melody that haunts one, something so attenuated that one wonders whether it was once heard or only imagined. It was, I eventually realized, the summer and autumn at my grandparents’ property. What a prodigious feat on my part of self-aggrandizement, imagination, or empathy! Objectively, the modest manor house of a well-to-do Polish Jew, who was more of a merchant dealing in agricultural produce than a landowner, as I believe that term was understood in Poland, and the life in it, could bear no resemblance, could have no possible link, with the rich domain of Mickiewicz’s aristocratic, superbly old-fashioned Judge Soplica.

But how much is imagination and how much is specific recollection in Pan Tadeusz? The poet was born in 1798. The events he describes took place in 1811 and 1812—therefore when he was a boy. Mickiewicz was sentenced by the Russian authorities to exile, for revolutionary activities, in 1824, and never returned to Lithuania or Poland. One may wonder about the shards stored in his memory, the bric-a-brac from which he fashioned the marvelously detailed and richly textured description of this very special society and its hunts, balls, and quarrels. The truth seems to be that facts actually recalled are of secondary importance for a writer composing a work of fiction—that is to say a work of imagination in which all such facts must, in any event, be altered, transposed, and reinfused with life. How else would one explain the metamorphosis of Illiers, such as it existed in Eure-et-Loir, into Proust’s Combray?

I have dwelled on the transposition I must have unwittingly performed on my meager recollections of my grandparents’ property in the Polish countryside in order to hear their echo in the countryside of Mickiewicz’s masterpiece because that logic and belief- defying process seem to me to exemplify my abiding connection with the country of my birth. Thus, in Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke I was able to find, in the descriptions of the school into which the adult narrator is suddenly thrust, as though in a dream, by the terrifying Professor Pimko, the madeleine that unlocked my own, very buried but I am convinced very real memory of the brutality of the students and teachers in the gimnazjum I attended in Kraków, and in the scene in which the narrator and his cousin Zygmunt discuss with such relish the gentleman’s sport of slapping servants, doormen, barbers—anyone who cannot hit back—what I remember as the Polish rite of beating others about the face. It doesn’t matter to me whether the rite is in fact specifically Polish or specifically Eastern European or universal, although I doubt that it is universal because I have never encountered it in America, to give just one example. The fact is that for me this form of humiliation and degradation is inextricably connected with Poland—via buried memories, true or false, such as those of my gimnazjum in Kraków, and, for me much more important, via Gombrowicz.

It is a truism that when one writes a novel in which recollections of one’s own experiences are used, those recollections, however altered in the writing, take over and, indeed, gradually displace the very recollections one believed one had before the novel was written. Nabokov, in Speak, Memory, evokes that process eloquently, comparing it to giving away to the reader, one by one, the writer’s possessions. The result in my case is that the link I have with Poland now is almost entirely literary: it consists of the recollections I poured into Wartime Lies, which are no longer my recollections because they have been utterly transformed, and the powerful resonance in me of the work of great Polish authors.

Mickiewicz and Gombrowicz are not alone. Among others who bind me strongly to Poland, I should mention, in no particular order, Julian Tuwim, Stefan Zeromski, and Tadeusz Borowski. Borowski, in my opinion, is the only writer, apart from Primo Levi, who proved himself equal to the inconceivable task of writing a literary work about Auschwitz. The work of each of these writers, depending on which hypothesis I adopt, contains a Poland I recognize, with that special shock one feels when a memory comes alive, or has shaped the Poland I think I now remember.

In 1946, my parents and I left Poland. It wasn’t clear where we would settle permanently—the notion of claiming permanent residence or domicile anywhere seemed to me then, as it does today, an act of hubris inviting immediate punishment by expulsion and exile—but we did have a visa that enabled us to go to France and stay there for a limited period of time. We went to Paris and waited for good news to come from somewhere. Our sojourn turned out to be all too brief, signifying for me some six months of extraordinary laissez-aller. I wasn’t made to study anything, not even French. Instead I wandered about the city and mastered the map and the functioning of the métro. I also frequented with great enthusiasm the amusement stands in the area of the Place Pigalle.

It was, perhaps, this first taste of freedom that made me love France. A long period of time passed—so it seemed to me then, although it stretched only from early 1947 until the summer of 1954—before I returned. Since then, I have been a frequent visitor. For some years, beginning in 1965, I lived in Paris and worked there as a lawyer. Later, the closest of family relationships successively strengthened the bond of affection. France comes second after Poland in the makeup of my Europe, and if it weren’t for the force with which we are marked by our earliest experiences, especially by the first language we learn, it would occupy a much larger place in that personal dreamland than the country in which I was born.

For all that, I am convinced that my connection with the literature of France is more significant to me than any French landscape, architecture, work of plastic art, or custom. Once I left Paris in 1947, I made up with great haste for what I omitted to do when I was there. In the academic year 1954–1955, my first year at Harvard College, through special permission or an error of the registrar’s office, I took a course with the forbidding title of “Proust, Joyce and Mann,” taught by the great Harry Levin. I read À la recherche du temps perdu night and day. It could not be done otherwise: I was reading in French and had to finish within three months. The volume that the greatest novelist of all time did not write, Du côté de Proust, has ever since been my constant companion; there is no gossip my wife and I enjoy as much as gossip about the personages who inhabit that mythic space.

I have never ceased to wonder how very young men like me, whose life has been impossibly different from that of the Narrator or Proust’s other creations—Swann, Baron de Charlus, the Verdurins, the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, or for that matter characters inhabiting a humbler sphere, like Françoise and Jupien—manage to take on faith and ultimately understand Proust’s book and his world. Certainly as one rereads again and again a great work, as I have reread À la recherche, the conception one has of it changes. Nevertheless, since I have had in my later life some small opportunities to glimpse a society analogous to Proust’s, I am confident that my initial understanding of Proust, the way I first saw his world, was not inexact.

Soon afterward, I began reading the novels of Balzac, which is a lifetime’s task, and the novels and shorter works of Flaubert. As a result I cannot look at French society and its mores other than through the spectacles fitted for me by Proust and these two of his predecessors. For instance, is it possible to think of moneyed French bourgeoisie without reference to Illusions perdues, or of political passions in France without the lessons taught by L’Éducation sentimentale? I do not think so.

I realize that I am playing a tricky game because it is equally true that when I drive through Provence the best landscapes I see have been painted by Cézanne, and the pensionnaires of a brothel in St. Raphael I once stumbled into, asking for a pastis, turned out to be works of Degas. I will not go multiplying the examples, because they and the game merely prove that great writers and great artists are the best guides to the world we live in and its most reliable interpreters. It is also a fact that I am a bookish person, so that my habit of relating—indeed inserting—scenes from the world around me into the novels I admire the most in order to validate them is an intellectual tic. A tic, by the way, not unlike that of Charles Swann, who resigned himself to loving Odette, although she was not his genre, but only after he had taken note of the resemblance between her and Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, as Botticelli had portrayed her in the fresco that may be seen in the Sistine Chapel.

But my essential France and my essential Europe do not exist only in books I have read or paintings I admire. A version of my France may be found in my second novel, The Man Who Was Late. Those of you who read it will find in it an ex-voto for a writer whom I haven’t mentioned so far, Pierre-Jean Jouve. He is remembered there not because I was under his influence when I wrote that novel, but because its subject matter, and the dilemmas I confronted in it, could not, to my mind, be disassociated from the way he had dealt with them, and the style of his novels—elliptical and incredibly rapid—gave me courage to write as I then did. It is said that no artist painted in the old way after Masaccio had reorganized all received notions of perspective, anatomy, and color. Jouve did something of the sort for me, as to one or two aspects of a novelist’s craft, and therefore deserved an homage.

Another country in Europe with which I have a connection that is considerable, although less strong than with Poland or France, is Italy, the partial setting of two of my novels, As Max Saw It and Mistler’s Exit. One’s subjects, and what one does with them, are dictated by mysterious forces. In the case of the earlier of these works, As Max Saw It, a coincidence—the desire I felt to locate its opening scene at the side of a pool bordered by marble—awakened the memory of a four-day stay in a Roman villa on the shore of Lake Como. The rest followed. And yet this brief visit was never repeated.

The reasons why the action of Mistler’s Exit takes place largely in Venice is easier to guess: my wife’s and my regular visits to that city about which I can say, just like my protagonist, that it is the one place on earth where nothing irritated me. Another strand in my connection to Italy is one more coincidence. My older son, a painter and sculptor, has lived in Rome for almost twenty years. But before all that, before my first visit to Florence or Venice, came my acquaintance with The Divine Comedy, and since then, wherever I have looked, be it Italy or Poland during the war, Dante has instructed my gaze.

You may ask, what about Germany, is Germany not a part of your Europe? Obviously it is: I would have been a very different man with a very different life if Germany had not invaded Poland in 1939, and, for that matter, if Germany had not pushed so hard to precipitate the outbreak of World War I. All of us here, and our parents and grandparents, would have lived in a different world if the Great War had not taken place, perhaps a world in which Germany and German culture were predominant. The memory of the war in Poland has not receded in my mind, although, as I have said before, it has been fused with Wartime Lies, and neither has the very different, bittersweet memory of the two years I spent in Göppingen as a soldier in the American army of occupation.

There has come into being, however, an entirely new set of facts: the reception of my novels by German readers, especially their forthright and courageous response to Wartime Lies, and, as a result, innumerable contacts with Germans—new Germans who were not adults at the time of the war. I cannot say that I have completely absorbed the new reality or made sense out of the old one. But I welcome the new reality, personally and as a once-upon-a-time citizen of Europe. And it may be that as a result of the intensity of my dealings with Germany—past as well as present—my relationship with that part of my Europe is less literary and more personal.

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