The Issa Valley

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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...

(The entire section is 1816 words.)