In 1964 an important if somewhat obscure Polish writer and public intellectual named Aleksander Wat arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, and began the work that would eventually become My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual. First published in Polish in 1977 and released in an abridged English translation a decade later, it is one of the most remarkable literary memoirs of the last century. Thus a measure of gratitude is due to New York Review Books for the volume’s reissue, which is bound to enlarge its audience beyond those who already consider it a masterpiece.
We should note that this masterpiece almost didn’t happen: Things were not going well when Wat landed in the Bay Area. He had been invited by the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. Although they imposed no formal institutional obligations on him, Wat’s hosts hoped that their guest would be able to use his time to add to his slim collections of poems and stories, which he’d been writing since the 1920s. But in spite of Wat’s best intentions and ambitious plans, he was unable to write or, for that matter, to do much of anything. A stroke in 1953 had left him with excruciating bouts of pain in his face; crippling agony could be brought on by even momentary concentration. Concerned that no good would come of his visit, the center’s director suggested that someone record conversations with Wat about his life and work, which might make a good foundation for an autobiography. Czeslaw Milosz, the future Nobel laureate and then-professor of Slavic literature, took up the task.
Milosz had been teaching at Berkeley for just a few years, and there must have been a consensus that, as a Polish intellectual eleven years Wat’s junior, a fellow poet and a disillusioned defector from the Communist government he’d served, Milosz would have shared many points of reference with Wat. He did. Milosz met with Wat regularly and recorded their conversations until the summer of 1965, when he followed Wat to Paris and continued their sessions. In his foreword to this volume, Milosz attests that although at first “the aim was therapeutic,” the younger poet could not help but find himself drawn in by Wat’s sharp insights and reminiscences.
In fact, as My Century illustrates exceedingly well, one would be hard-pressed to find a shrewder or more attentive witness to the events that shaped Central Europe’s history in the twentieth century. Between the world wars, Wat traveled in circles where the distinction between politics and literature all but dissolved, giving rise to bold experimentation in both, and leading to the inevitable consequence that those who wielded the pen often caught the sword’s attention as well. At one time or another, Wat shared a meal, a jail cell or exile with an astounding roster of cultural figures, from Witkacy, the audacious Polish avant-garde writer, to Russian literary critic Victor Shklovsky. Wat’s book reads like a softly glowing missive from that lost world.
Born in 1900 to a family of the old Jewish intelligentsia, Wat achieved his earliest recognition as a Futurist poet, cultivating friendships with such luminaries as Paul Éluard and Vladimir Mayakovsky. By the late 1920s he had risen to prominence as the editor of a major Communist literary monthly–called, with austere Communist charm, The Literary Monthly–bringing him considerable attention from European writers and artists, and perhaps less desirable attention from anti-Communists within the Polish government. The magazine was dissolved, Wat was arrested for the first time and after his release spent most of the 1930s working in publishing. While fleeing Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Wat was accidentally separated from his wife and son, and was arrested by the Soviet authorities a short time later. There followed several years of intermittent imprisonment, exile in Kazakhstan (where Wat was reunited with his family), return to Poland, requisite flip-flopping between favor and disfavor with the postwar Communist government and finally permanent exile in Paris.