Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality wryly depicts Goethe preparing for immortality — neatly laying out his life in Dichtung und Warheit and arranging for Johann Eckermann to record his conversation. He is, says Kundera, designing a handsome smoking jacket, posing for posterity. He wants to look his best. Then along comes the young Bettina von Arnim, a platonic flirtation from his past, with an alternative, memorably ridiculous version, ostensibly admiring, in which Goethe’s wife Christiane is portrayed as ‘the crazy, fat sausage’. There is immortal egg on the facings of that smoking jacket.
In the case of Czesław Miłosz, we have a variant on this paradigm. He wanted, as it were, to replace the smoking jacket with the white tie and tails he wore in Stockholm in December 1986 to receive the Nobel Prize. How do we know? Two years later, under the heading ‘Witness’, A. Alvarez reviewed his Collected Poems 1931–1987 in the New York Review of Books with unstinted admiration. To his amazement, a month and a half later, an irked Miłosz complained that Alvarez had made him political and had slighted the poetry by concentrating on the prose non-fiction, The Captive Mind (1953) and Native Realm (1968).
His defection from communism remains, however, the central event of Miłosz’s life and the focus of our continuing interest. Communism involved the consumption of toad sandwiches. Or, as he puts it, a continuous diet of frogs: ‘My own decision proceeded not from the functioning of the reasoning mind but from a revolt of the stomach,’ he wrote in The Captive Mind. It is a powerful image and one that influenced ‘The Power of Taste’, Zbigniew Herbert’s poem about the rejection of communism for its intellectual coarseness, its emetic vulgarity: ‘We had a pinch of indispensible courage/ but basically it was a matter of taste…’
Of course, Miłosz: A Biography adds touches of colour to this central narrative. We see Miłosz, under arrest, eating his Lithuanian passport on the way to the police station because its data conflicts with his other papers. As an adolescent disappointed in love — he observes an older student leaving his beloved’s bedroom window — he plays Russian roulette and survives. A Jewish kid escapes a Gestapo officer as he struggles with his holster, and hides in a dustbin. Miłosz and his brother exhibit derring-do. Going by train from Wilno in Lithuania to Poland, they conceal from the NKVD a Home Army commander-in-chief and his adjutant in a wardrobe.
This biography has been ‘edited’ — in fact halved in length from the original Polish. It is still overlong in the early stages: Miłosz won ‘a Golden Lily, one of the most prestigious awards in Polish scouting’. On p. 59, he is only 11 and you know he lived to be 93. There are the usual endemic biographical flaws. Reverse-engineering: aged four, Miłosz’s fascination for his Aunt Gabriela foreshadows his fascination with women generally. Unreliable family anecdote: his mother’s arthritis caused by taking her shoes off in church to cool her feet after a ball. Marginal, dispensible research: uncle Artur Miłosz lost a leg in the battle of Ostroleka, ‘but that caused no diminution of his fighting spirit’.
Miłosz would be dismayed by Andrzej Franaszek’s fundamentally benign biography. While it does justice to the difficulty of defection — the loss of language, the loss of readership, the deracination and anonymity of exile — it also records less heroic notes. Apparently, as a young man, Miłosz got Jadwiga Waszkiewcz pregnant and deserted her, leaving her to have an illegal abortion: ‘the greatest sin of my life.’ Who hasn’t behaved comparably badly? They corresponded tenderly in old age, after the Nobel Prize. Miłosz was an attractive man and an inveterate womaniser — discreetly, then openly. Franaszek protectively conceals the surname of one lover, Ewa, but names several others: among them Jeanne Hersch, Miłosz’s translator, whom he took up with in France when he was separated from his family. Hostile Polish emigrés impeded the issue of a US visa for two years, so Miłosz was in Paris while his wife Janka remained in the USA with their two children. No surprise, therefore, that Miłosz strayed.
Franaszek mentions, too, a possible homosexual penumbra surrounding Miłosz’s youthful relations with the senior poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz: Miłosz’s introductory letter, ‘I adore you.’ No surprise either. His powerful libido — quite late in life, he boasts about his high testosterone levels — meant he frequented brothels in his youth. A little same-sex action isn’t improbable. We learn that in California as a professor, ‘on social occasions he would get drunk very early on… He appears to have had a strong compulsion to try to hit on women students.’
There is, too, a grim account of his youngest son Piotr’s decline into paranoia: ‘He threatened the neighbours, and the police found him with five guns, including an automatic, plus two revolvers.’ It got worse: ‘On one occasion, he opened fire from a motel window at an imaginary opponent, and was sent to prison.’
And the poetry that Miłosz thought side-lined by Alvarez? Franaszek takes its merit for granted. But, then, he thinks Brodsky is ‘one of the greatest poets of the second half of the 20th century’. It is hard to judge from these translations: for example, Józef Czechowicz ‘perished from a bomb’ isn’t quite allowable in English. He prized claritas, but the writing generally seems a little underpowered. In his autobiographical novel, The Issa Valley, there is an owl which, in mid-flight, ‘would drop a pile’. In Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, the eagle Caligula ‘ejected a straight, heavy squirt of excrement’. In ‘Plato’s Dialogues’, Miłosz describes the baths in Tatarska Street:
One would fill a wooden bucket with cold water from a tap for dousing one’s head, and carry it up to the highest shelf, among the roars of naked males lashing themselves with birch rods.
Compare Bellow’s Turkish baths in Humboldt’s Gift:
[Franusch] crawls up like a red salamander with a stick to tip the latch of the furnace, which is too hot to touch, and then on all fours, with testicles swinging on a long sinew and the clean anus staring out, he backs away groping for the bucket. He pitches in the water and the boulders flash and sizzle.
Miłosz’s sequence ‘The World’ is a quiet celebration of his childhood on the family estate at Szetejnie, provocative in its simple calm because it is set implicitly against the failure of the Warsaw rising. Some touches are delicate: ‘A pencil case that opens sideways’; children drawing battles, ‘with their pink tongues try to help / Great warships, one of which is sinking’. But mostly the pastoral is contentedly muted: ‘Streams intertwine their silver threads.’
The strength of his poetry is that it is grounded in experience. Roland Barthes, writing about photography, identifies its particular value as authenticity: ‘Reality in a past state: at once the past and the real.’ And of course Miłosz’s past is more interesting than most. In ‘Six Lectures in Verse’, he admits: ‘Like everyone who lived there and then, I didn’t see clearly. / This I confess to you, my young students.’ Yet in ‘Lecture IV’, he relates the end of a hunchbacked librarian, Miss Jadwiga, who was killed not by artillery fire, but by the collapse of an apartment house. Miłosz is typically downright and plain-spoken but the material survives his bluntness: Heaney said he never displayed ‘shyness in the face of great subjects’.
‘And no one was able to dig through the slabs of wall, / Though knocking and voices were heard for many days. / So a name is lost for ages, forever, / No one will ever know about her last hours, / Time carries her in layers of the Pliocene. / The true enemy of man is generalisation. / The true enemy of man. So-called History, / Attracts and terrifies with its plural number. / Don’t believe it. Cunning and treacherous, / History is not, as Marx told us, anti-nature, / And if a goddess, a goddess of blind fate. / The little skeleton of Miss Jadwiga, the spot / Where her heart was pulsating. This only / I set against necessity, law, theory.’ Miłosz sets particularity against generalisation forcefully and directly, but the passage depends on his own uninhibited generalisation. He is wordy, yes, but he is also worthy and eloquent, if ominously close to the rumble of heavy Victorian furniture manufactured by Matthew Arnold & Sons. Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, bitter jokers both, leaving a tart taste in the frontal lobe, are the better poets.