Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, has never courted fame. If anything, he has shunned it as a badge of mediocrity , which, in the context of literary politics in Communist Poland and Russia, where fame is more often gained through ideological enthusiasm than talent, it is. When the glare of the television cameras turned on Milosz in Berkeley (where he has taught for 20 years) last autumn, he seemed as surprised as anyone. One even had the feeling that he felt almost intruded upon, interrupted in his (to use Milosz's own words) "unfashionable" current project: translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Polish.
A strong and prickly stream of contempt for public recognition and opinion -- whether engendered by religion, government, or journalism -- runs through Milosz's writings, both prose and poetry. In view of Milosz's peculiar life history, which has made him immediate witness to the enormous moral failures of various systems -- Roman Catholic, aristocratic, fascist, communist, democratic -- this disdain becomes comprehensible. To see all that Milosz has seen -- the rape of Poland by Germans and Russians, the smoking ruins of Warsaw, the moral collapse of postwar Polish Communists (at least until 1980) -- and not to become suspicious of vox populim would have been to learn nothing. Tragically, nothing is just what many of Milosz's contemporaries have learned.
Milosz remains an unknown quantity to most American -- indeed, to most Western -- readers. In Poland, however, he is regarded as one of the country's greatest 20th-century/poets. A monument erected recently in Gdansk to honor those shot down in the labor struggles of 10 years ago bears on its base lines from Milosz (here I use Irving Howe's rough translation): "You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure: for a poet remembers."
To remember, to combat our age's sad tendency to forget where we've come from and where we've been, is what Milosz regards as his poetic mission. That Milosz , one of the least forgetful of poets, should end up in America, the most forgetful of nations, is, of course, ironic, as he notes in "Native Realm": "Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with it were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize that the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history, and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience."
A sense of history permeates all of Milosz's writings: the poems spanning his career collected in the slim volume recently reissued by Ecco Press (and translated by a variety of translators, among them Milosz himself); the prose poem "The Issa Valley," first published in Polish in 1955 and now translated into English for the first time; "Native Realm," first published in English in 1968 and reissued recently as the work of an acclaimed author. All seek to make sense of a senseless century, to understand history without succumbing to partisanship.
As a Polish writer, Milosz has been in a unique position, caught between the shrill tendentiousness of the Russian tradition and the mostly apolitical concerns of Western (especially, in his case, French) literature. With the Russians (he writes brilliantly of his love-hate relationship to Russia in "Native Realm") he has in common a concern for the fate of the common man and a belief in the writer's role as citizen. From the French he has taken a stance of artistic detachment and coldness, the sculptor's mastery over his marble. It is this tension between involvement and detachment that gives Milosz's writing its special resonance and power; he writes of cataclysmic events with a diamond cutter's control.
There are times when this distance seems misplaced, most obviously in "The Issa Valley," a Proustian memoir of the poet's boyhood in pastoral Lithuania. Though the book is advertized as a novel, it is not really a work of fiction. It traces, in slow and microscopic detail, a boy's awareness of his surroundings , and especially the strange demonic afflictions that abide in his quirky relatives and their servants. Thomas, Milosz's thinly disguised alter ego, is, even as a 12- year-old, reluctant to reveal his feelings. He looks out at the world, an incurrable if silent extrovert.
What he sees is a charming and now-vanished world of folkloric spirits: quiet hunting forays into pagan forest. Lithuania has always been a mysterious and neglected land; Christianity arrived there officialy only in the 14th century. As a member of the Polish-speaking upper class, Thomas is (as Milosz was) naturally distant from the Lithuanian-speaking peasants, though spiritually he feels closer to the people of the land than to his own stiff and frequently uninterested relatives.
Milosz's narrative is more distant and ironic in "Native Realm"; but then the emotional load is so much greater that a romantic approach would have been overwhelming. This book, too, fits with difficulty into categories: It is less an autobiography than a loose collection of autobiographical essays, more or less chronologically arranged. We learn, for example, very little of Milosz's romantic or family life; obviously he felt that the events transpiring around him (he was 28 when the Nazis rolled into Warsaw) were far more important.
Boyhood in rural Lithuania, Roman Catholic education in Vilnius, early manhood in Warsaw between the wars, serving as a writer for the resistance during World War II: These are some of the bewildering changes "Native Realm" chronicles. But the strangest, perhaps, was yet to come. Once Poland had become Communist, Milosz, who, in his typically iconoclastic fashion, disapproved both of the Communists and their emigre opponents, worked in the Polish Embassy in Washington. He found himself the representative of a government in which he hardly believed and yet which he felt obliged to serve. America, the land of vast freedom, disappointed him; freedom seemed to have led to ugliness, not beauty. Passing through Columbus, Ohio, he wandered into a burlesque show:
"A diversion for lonely males. But in the bar across the street the lonely were deprived even of the consolation of stammering their confessions to the bartender, for all eyes were riveted on the television screen. Was this the highest that I'homme sensuel moyenm could reach when left to himself, undismayed by the cyclones of history?"
Milosz has earned the right to ask such questions. Perhaps now that the Nobel Prize has turned him -- for better or for worse -- into a celebrity, more readers will ponder the answers.