Eric Karpeles, a painter and an impassioned reader of Proust—he is the author of Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time (2008)—had never even heard of Józef Czapski until a friend sent him a slim volume in French, Proust contre la déchéance, which he has now translated under the title Lost Time. It consists of five lectures on Proust that Czapski delivered in 1940–1941, during his captivity in a Soviet prison camp. Karpeles read it in a single sitting and became obsessed with its author.
Who was this man capable of bringing Proust to life, in those appalling conditions, without a book to refer to, for an audience of some forty Polish officers suffering from utmost deprivation? Capable of setting forth the literary background of Proust’s masterpiece, summing up its overarching themes, and even quoting lengthy passages almost word for word from memory to illustrate a fascinating convergence of Proust, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky? Driven by curiosity, Karpeles discovered other texts by Czapski and some contemporaneous accounts of him. Frustrated by their inadequacy, he set out to do his own research. It took him more than five years to write Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski, a remarkably vivid portrait, notable for the clarity with which it places a life unusual for its breadth and complexity in its larger historical setting.
Czapski’s tormented life, ravaged by wars and revolutions, traversed nearly the entire twentieth century. He was born in Prague in 1896, into one of those European aristocratic families whose branches are so intertwined that it is impossible to assign them a specific nationality. A Polish father, an Austrian mother, and Russian, Baltic, Czech, and German cousins were his closest relatives. He spent his childhood with his brother and five sisters on the family estate of Przyłuki in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire, until he was sent at around the age of thirteen to continue his studies in Saint Petersburg. In January 1917, he enrolled in Tsar Nicholas II’s Corps des Pages, an academy that trained sons of the nobility and senior officials. A month later the February Revolution broke out, and his life henceforth followed a vertiginous course that ended in 1993, when he died in France at the age of ninety-six.
In May 1918, just months before the end of World War I, Czapski was in Warsaw. Poland, which had been partitioned for more than a century among the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian, and Russian empires, emerged from the war an independent state, but beginning in February 1919 tensions with Russia degenerated into a brutal conflict. Instead of studying to be a painter, as he…
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