Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book 149, Lithuania: "Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections" by Czesław Miłosz

We’re at the last of the Baltic states – and the end of Northern Europe! Woohoo!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Miłosz is a Polish poet – he wrote in Polish, lived in Warsaw (before his defection to the USA) and was a cultural attaché for Poland, for crying out loud.

But it turns out that he always identified as both a Polish and a Lithuanian. He was born in Vilnius, which he knew as Wilno, at a time when the city was under the Polish government. Polish-speakers and Lithuanian-speakers lived alongside each other in his youth (along with Russian and Hebrew and Yiddish speakers), attending different schools and participating in different communities. And the memory of that city haunted him throughout his entire poetic career.

Miłosz wasn’t an obvious choice, of course. Back in Singapore, I thought I was going to do Ričardas Gavelis’s novel Vilnius Poker; scanning WorldCat in Norwich I thought I’d do an inter-library loan for Selected Lithuanian Short Stories from the University of Essex.

But he was a Nobel Prize winner and one of the Righteous Among the Nations (he saved a bunch of Jews during World War Two), plus I’d never read anything by him before.

And there were loads of other Polish writers I could read for Poland. Why not choose this, a volume of essays named for his memory of his childhood in the boulevards of Vilnius/Wilno?

Well, the reason why not is because the book’s effing boring.

I don’t think I was the right reader for it – it seems to be for die-hard fans of Milosz’s poetry, who want every last scrap of wisdom from his mind, and so are willing to wade through esoteric monologues by him about obscure writers (Dwight Macdonald? Robinson Jeffers? Aleksander Wat?) just because they’re there.

And while the fragments of Miłosz’s poems scattered throughout the volume seem nice enough (I don’t quite grasp their transcendence, but that’s true of my relationship with many a great poet), his prose style is just so ambling and leached of any sense of humour or urgency or passion that I come away from it quite uncharmed.

Not that all the pieces here are without interest. You do get an awful lot of the texture of Vilnius/Wilno from the titular essay, “Beginning With My Streets”, and his dialogue with the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. 

Details of his own life leak through in the various transcripts of interviews with him, in “A Poet Between East and West”, and “The Sand in the Hourglass” – his discomfort with Californian hippie mysticism in the ‘60s and ‘70s; his simultaneous comfort with his role as a university lecturer to the same young Californians; his childhood pathos upon reading a condensed volume of James Fenimore Cooper’s works wherein he saw Natty Bumppo age from being a young vigorous Deerslayer to an old man Leatherstocking, bereft of his friends and the wilderness he loved so well. Also his constant surprise when amongst Nobel Laureates, expecting them to be otherworldly higher beings, as he suddenly remembers that he is one himself.

And some of his literary musings are pretty cool – his insistence that Dostoevsky must have been influenced by Swedenborg (he notes that Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment has a Lithuanian name). Plus his ruminations on the in-betweenness of culture for Central Europeans during the Cold War, caught between Russification and Americanisation.

Ah, but I suppose it’s his Nobel Lecture which is most moving and lucid. Go read it. In it, he considers this terrible tension in his role as a poet, wherein he desires to describe reality from an abstract distance yet with utter detail, rather as the hero of Nobel laureate Selma Lagerhof’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils does when he flies above the earth. The brutality of the real world keeps getting in the way, he sighs – the horror of the Holocaust and the double horror that there are still those who deny it; the misery of exile and of the human rights crimes for whom dictators remain unpunished. “I hope you will forgive my laying bare a memory like a wound,” he says. “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.”

Ah, but I won’t leave you with just the pithy bits of Milosz. Here’s the end of his essay “On Creators”, which is both infuriatingly opaque and also inspiring with its last two sentences.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map Representative quote:

Some fifty years ago anyone who took a stand against ritual in praise of ritual, observing that, after all, it would lead only to sterility, to intellectual chaos, would have been labeled a reactionary, a defender of old-fashioned “content”. Alas, today one can prove to oneself experimentally what happens to the language of symbols and myths when it is deprived of its deepest reason for being and yet is honored as if nothing had gone wrong. He pursuit of a truth that is otherwise impossible to express used to be its raison d’être, and whatever names that truth might have borne, however much it may have been valued, a language that speaks to itself, with symbols and myths that mean nothing outside a particular closed system (a poem, a painting), gradually loses all its charm and receives its just deserts: indifference. The indifference of others – let us assume not of the creator himself. Thus, the result of the activity ceases to be its goal (for a result is in some sense objective and thus destined for others); the goal becomes the activity itself. It, too, is supposed to be rewarded by society.

“What then must we do?”
“Rethink everything from the beginning.”

Next book: Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, from Germany.

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