Andrzej Franaszek’s Miłosz is the first full biography of Polish poet, essayist, and Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz. Miłosz was born in 1911, died in 2004, and was a witness to and participant in almost all of the crucial events of a century full of pain. Indeed, what comes across strongly in Franaszek’s account is how constantly Miłosz was confronted by upheavals within the political and social landscapes he inhabited, first in Lithuania, next in Poland and then in France and the United States, in each of which he experienced periods when he felt utterly alienated from his surroundings. The book puts Miłosz’s outsider status at the center of his life and work, and gives us a moving account of the writer’s difficult personal odyssey and the appalling history through which he lived.
In Aleksandra and Michael Parker’s English-language edition of Franaszek’s original Polish, the book is a feat of immersion, combining biographical narrative and critical insight with generous excerpting of Miłosz’s poetry and prose. Miłosz wrote prolifically but also thought without end about the role of the writer and the work of the intellectual, and his feelings on these things evolved over his long life. Franaszek interweaves it all, such that on nearly every page you’ll learn about an event in Miłosz’s life or in the world he watched so closely, then read a bit of a poem or letter he wrote about it at the time, followed by quotes from his reflections decades later.
Altogether, Franaszek gives us a remarkably intimate sense of Miłosz’s complicated life, wrapped in an emblematic portrait of the twentieth century. During the first eleven years of Miłosz’s life, his family was caught up in the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian-Polish War. In his late twenties and early thirties he witnessed the catastrophe of the Second World War, lived through the hell of Nazi occupation, and witnessed the beginning of a new chapter in European history. Finally, he settled down in the California of the 1960s, and for a long time was safe and stable, but still largely unknown to readers of English. This sense of his own obscurity weighed on him tremendously, as Franaszek describes:
It is easy to dwell on the latter, happier years of his life, when he was constantly honoured. From 1951 until he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, he had a small readership, and could count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles written about him. For almost three decades after his defection from Poland in 1951, Miłosz was a writer who had resigned himself to the fact that he had failed and would be forgotten.
He hadn’t, of course, and he wouldn’t be.
The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has spent this entire month celebrating Czesław Miłosz and highlighting the work University Presses do to help keep poetry in play. Day by day they’ve shared lines from Miłosz’s 1978 poem “Notes,” and this week they published a wonderful consideration of Milos’z “The World: A Naïve Poem” from Michael Parker, who describes how the poem explores concerns that Miłosz would address throughout his literary career. His treatment of the poem offers a way into one of the great lives of the twentieth century, which Franaszek’s landmark biography now presents in such vivid detail.