Translators: Michael and Aleksandra Parker
Original Language: Polish
Year of Publication: 2017
Number of Pages: 526
Publisher: Belknap Harvard
One of the side effects of my reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones was a desire to read more by and about Czesław Miłosz. Heaney spoke glowingly of Miłosz in those interviews, calling him a genius and saying that, from the first time he read him, “I was in thrall,” an experience I can certainly relate to. Though I had known about Miłosz and his poetry for I can’t remember how long, I didn’t know very much about the man himself or even about the historical background against which some of his poems are set. So it was a lucky coincidence that, just as I was finishing Stepping Stones, I learned about this book, the first full-length biography of Miłosz in English.
First full-length biography, but not the full length of this biography: translators Michael and Aleksandra Parker have cut down Andrzej Franaszek’s original 1,000-page tome to just over 500 pages. What remains flows together pretty seamlessly, though there were a few spots where it seemed like something should have gone before. (From a section dealing with the infancy of Miłosz’s oldest son Antoni: “[Mrs. Miłosz], instead of writing film reviews, spent endless hours feeding him, changing him, and washing nappies.” Except there was no mention of her writing film reviews previously.)
However, a few editorial oversights are not nearly enough to detract from Franaszek’s superb work: this book was over ten years in the making and its beautiful prose, the depth of its research, and its attention to detail prove that the time was well-spent. Best of all, it relies heavily on original sources, including Miłosz’s poetry, essays, fiction, and even some unpublished work.
Of course, none of this would matter if the subject of the biography was not a person worth reading about. So, why read about Miłosz? Much has been written recently about the prescience of his nonfiction—in particular his 1953 study of Marxist totalitarianism The Captive Mind—and how it can help us understand and respond to politically tumultuous times. But, while I have no wish whatever to discount the worth of Miłosz’s political writing, I think focusing solely on his role as a political commentator will only give you part of the picture. As far as I’m concerned, what made Czesław Miłosz great was not only his political acuity (though he certainly had that too), but also his wisdom, his spiritual awareness, and his conviction. The world will always need astute intellectuals to help us make sense of political realities, but just as much or more, it needs people to help us make sense of historical, social, and metaphysical realities. It needs people who can not only see the truth, but who are also willing to speak up for it no matter what. This is what Miłosz, both in his life and work, was striving toward. This is what makes Miłosz an essential author in a time when things like truth, goodness, and beauty are quickly slipping away from us. And that’s why I recommend anything that will help you understand this author and his work better.