(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In A Year of the Hunter, Czesław Miłosz has chosen the diary as the form to continue the quest that has defined his poetic enterprise, “the passionate pursuit of the real.” Always concerned with the question, “How to tell it all?” which he posed in his poetic sequence “Six Lectures in Verse,” Miłosz constantly seeks new and expanded forms to embrace as much of the world as possible, as well as the conflicting personalities that grip him. Miłosz does believe in an objective reality beyond the impressions and memories of the observer, but he also is acutely aware that the observer is extremely malleable, subject to different moods, preferences, and voices.

What makes this diary particularly interesting is Miłosz’s constant negotiation between himself and the world beyond himself. The diary tells readers little or nothing about the time in which it is written—from 1987 to 1988—and little about the quotidian details of the author’s life. Although he tells readers that his marriage to his first and late wife, Janka, is the central fact of his life and makes general observations about its tensions, Miłosz is reluctant to say too much about it, not only in the interest of his own privacy, but also out of fairness to a woman who can no longer respond. Nor does Miłosz engage in elaborate reconstructions of the turbulence through which he has lived, particularly the Warsaw occupation, even though he points to the ways in which those times have been inadequately rendered. The diary is the extremely complex and ironic self-portrait of a man in conflict with the various masks and postures with which history has tempted him: Nobel Laureate and ambassador of letters, great humanist, the poet of Polish liberation, a master artist. In short, Miłosz presents himself as neither simple nor noble, but a believer and a seeker who struggles to transcend the torture of self-consciousness, the traps of modern nihilistic shibboleths, and his own moral failings.

As a concise, almost formal experiment, limited to one year, A Year of the Hunter can be viewed as a response to Witold Gombrowicz’s brilliant three-volume Dziennik (1957-1966; Diary, 1988-1993), in which Miłosz appeared frequently. In particular, Gombrowicz’s observation in the entry of April, 1966, that in “consciousness there is something like its being its own trap,” seems to haunt Miłosz with its assumptions of a purely subjective world constructed of initial, capricious associations. Aware of the power of this view and its horrific consequences, Miłosz nevertheless believes in “a sphere that endures independently of people’s fleeting interconnections,” and that in “this world, despite all its ghastliness, there is another side, a true side, a lining visible to the eyes of the Divinity.” A religion of pure art is an insufficient substitute for a deeper exploration of man’s place in the cosmos. Yet Miłosz is far too sensuous and worldly to be borne away by pure mysticism, and far too conscious of his own failings to allow himself transcendent freedom.

Throughout the diary, Miłosz in the present is what he has been all his life—a wanderer. As he travels from his home in Berkeley to readings and appearances throughout the world, his thoughts travel into his past, to his marriage to his first wife, Janka, his conflicts and arguments with other writers, the Warsaw occupation, his experiences at various periods in Paris. With his usual clarity and brilliance, Miłosz wonders about “the real Paris,” how it can be found beyond the shifting perspectives of the observer: “Where is the objective truth of this reality if this reality exhibits a myriad subjective hues? What does the eye of God see? This warehouse of subjective states, or some substratum, some ‘as it really is’?” This is Miłosz the eternal hunter who does not, in the fashionable postmodern stance, dismiss reality as a construct or a blank upon which to impose his fantasies, but grieves because reality always eludes his grasp as it disappears in the shifting sands of history.

The diary form allows him latitude in his presentation of self. Although guided by a single narrative persona, readers also see the different selves and voices contending with each other, even as Miłosz observes himself in different ways in the past and in the present. This polyphony has been a characteristic feature of some of his greatest poems, including “From the Rising of the Sun,” “The Separate Notebooks,” and “La Belle Epoque.” All the elements of observation, philosophic and theological reflection, and, above all else, portraits of fascinating people that have made his poetry unique are present here, with almost the same concision and only somewhat less lyricism: “The pleasure that I derive from this memoir: along with my old inclination to extract the essence (great events, currents, ideas), this time I am yielding to a fabric woven of specific people, of old and new events, which is, perhaps, for this very reason, closer to the tonalities (to fragments) of poetry.” Almost no modern poet seems so concerned with preserving the memory of those he admires from the annihilating forces of historical amnesia than Miłosz. Konstanty Galczynski, Kot Jelenski, Jaroslaw Iwaz-kiewicz, and Jozef Mackiewicz are a few of the writers to whom Miłosz devotes complicated and lavish meditations. Although they are writers with whom he has had strong disagreements, Miłosz recognizes how much he has learned from them and how the conflicts helped create his own polyphonic character.

Miłosz recognizes a futility, and even vanity, in trying to preserve the memory of others and of himself. This comes to him, however, as a devil’s temptation to give in to disregard of the individual human life, which he regards as the curse of this century’s statistical inhumanism. While always somewhat ashamed in taking his own life too seriously or as worthy of detailed attention, he also recognizes the hazards of devaluing a single human life, existing “once only from the beginning to the end of time”:

Relief may come with the thought that everything that one once was comes to an end with death, passes into eternity, that there is no responsibility, and he who remembers will also soon pass into eternity without a trace. But immediately, in opposition to that thought, an objection arises: let there be a judging, let there be the torment of self-knowledge, if only our belief in every moment of our life enduring somewhere, forever, can be proved true.

Miłosz suspects facile nihilists as escapists from the imperative of moral conscience, the “torment of self knowledge.” Miłosz wrestles constantly with his guilt over a variety of matters, while avoiding the self-indulgence and glorification of public...

(The entire section is 2782 words.)