Until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in late 1980, Czesaw Miosz was a relatively obscure poet-scholar, born in Lithuania, writing in Polish, fleeing a Stalinized Poland in 1951, and settling into a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960. After his departure for the West the Polish Communist regime had proscribed publication of all his writings except a volume of poetry written in 1945, Salvation. For thirty years, the Party censors insisted on his official nonexistence, while his legend as a great poet grew in Poland through private recitations, tapes circulated in nonconformist circles, even illegal publication.
In 1981, the publicity of the Nobel award coincided with the liberalization of Poland’s cultural as well as political life. In June of that year, Miosz returned as a poet-hero to the land he had left in despair more than a generation ago. He became an instant symbol of Polish national pride, joining the small club of native-born immortals that includes Nicolaus Copernicus, Frédéric Chopin, Joseph Conrad, Marie Curie, and Ignace Paderewski. Hundreds of flower-offering countrymen mobbed him at Warsaw’s airport; thousands attended his speeches; twenty-two of his titles are now in sanctioned print in his homeland. Remarkably, this moving illustration of the Lazarus myth is paralleled by Miosz’s most recent literary venture: he has devoted his creative energy the past several years to translating the Scriptures into Polish.
Miosz’s literary career is unusually eclectic. In addition to his autobiography, he has written two novels, The Seizure of Power (1955) and The Issa Valley (1955, reissued 1981); an eloquent tractate against Soviet anti-intellectualism, The Captive Mind (1953, reissued 1981); and a collection of critical essays ranging from Emanuel Swedenborg to modern Russian authors to Simone Weil, Modes of Eccentric Vision (1977). His verse includes such titles as The Light of Day (1953), Treatise on Poetry (1957), The Land of Ulro (1977), and Bells of Winter (1978). The poet Joseph Brodsky, a fellow exile from Russia, has called him “one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.”
Native Realm is a highly unusual autobiography in its deemphasis of its subject’s personality, its preference instead for choreographing the grim dialectic of power struggles between Poland, Russia, and Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It traces Miosz’s intellectual and emotional education from his roots in Wilno, Lithuania, to his maturation in Poland, travels to Western Europe, underground survival in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II, unhappy service as a minor diplomat from 1945-1950, and agonized decision, in 1951, to exile himself from his East European heritage. The dominant perspective is that of a reflective, long-range lens focusing on theological and ideological debates, historic changes, philosophical observations, psychological nuances, above all the shaping of the author’s complex, profoundly reflective mind. Hardly ever does Miosz permit himself intimately personal revelations, so that the reader is only informed by way of casual parentheses that “my parents had long ago moved away, and I had been doing as I pleased since I was sixteen.” One learns little about his relationships with women, and nothing about his wife and two sons. “This is not a book of feelings,” Miosz explains:... if I were to present a personal history with a purely subjective slant, I would solve nothing because I would be leaving out the most interesting part ... this is not a diary; I am not telling what happened to me from day to day or from month to month... . The frames I cut should be intelligible to a wider audience, not just to framers of Expressionism.
Whether a “wider audience” will welcome republication of Native Realm remains to be seen; the original text sold sparsely, addressed as it was to an intellectual, historically informed audience by a virtually unknown émigré artist-scholar. Yet, the book rewards close attention: it is subtly argued, intensely if quietly felt, powerful in its loyalty to the traditional humanistic values of enlightenment and fraternal understanding, sad in its recall of romantic loyalties to ideologies that have now proved bankrupt.
Miosz stresses his East European roots throughout the book, alluding to himself as no more than “a sociological phenomenon.” His native Lithuania has an old history of being pressed on its Western flank by Roman Catholic Poles, on its Eastern by the Greek Orthodox princes of Moscow and Kiev. In William Shakespeare’s time, the country’s dense forests supplied England with live bears. In the nineteenth century, German universities introduced courses in Lithuanian since it turned out to be the oldest Indo-European language, akin to Sanskrit. By 1911, when Miosz was born and baptized into Roman Catholicism, he was “a child of defeat,” with the Russians dominating all public institutions while Polish and Yiddish were the everyday tongues of the streets and marketplaces.
Shy about describing his own life, Miosz draws vivid portraits of several relatives. One was a libertine, adventurous uncle who tamed bears into becoming his bodyguards and fell in love with the portrait of a beautiful young woman placed in a shop window. She turned out to be a Jewish schoolteacher’s daughter; he married her anyway, despite the strong disapproval of his gentry-Catholic family; their son, Oscar Miosz, became a brilliant linguist and writer who emigrated to France and generously befriended his younger cousin Czesaw in later years, treating him as an honorary “nephew” by virtue of their mutual profession of poetry.
Miosz’s earliest memory dates to 1914, when the Germans beat the czarist occupiers of Lithuania into retreat. A young Cossack, whom the boy had considered his friend, helped ambush and slaughter a little white lamb of which Czesaw was fond. This was his first encounter with “irrevocable unhappiness,” his first “protest against necessity.” He began his childish play in cemeteries, with the graves of Germans covered with blackberry and raspberry thickets, while no one tended the Russian dead.
Miosz waxes sentimental in his description of his native city Wilno, called Wilna by Germans and Byelorussians. Its 200,000 inhabitants were largely Catholic, making it one of the most powerful Jesuit centers in Europe, and attaching it...