The ABC Books as Notes for a Novel in Progress1.
Czeslaw Milosz has taken the genre of the ABC book and adapted it to his own needs, tailoring it to fit his ongoing project of writing the history of the twentieth century as he witnessed and understands it. Abecadlo Milosza (Milosz's ABC's) and Inne abecadlo (Another ABC) together contain two hundred named sections.2 There are numerous entries for writers and philosophers who lived before the author's time (Balzac, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Daitsu Suzuki), and even more frequent references to other long-dead authors, which are embedded in entries that do not bear their name (Homer, Mickiewicz, Saint Augustine, Swedenborg, Simone Weil). Abecadlo Milosza contains an entry on American poetry, which is mainly about Walt Whitman. In Inne abecadlo Whitman has his own entry, and he also makes an appearance in sections devoted to Robert Frost, Henry Miller, and Rimbaud; he appears in an entry on the unknown author of a probably never-published memoir of the battle of Verdun, whom Milosz remembers only by his first name, Ulrich; finally, Whitman is also referred to in an entry labeled "Niedokladnoa3/4" (Inaccuracy).
References to well-known literary and cultural figures whom the author knew personally occur repeatedly in both volumes, but those individuals who appear to be ever-present inhabitants of Milosz's mental universe (among others: Jerzy Andrzejewski, Joseph Brodsky, Jozef Czapski, Henryk and Zofia Dembi-ski, Jerzy Giedroyc, Witold Gombrowicz, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Jerzy and Waclaw Zagorski, and, of course, all the Milosz ancestors and family) do not as a rule have entries dedicated specifically to them. Prominent cultural figures recalled in these volumes include Isadora Duncan, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and also, their names resounding over and over again, the century's two great agents of evil: Hitler and Stalin. Mary McCarthy makes an appearance, as does the now-forgotten Margaret Storm Jameson; Denise Levertov is memorialized in a moving entry, as is Milosz's late colleague and friend, the historian Arthur Quinn.3 But not only the famous are remembered here. Anna and Dorcio Dru[section]yno, two spinster sisters first evoked in verse, are given their own entry for the simple reason that "No one but me remembers their names any more" (AM, 103).
Just over half the entries in the two ABC books bear the names of individuals, both living and dead, famous and obscure, but all of them important to Milosz's intellectual and spiritual self-definition. Some two dozen entries refer to places the author has visited or lived in, important landmarks in his personal geography: Szetejnie, where he was born, and Berkeley, his home for almost four decades now; Brie Comte- Robert in France, where he lived with his family in the 1950s; Bend, Oregon, and Sierraville, California, which simply supply warm memories of places once visited; Ponary and Krasnogruda in Lithuania; Martinique and Guadeloupe. His beloved Wilno, however, about which he has written so movingly in his poetry and in the title essay of Zaczynajc od moich ulic (1990; Eng. Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections, 1992), does not receive a separate entry; instead, like the cherished memories of his close friends, it is a vital presence in many of the personal and historical events, friendships, and works of art and scholarship referred to throughout the ABC volumes.
Roughly a quarter of all the alphabetized entries together (and more than a third in Inne abecadlo alone) refer to concepts, theories, or abstractions, such as "Unhappiness," "Economics," "The City," "Center and Periphery," "Nature," and "Fear." The entry "Biographies" instructs us: "Of course, all biographies are false, not excluding my own, which the reader might be inclined to divine from this ABC book. False, because their individual segments are linked according to a predetermined assumption, whereas in fact they were linked differently, although no one knows how." "The value of biographies," the entry concludes, "rests solely on their ability to reveal, more or less, the epoch during which a given life was lived."4
A similar warning against naive and simplistic readings appears under the heading "Consumption." Milosz is discussing the reception of his novel Dolina Issy (1955; Eng. The Issa Valley, 1981): "Readers of this book are eager to see in it an autobiography, and in its hero, young Tomasz, the author himself. That can't be helped, although they are mistaken. . . . As I have explained elsewhere, the novel was an autotherapeutic measure directed against the temptations of Hegel's philosophy" (IA, 152-53).
Milosz's assertion that biography is of value only insofar as it "reveal[s] . . . the epoch during which a given life was lived" echoes his notion of what is seemly in an autobiography. Yet, despite all his scruples and protestations, he has in fact been engaged for decades in an ongoing autobiographical project. As has been evident at least since the publication of Rodzinna Europa in 1959 (Eng. Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968), if not as far back as Zniewolony umysl (1953; Eng. The Captive Mind, also 1953), Milosz prefers to conceal the embarrassing self-absorption of the autobiographical impulse in "objective" analyses of historical forces and biographical sketches of those with whom he has shared his life's journey. The desire to indulge in autobiographical reminiscence appears only to have grown stronger over time, and the major prose writings of the past decade all display that curious blend of historical analysis achieved through biographical portraiture revolving around the authorial "I," which by now typifies so much of Milosz's writing.
In both of the ABC books, almost all the entries are autobiographically motivated. Individuals recalled are, for the most part, linked directly to Milosz's life. His readers have met many of them before in his poems or earlier prose works, so that Abecadlo Milosza and, to a lesser extent, Inne abecadlo function as re-collection as well as recollection-a reunion of the poet's friends and acquaintances, replete with the updates and corrections appropriate to such a social event. Indeed, under the heading "Inaccuracy," Inne abecadlo (104-6) informs the reader of errors contained in the earlier volume, and a footnote offers assurance that these mistakes have been corrected in the second edition of Abecadlo Milosza. The entry on Manes Sperber, however, has not been corrected. It retains Milosz's confident assertion of his right to his own vision of another person's life: "It wouldn't be difficult to do some library research into his biography, but I prefer to do a little imagining for myself" (AM, 233).
In virtually every one of these biographical portraits, the point of entry into the life is the link to Milosz-the autobiographical hook, as it were. This is true of the many fascinating portraits of the author's high-school and university classmates in Wilno, so many of whom went on to contribute significantly to Poland's (rarely, Lithuania's) cultural and political life. It is, of course, the justification for the portraits that could be gathered (but, of course, are not) under the heading "Famous People I Have Known." And it is what motivates the occasionally quirky self-referentiality within an otherwise "objective" or "neutral" sketch, as in the section on Arthur Koestler, which contains this startling passage:
For him, I was the author of The Captive Mind, a book which he had read and appreciated, while I was, in my own view, someone entirely different-the author of poems that were completely unknown to him. However, I don't ascribe my bad behavior during [his] visit to this divergence in our fields of interest. Simply I, the host, drank too much and fell asleep, which I admit with a sense of shame, and it seems to me that without meaning to at all I caused him pain. Were it not for his short stature, which caused him to be exceedingly arrogant, he might not have taken such offense. (AM, 144)
Note how Milosz turns his seemingly abject revelation of embarrassing behavior into a nasty dig at the person he has offended. He employs this neutralizing maneuver on more than one occasion in his sketches and "self-revealing" vignettes.
The format of the ABC books suggests the fluidity of a postmodern hypertext novel. Yet if one chooses to ignore the thematic randomness imposed by alphabetical ordering, one can easily discern the fragmentary building blocks of chapters in a differently organized volume-chapters on absolute evil, for example, as it is manifested in history, or on human frailty, or the mystery of the poet's gift. Entries under such headings as "Ambition," "Wonder," "Complexes and Resentments," "Revulsion," "Fame," and "Duties" can be assembled in such a way as to yield clues to the author's always carefully masked private life, even though he cautions us to keep our distance. Many of the biographical entries could be removed from the ABC books and published together as a mini-encyclopedia of the dominant artistic and philosophical currents in post-Enlightenment Europe. Or, as the blurb on the back cover of Abecadlo Milosza suggests, the entries could be grouped around the geographic stages of Milosz's personal odyssey: Wilno-Warsaw-Washington-Paris-Berkeley, and, most recently, his alternate place of residence, Cracow.
Each of these possibilities is attractive, but I propose yet another way of reading the ABC books. I see them as their author's latest revisiting of the "hypothetical novel of the twentieth century" that he has been writing and rewriting for half a century or more, a novel that he himself described in Rok myaliwego (1990; Eng. A Year of the Hunter, 1994):5
I would like to read a novel about the twentieth century: not one of those allegories in which human affairs are depicted metaphorically, but a novel, a report about many characters and their actions. It would have to be an international novel, since the century is international. . . . I cannot find such a novel, so it would be necessary to write it- and I am curious as to whether there is someone, somewhere, who feels capable of creating it. The currently fashionable narrative techniques- in the first person and about oneself-are an obstacle. It would have to be a panorama employing representative characters, as in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. And the heroes should not be ordinary, gray; on the contrary, they would be modeled on colorful, exceptional personalities- there is no lack of such people. . . .
The book would not be limited to clashes of views and positions, although the Naphta-Settembrini quarrel in Thomas Mann would be reborn in a new shape. . . .
So, a novel of the life of the higher intellectual spheres. (YH, 99- 101; italics added)
There is such a writer who was capable of creating just such a novel of the twentieth century, and this writer is Czeslaw Milosz. His third novel, as yet unacknowledged, has been appearing in segments for decades, under many titles, and the two ABC books are its latest installments. Milosz's own use of the "fashionable narrative technique" of first-person narration has not been an obstacle to its creation; far from it. This evolving novel's central text is A Year of the Hunter, the book in which it was so appealingly delineated, but bits and pieces of it have appeared elsewhere as sketches, variants, and false starts. Abecadlo Milosza and Inne abecadlo confirm the author's fascination, if not obsession, with this project. It has turned into an obligation he cannot refuse: "My time, the twentieth century, weighs on me with a great number of voices and faces of people who were once alive, whom I knew, or whom I heard about, and now they are gone. Occasionally, they were renowned for something; they appear in encyclopedias; the majority, however, are forgotten and can only make use of me, the rhythm of my blood, my hand holding the pen, in order to return among the living for a brief moment."6
These words are like a positively distorted echo of Milosz's 1945 poem "W Warszawie" (Eng. "In Warsaw").7
Jak[section]e mam mieszka3/4 w tym kraju, Gdzie noga potrca o koaci Niepogrzebane najbli[section]szych? Slysz- glosy, widz- uamiechy. Nie mog- Nic napisa3/4, bo pi-cioro rk Chwyta mi moje pioro I ka[section]e pisa3/4 ich dzieje, Dzieje ich [section]ycia i amierci. Czy[section] na to jestem stworzony, By zosta3/4 placzk [section]alobn? How can I live in this country Where the foot knocks against The unburied bones of kin? I hear voices, see smiles. I cannot Write anything; five hands Seize my pen and order me to write The story of their lives and deaths. Was I born to become a ritual mourner?
In his old age, Milosz has come to welcome the voices and smiles that pursue him, and turning their stories into art has become one of his most important tasks as a writer. Time and again he ends a luminous evocation of a colleague's life with the chilling information that he died at the hands of the Nazis or, more often, in a Soviet prison or labor camp. Yet there is no reason to think of the ABC books, or of A Year of the Hunter, as the programmed patter of "a ritual mourner." Rather, they evoke in the reader the satisfaction one feels when encountering a well-sketched character in an endlessly fascinating novel.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can find early sketches for this "novel" even in The Captive Mind. In The Captive Mind-but not only there, because the same philosophical clash surfaces repeatedly in Milosz's writings-the Naphta-Settembrini quarrel was indeed reborn. The four Polish writers who appear in The Captive Mind, driven by their personal demons and seduced by the deadly logic of dialectical materialism, are introduced as if they are characters in a historical morality play reconceived as a novel, each invented to demonstrate the theses expounded in the impassioned theoretical chapters. The Captive Mind freezes these characters in time, but that book is not Milosz's last word about any of them. Alpha, the Moralist, Beta, the Disappointed Lover, Gamma, the Slave of History, and Delta, the Troubadour, each returns under his own name in book after book after book, as the unacknowledged novel begins to take shape. The novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski, the poet and short-story writer Tadeusz Borowski, the Writers Union functionary Jerzy Putrament, and the poet Konstanty Ildefons Galczy[acute accent]nski all reappear in The History of Polish Literature (1969), where they are given the scholarly treatment that is their due, and again at some length in A Year of the Hunter, and once more in each of the ABC books. Putrament and Galczy-ski are also brought back in the 1997 essay collection Uycie na wyspach (Life on Islands), although Borowski and Andrzejewski are not. In the course of all these retellings, their images softened and nuanced by the distancing of time, they become, if one may say so, better than real: they rise to the level of evocatively sketched fictional characters from an enthralling Zeitroman. Andrzejewski, Borowski, Galczy-ski, and Putrament do not appear under separate headings in the ABC books. They do not have to, as they are fully realized elsewhere-further support, it would seem, for reading these volumes as missing pieces of a novel that has been in the making for quite some time.
With the writing of Native Realm, Milosz's evolving novel of the twentieth century achieved an expanded cast of characters and what would be its permanent open linkage to the author's own life experience. The book originated, Milosz writes, in a selfless "desire to bring Europe closer to the Europeans," and evolved into "a quest, a voyage into the heart of my own, yet not only my own, past" (NR, 2-3). In this intellectual autobiography that confidently asserts the disintegration of all barriers "between the individual and the social, between style and institution, between aesthetics and politics," Milosz provided the cultural and political background of his twentieth century and began to assemble the international cast of characters (still dominated, to be sure, by his Polish and Lithuanian countrymen) who would enliven future installments of his novel. This is where we first encounter the mystic poet Oscar Milosz, with his disdain for the "age of jeering ugliness" and his prophetic visions of the coming world war, and also "Tiger" (Tadeusz Kro-ski), the cunning Marxist philosopher who "had persuaded himself that in the last analysis his deceit served the truth" (NR, 166, 290). In Milosz's fascination with each of them, and particularly in his anguished retelling of how "Tiger" opted to serve Poland's communist regime while he himself became a "defector," the great intellectual debates and moral tensions of the century are bodied forth. It should come as no surprise that both Kro-ski and Oscar Milosz are present in both of the ABC books.
Thirty years after writing Native Realm, Milosz returned to pick up the threads of his story. Now a Nobel laureate, a writer whose works had been translated into many more languages than he himself could read, he presents himself as a person confident of his own self-definition (or at least its public performance) and, most important, of his right and his duty to report on the century in which he has lived his life. A Year of the Hunter, of course, is only masquerading as a journal. Milosz the diarist, almost frenetically in motion from airport to airport, from one speaking engagement to another, seems to have become during the writing of it his boyhood hero, Selma Lagerlof's Nils, who possesses the magical gift of flight, "who flies above the earth and looks at it from above but at the same time sees it in every detail."8 While Milosz, of course, uses Nils as a metaphor for the poet, real flight, in airplanes crisscrossing the continent, stimulated his own binocular vision of the essential narrative of his century. In A Year of the Hunter, with its lengthy reminiscences and biographical sketches presented as captivating short stories, its digressions and disquisitions on intellectual and political trends, Milosz begins in earnest to write the novel he "would like to read."
Repeatedly in A Year of the Hunter Milosz returns to the task that seems to obsess him: to record and interpret the political/psychological temperature of two critical eras, the interwar decades and the immediate postwar years. With its cast of hundreds, literally, and its forgiving loose structure, A Year of the Hunter is like a fragmentary novel, teeming with characters who are evoked for a moment, only to vanish again into the memories from which they were summoned. Who are these main characters? The central figure in this the most personally revealing of all of Milosz's prose writings is Milosz himself. His own vast acquaintance over a long life provides the link to almost every individual mentioned in the book who was alive during the poet's lifetime. The two main exceptions to this rule of personal acquaintance are the tyrants whose reigns of terror framed and defined the century: Hitler and Stalin, both mentioned numerous times, here and in the ABC books as well. In fact, a good test for centrality is this: if an individual is mentioned repeatedly or at length in A Year of the Hunter and also in Abecadlo Milosza and Inne abecadlo, he (almost never she) is central to Milosz's world in one of two ways-as a dominant influence on the history and culture of Europe, or as an intimate friend at some important time in his life. At least eighty-five individuals pass this test, many of them people whose names would have vanished into oblivion were it not for their presence in Milosz's narrative.
If one thinks of A Year of the Hunter as the central text of this novel in progress, then the ABC books can be understood as a corroborating second pass at getting the story told. Alternatively, they can be seen as a novelist's sketchbooks, as notes on characters to be included, topics to be addressed in the digressions the narrator will allow himself when he finally assembles his loosely structured novel.
The evolving novel posited here nicely fits the criteria enumerated by Milosz in his description of the ideal novel of the century: "It would have to be an international novel." Certainly the "action," the "characters," the references to historical events, are international in scope, though definitely not global. Europe, arranged along a Lithuanian-Polish-French axis (but in the shadow of the Soviet Union), and the American West are its main locales. Time is fluid, multilayered. Transience and simultaneity of remembered time are important themes. There are plenty of "colorful, exceptional personalities," mostly writers and public intellectuals, but only a minority would be immediately familiar to general readers. Most of the "characters" are Poles, but the majority of them are probably as unfamiliar to most Polish readers today as they are to Americans. Which is precisely the point of these writings: the writer's task is to bring them to life. "Robespierre," the Byrskis,
Nela and Boleslaw Mici-ski, the shunned novelist Jozef Mackiewicz, Henryk Dembi-ski-all faced painful choices imposed by history. Like characters in a leisurely novel, they and their many contemporaries appear and reappear, summoned up as examples of history's cruelty, or as lamented ghosts. They live the life of the mind, or pit themselves against reason; they engage history or are blindsided by it. Captured in riveting portraits, they sometimes appear to be playing out their assigned roles in an elaborate morality play.
Milosz has an eye for the telling detail, the special character trait or event that both defines the individual and reveals the crushing weight of his time. What novelist would not have wished to invent a character such as the Polish stage director Leon Schiller, the "dogmatic Communist by day [who] prostrated himself before the crucifix at night" (YH, 282)? Or the glamorous actress Stanislawa Umi[acute accent]nska, who, having killed her terminally ill lover in Paris at his request, was acquitted of murder by a French jury, returned to Poland to become a nun, and then, as Mother Superior of a convent during the Nazi occupation of Poland, defied the Gestapo by sponsoring an illegal performance of a nativity play by Schiller in which the actresses, including the one playing the Virgin, were all teenage prostitutes (YH, 277-85)?
Even in the ABC books, whose form rules out expansive stories like these, unforgettable characters emerge: Vladas Drema, a ghost from Milosz's university days, whom the author meets again in Wilno in 1992 as a paralyzed old man who had devoted his life to writing a richly illustrated, comprehensive history of Wilno architecture as depicted in paintings-a book which could finally be published in 1991, in a newly independent Lithuania. Or Zofia Dembi-ska and Jerzy Borejsza, fanatical communist functionaries, to be sure, but also defenders of literature, who made possible the publication of "painstakingly edited, publicly funded, classics of world literature" and "also countless books by contemporary Western writers, so that in Moscow and Leningrad people learned Polish in order to read works that were banned in Russia" (IA, 41).
The final desideratum for the hypothetical novel described by Milosz in A Year of the Hunter is the character of a writer, "presumably glued together from several famous names and not treated too kindly-for who, if not writers, allowed themselves to be deceived by stupid ideologues and then excelled in seducing minds?" (100). Actually, a plethora of writers inhabit the constituent parts of Milosz's ongoing novel. But the most complex writer-character of all is the author himself, Czeslaw Milosz. Numerous entries and digressions on sin, shame, the nature of evil, and the wonders of beauty testify to his conflicted soul. His concluding comments under the heading "Przyroda" (Nature), almost flippant by design, seem to sum up the tensions within him and his texts: "Certainly, I was influenced by sentimental and romantic conceptions of nature. Then nothing remained of this. On the contrary, it struck me as pain. But nature is beautiful; there's no way around it" (IA, 121).
Milosz's evolving novel of the twentieth century ultimately depends on its creator's consciousness. His is the dominant point of view, the controlling intellect, shaping and defining his version of the century. An authoritative narrator even when he admits to regrets and doubts, he leaves no room for an alternate narrative. Rereading The Captive Mind and Native Realm in the light of A Year of the Hunter and the ABC books, one falls under the spell of his unblinking, Manichean vision: this terrible century, for all its horror, is the best of times to remember.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
1 This essay builds upon a paper presented at the International Milosz Conference and Festival at Claremont-McKenna College, April 1998, under the title "Abecadlo and Milosz's Third Novel." An edited transcript appeared in "Proceedings of the International Czeslaw Milosz Festival," Partisan Review, Winter 1999, pp. 107-11; a Polish version (tr. Michal Rusinek) under the title "Abecadlo i trzecia powiea3/4 Czeslawa Milosza, jak dotd nie napisana" was published in Dekada Literacka, 8:5 (31 May 1998), pp. 4-5.
2 Abecadlo Milosza (Cracow, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997) contains 133 entries, and Inne abecadlo (Cracow, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1998) 67 entries. An abridged, composite version of the two books, edited and translated by Madeline G. Levine, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux in late 2000. Subsequent references are abbreviated as AM and IA respectively.
3 Arthur Quinn was coauthor, with Leonard Nathan, of The Poet's Work: An Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz, Cambridge (Ma.), Harvard University Press, 1991.
4 "Oczywiacie wszystkie biografie s falszywe, nie wylczajc mojej, ktor* z tego abecadla czytelnik sklonny bylby wysnuwa3/4. Falszywe, poniewa[section] poszczegolne ich rozdzialy s lczone wedlug pewnego z gory przyj-tego zalo[section]enia, podczas gdy naprawd- lczyly si- inaczej, cho3/4 jak, nikt nie wie. . . . Wartoa3/4 biografii polega wi-c jedynie na tym, [section]e pozwalaj odtworzy3/4 mniej wi-cej epok-, na jak dane [section]ycie przypadlo" (AM, 64-65).
5 Czeslaw Milosz, Rok myaliwego, Paris, Instytut Literacki, 1990; A Year of the Hunter, tr. Madeline G. Levine, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994.
6 "Moj czas, dwudziesty wiek, napiera na mnie mnostwem glosow i twarzy ludzi, ktorzy byli, ktorych znalem, albo o nich slyszalem, a teraz ich nie ma. Niekiedy czyma si- wslawili, bywaj w encyklopediach, wi-cej jednak zapomnianych, i mog tylko poslu[section]y3/4 si- mn, rytmem mojej krwi, moj r-k trzymajc pioro, [section]eby na chwil- powroci3/4 mi-dzy [section]yjcych" (IA, 201).
7 Czeslaw Milosz, "W Warszawie," in his Wiersze, London, Oficyna Malarzy i Poetow, 1967, p. 124; "In Warsaw," tr. Czeslaw Milosz with Robert Hass and Madeline Levine, in The Collected Poems 1931-1987, New York, Ecco, 1988, p. 77.
8 Czeslaw Milosz, The Nobel Lecture, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980, p. 4.
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|Title Annotation:||literary work of Czeslaw Milosz|
|Author:||LEVINE, MADELINE G.|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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