The Issa Valley

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816

When Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, very little of his work was available in English. Today, although most of his poetry remains untranslated, a number of his prose works can be read in English, some for the first time and some long out of print, now reissued. Thus, The Issa Valley, issued in Polish by an émigré publishing house in 1955 and only now translated into English, is but one of several of Milosz’s works to appear more or less at the same time. Prior to the Nobel award, Milosz’s most widely read book was The Captive Mind (1953), a study of intellectual accommodation to Stalinism. Long out of print, it was reissued in 1981. Also reissued in that year were the autobiographical Native Realm (1958; English translation, 1968) and Emperor of the Earth (1977), a collection of essays first published in book form in English translation. Milosz’s Selected Poems (1973), still in print in the original cloth edition from Seabury, was reissued in a revised paperback edition by The Ecco Press; the revisions, however, are minimal.

Two more of Milosz’s works have become available in 1982. Visions from San Francisco Bay (1969), a unified collection of essays, has been published in English translation for the first time. The Seizure of Power (1953; English translation, 1955), Milosz’s only novel in addition to The Issa Valley, has been reissued with a new introduction by the émigré Polish poet Stanislaw Baranczak, who discusses the book’s reception in Poland in 1980. In addition to the bulk of Milosz’s poetry, several of his prose works remain to be translated; one of the most important of these, Ziemia Ulro (1977, The Land of Ulro), which Milosz calls a “spiritual autobiography,” is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the translation of Louis Iribarne, who also rendered The Issa Valley into English. Iribarne is a distinguished translator whose credits include works by Witold Gombrowicz, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, and Stanislaw Lem.

In another of his yet-to-be-translated works, Ogród Nauk (1981, The Garden of Learning), a kind of miscellany drawn from his notebooks, Milosz says that the whole of his writing life has been a quest for a literary genre that does not exist but perhaps could exist. This remark helps to illumine the peculiar place of his two novels in his oeuvre. In a recently published interview (Ironwood 19, 1982; the interview was conducted in 1979), Milosz says “I do not consider myself a novelist. I do not practice that genre”; the editor is compelled to note that Milosz has in fact published two novels. Yet these novels—particularly The Issa Valley—are likely to frustrate the expectations of the reader seeking novelistic pleasures, either of the traditional or the avant-garde variety. Just as Milosz’s poetry often incorporates the qualities of discursive language—sometimes including chunks of unprocessed prose—so the novels combine narration, detached philosophical meditation, and poetic juxtaposition in a highly idiosyncratic manner.

Both The Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley were written in a short span in the early 1950’s during the first years of Milosz’s exile in France after his decisive break with the postwar Communist government in Poland in 1951. For nine difficult years, he supported himself as a writer in France, coming in 1961 to the University of California at Berkeley, where he has remained ever since. In one sense, the novels can be regarded from a pragmatic stand-point as the work of a poet in an obscure language who sought to support himself in exile with his pen. Indeed, The Seizure of Power appeared in a French translation before the émigré Polish edition was published; the novel was written in the hope of winning the literary prize which it in fact shared with another novel: the Prix Littéraire Européen. From another point of view, the novels can be seen as a coming to terms with exile. In The Issa Valley, Milosz bids farewell to his native Lithuania and to his childhood; at the same time, he claims permanent residence in that “native realm” of the imagination. In The Seizure of Power, Milosz bids farewell to Poland while—in the person of Professor Gil, translator of Thucydides—affirming his solidarity with the “mass of humanity” there, stubbornly continuing to write in Polish, although in the 1950’s that decision must have seemed a writer’s slow suicide.

The Issa Valley is an intensely autobiographical novel which re-creates the lost world of Milosz’s boyhood. The Lithuanian countryside, hardly touched by World War I, was an enclave of preindustrial life, and Milosz lovingly details the antiquated customs, the clothing and the farming implements, the superstitions and the songs which have since vanished from the face of the earth. In this way, The Issa Valley resembles a class of memoirs such as Marcel Pagnol’s The Days Were Too Short (1960), in which descriptions of an idyllic childhood setting—Milosz’s Lithuania, Pagnol’s Provence—have an implicit poignance and irony.

Yet, like Milosz’s other autobiographical works, The Issa Valley maintains a great discretion, an unusual reserve. Readers of Native Realm, for example, might be misled by the subtitle—“A Search for Self-definition”—to expect a confessional work; Milosz corrects this misapprehension in his Introduction: “Instead of thrusting the individual into the foreground, one can focus attention on the background, looking upon oneself as a sociological phenomenon.” Similarly, his fascinating “spiritual autobiography,” The Land of Ulro, might as well be called metaphysical literary criticism or an intellectual adventure story; the book consists of the author’s encounters with William Blake, Gombrowicz, Oscar Milosz, Simone Weil, and others who have influenced his thought.

Thus, although the boy Thomas Dilbin, the protagonist of The Issa Valley, is clearly Milosz himself when young, the author maintains a distance from his fictional self, comparable to the distance he maintains from his “real” self in Native Realm. In the novel as in that work, he focuses attention on the background; this is one of the features of The Issa Valley that sharply distinguishes it from the species of Bildungsroman which it in many ways resembles.

The novel follows Thomas from early childhood to age fourteen, when he leaves the manor to travel with his mother to the city of Vilno (where Milosz himself was educated). His mother appears only at the end of the novel; his father, a restless man, now in the Polish Army, now here, now there, never appears in person. Thomas is reared in the ramshackle manor house by his maternal grandparents, the Surkonts; his paternal grandmother comes to live with them as well and dies before Thomas leaves.

Although the novel stops short of the young man’s first steps as a poet, by the time Thomas leaves for the city he has the indefinable sense of being “different” which characterizes the artist. In this respect, The Issa Valley most resembles the type of Bildungsroman in which the budding artist slowly and reluctantly accepts his alienation from “healthy” people, in the manner of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger. Milosz’s Thomas has none of the neurotic aestheticism associated with Mann’s protagonists; he does, however, develop a Manichaean contempt for “things as they are.” Speaking in The Land of Ulro of his sympathy with Gombrowicz’s Manichaean streak, Milosz has said: “There is no doubt in my mind that I hold a deep hatred for life, for its having been created just so, subject to these laws and no other.” This “hatred of life” is both a cry of protest at the suffering of the world—why should it be so?—and a disgusted recognition of the imperatives of the flesh. “We live inside ourselves as in a prison,” observes the narrator of The Issa Valley.

In young Thomas—as throughout Milosz’s works—this Manichaean contempt is balanced by a capacity for ecstasy, for celebration, for attention. Turning the meticulously assembled pages of his notebook of birds, Thomas pondersthe plenitude of things that were. In reality, everything about birds gave rise to unease. Was it enough, he wondered, to verify their existence? The way the light modulated their feathers in flight, the warm, yellow flesh lining the bills of the young feeding in deeply sequestered nests, suffused him with a feeling of communion. Yet, for many, they were little more than a mobile decoration, scarcely worthy of scrutiny, whereas, surrounded by such wonders on earth, people should have consecrated their whole lives to contemplating only one thing: felicity.

The tension between Manichaean contempt and a reverence for “the plenitude of things that were” animates the novel and unifies the many episodes which have little to do with Thomas and his development.

Consisting of seventy brief chapters, each a self-contained episode or scene, The Issa Valley does not offer the suspense of a sustained narrative. Although the sequence of the novel is more or less chronological, there is virtually never a strict continuity between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. Thus, the beginning of each chapter is a little surprise—Milosz’s substitute for the suspense of the plotted novel—and these beginnings often have an epigrammatical quality. Simply quoting several of them conveys the flavor of the novel: Chapter 2, “The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils”; Chapter 15, “It takes a fairly desperate person to swallow rat poison, a surrendering to one’s own thoughts so complete as to make one oblivious to everything but one’s fate”; Chapter 30, “It took the Spaniard Michael Servetus more than two hours to die.” This last opening is footnoted, the novel’s only such documentation and another example of Milosz’s genre-hopping. In some cases, it is the chapter endings which stand out with chiseled clarity; Chapter 32 concludes: “The Milky Way, which in this part of the country goes by the name of the Bird’s Way, was inscribing its luminous signs in the firmament.”

As these passages suggest, Louis Iribarne’s translation is for the most part excellent; where his language seriously falters, as it does in passages in which Milosz has employed a rustic, substandard speech, he is not altogether at fault. Rather than attempting to find an equivalent for such speech in English—as in “’Bear-trappin’. Fix a man somethin’ to eat and hold yer tongue.’”—he should probably have used simple standard English. Fortunately, there are not many passages of this sort.

Readers should be grateful to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for their extensive publication of Milosz’s work, a program on which they had embarked before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The publication, by various publishers, in such a short time of a substantial body of work by a writer as “uncommercial” as Czeslaw Milosz is but one of many signs that the death knell currently being sounded for literary publishing in America is premature.


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, July, 1981, p. 88.

Bayley, John. “Return of the Native,” in The New York Review of Books. XXVIII (June 25, 1981), pp. 29-31.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, June 8, 1981, p. 21.

Irwin, Michael. “Across the Dark Era,” in The Times Literary Supplement. July 24, 1981, p. 827.

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1567.

Miosz, Czesaw. Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1980.

Miosz, Czesaw. “The Nobel Lecture, 1980,” in The New York Review of Books. XXVIII (March 5, 1981), pp. 11-15.

The Nation. CCXXXII, June 13, 1981, p. 737.

New Statesman. CII, July 24, 1981, p. 19.

Newsweek. XCVII, June 15, 1981, p. 95.

Saturday Review. VIII, June, 1981, p. 52.

Stone, Judy. “Interview with Czesaw Miosz,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (June 27, 1981), pp. 7, 16, 17.

Zweig, Paul. “Czesaw Miosz, Child and Man,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (June 27, 1981), pp. 7, 29.

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