Critical Context

The Issa Valley, hailed as a masterpiece, has been compared by critics to works by Ivan Turgenev and to Leo Tolstoy’s Detstvo (1852; Childhood, 1862) and Otrochestvo (1854; Boyhood, 1886). It has a simplicity and power that is rare in this postmodern age, and Michael Irwin in The Times Literary Supplement has compared it to such great nineteenth century works as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-1850) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860). Thus, not only is Miosz’s novel an exceptional work, but it is also not a representative late twentieth century novel. Paul Zweig, in one of the few negative reviews of the book, touches on this aspect of the novel; he finds the book to be ahistorical, since “history prowls helplessly at the edges of the timeless valley.” Yet while Miosz’s novel is not postmodernist or even modernist, it certainly does not exclude history but instead presents it as a force that drives and alters the characters and world of the Issa Valley. The absence of Thomas’ parents, the division of the land, and the unsettled situation of Lithuania are all aspects of this historical force that is at the heart of the novel.

Miosz, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, wrote The Issa Valley, one of his few prose works, in a lyrical style which evokes unforgettably the natural setting. The novel has been justly praised by John Bayley in The New York Review of Books for its “solidity” and its concentration on “things” rather than “consciousness.” A companion book to The Issa Valley is Miosz’s Rodzinna Europa (1958; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968), which gives a factual but no less interesting description and history of Polish Lithuania and discusses such topics as “The City of My Youth,” “Catholic Education,” “Marxism,” and “Russia.” It is clear from Native Realm that The Issa Valley is at least partially autobiographical. The chapter “The City of My Youth” deals with urban Wilno and not the Issa Valley; it also deals with a later stage in Miosz’s life and is much more objective and detached than this intimate and compelling novel.