Posts Tagged ‘Kresy’

Andrzej Franaszek: Miłosz, A Biography

October 7, 2020

I’ve been familiar with Czesław Miłosz’ autobiographical and literary writing for many years, but haven’t really got to grips with his poetry yet; my interest stems from his being from the part of Poland where my father and his forebears originate, and the interplay between the notions (and nations) of Poland and Lithuania in past centuries. The more I read, the more complicated it all seems. I found myself reading about him now as I grow older myself and look back on my life and consider how much I have been affected by my fifty percent Polishness.

This is a very detailed and well-written biography that anchors the poet’s life very firmly in his poetry. There are excellent, copious notes and a full bibliography; it’s also very nicely produced and once again reminded me of how much higher US production values for books are than our own. I like books that are physically good to handle and pleasurable to read.

Miłosz is one of the true greats of recent Polish literature and culture, and clearly deserved the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. We read of his life as a student, and of intellectual life generally, in the poorest region of the second Polish Republic, as well as the incredibly complex interrelationships of races, nations and peoples in that borderland region, the troubled history of which has been so well recorded by Timothy Snyder.

The second republic was not terribly stable and what with being sandwiched between Russia and Germany and learning to become an independent country again, was increasingly chaotic as the 1930s progressed, particularly in the borderlands. Eventually it became a political quagmire as well as a military dictatorship, torn between a narrow nationalistic vision and a broader one which wanted to encompass at least some of the ideals and the peoples of the nation’s great past. The anti-semitism of the right-wing government was appalling.

Miłosz travelled widely, spending considerable time in Paris with his uncle, womanising and sorting out his attitudes to politics and religion, specifically Catholicism, which had and still has a leaden hold on the country. Having survived the insanity of Nazi occupation during the Second World War, he then faced the tragic dilemma of many Polish intellectuals after the war, seeking change and progress and yet faced with the inevitable Sovietisation of Poland. How to slow this down, how to distance oneself from the old rejects of the second republic, now emigres, but the ones who had aided and abetted the calamity of the war, and still hankered after the past?

Having initially thrown his lot in with the new order, Miłosz reached a point where he had to break with it and went into exile, first in France and subsequently living, working and teaching in the US for the second half of his life, tarnished for many Poles with the brush of collaboration with the Stalinists…

His was an incredibly full and complex life, a very reflective one which he mirrored in his poetry, which I am now hoping to begin to come to grips with, as it does exist in decent translations on which the man himself collaborated.

I rarely read biographies; I find them hard going unless it’s a person whose life really interests me, and in the end this one was worth it for all the insights into person, places and the intellectual difficulties of those times.

Sergiusz Piasecki: L’Amant de la Grande Ourse

January 13, 2017

51t79-mp7l-_ac_us160_Well, this was an unexpected pleasure, in the sense that it was very different from, and a lot better than what I’d anticipated. Piasecki seems to have been a very wild character, leading a wild life, though ending up dying in poverty in England. What attracted me to the book was that it was a novel set in the times and places where my father had been a young man, near the Polish/Soviet border.

As a novel, it became clear quite early on that it was quite thinly disguised autobiography; it was apparently a best-seller in the 1930s and saved the writer from death from TB in Poland’s harshest prison…

It’s basically about smuggling across the wild borderlands that existed between Poland and the new Soviet Union in the 1920s, a time when Belarus was part both of Poland and the Soviet Union, and when the region’s commerce seems to have been largely in the hands of Jews. Interestingly, there’s no overt anti-Semitism in the novel, though because the Jews have money and the locals generally don’t, no-one’s averse to occasionally scamming them.

Our hero learns smuggling from other smugglers; there is a deep and powerful code of loyalty between them. They are ridiculously hard-drinking. They learn all the routes through the forests and fields, avoiding occasional frontier fortifications and obstacles, out-smarting border patrols from both sides most of the time, but life is cheap and there are deaths. There’s also a ridiculously large amount of money to be made, but almost nothing to spend it on apart from drinking, eating and whoring, and by the end of the novel, our hero can’t really see the point of having it…

I’d have expected the book to be dull, once I’d realised that it was basically smuggling, without any real plot other than whether he was going to get the best girl or not (he doesn’t, his arch-enemy does), but it really wasn’t. There’s a marvellous picture of the beauty of the borderlands region and its nature and landscape that pervades the whole book; the Great Bear of the title is the constellation in the sky that he learns very early on is his guide back to safety in Poland if there are ever any problems. There are marvellous characters who are brought to life (and death), his various smuggling companions, and his loves, as well as his rivals who he must constantly outsmart.

The world of the smugglers grows increasingly fraught and violent, with more betrayals and scams and insecurity, and it cannot continue: his only surviving friend, the Rat, loses his mind and lights out for new pastures and our hero leaves us contemplating the beautiful landscape on his last night: he has vowed to leave forever the next day…

I came across the French translation of the book while in Carcassonne last autumn; my researches haven’t turned up an English version. Sorry.

Philip Marsden: The Bronski House

June 30, 2014

51Z75D307VL._AA160_Given my family history, I read any tale of the wanderings and travels of Polish emigrés I can lay my hands on; this one sat around for several years, but I finally got around to it. It’s a tale with a difference: it’s told by an English writer who came to know the Polish woman whose story he tells, rather than by the woman herself, and this means there’s a certain interaction between the two of them, which can get in the way at times. And, although it’s a fascinating story in itself, it feels odd coming from someone outside the events…

It’s a memoir from the Kresy (that’s the Eastern borderlands of the old, pre-War Polish Republic) as many such memoirs are, because they are about a world and a country that has vanished forever, and the story-teller cannot return, but it’s a memoir with a difference, because Helena is a member of the landed gentry, not the peasantry or lower classes, and her story begins rather earlier than the 1940s, which is when they usually begin. Many trials, tribulations and war lead to exile, but what interested me most of all was the picture of Poles as landlords, masters, overseers, not much liked by the local inhabitants who were Poles, Belorussians, Ukranians, Jews, and I could see into the complexities which led to the various killings and ethnic cleansings during and after the Second World War. This is all superbly documented by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands and The Reconstruction of Nations, both of which should be required reading before anyone has the temerity to sound off about recent events in Ukraine.

The story of Helena’s eventual return to her childhood haunts in contemporary Belarus were very moving; traces of a vanished world are still visible (just) but will be gone forever when a generation finally dies out. And she was lucky, in being able to get back to visit.

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