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.
All this information is more essential backstory than a digest of the book’s content. My Century is by no means a conventional autobiography, much as its editors have struggled to arrange its memories, digressions and flashbacks into something resembling a chronological arc. Rather, Wat’s transcribed conversations with Milosz seek to flesh out and, ultimately, come to grips with one man’s encounter with history, and Wat seems to recognize at every turn how his own experience of politics, war, exile and even religious conversion (Wat adopted his own idiosyncratic version of Christianity while in a Soviet prison in Saratov) reflects the social and intellectual dilemmas of his fellow man.
Describing the influences on his spiritual development, Wat characterizes his heritage appropriately as “a hotchpotch”: Though ethnically Jewish, Wat’s relatives included Hasidim and atheists, as well as Catholic priests. In a sense, the same can be said of this book. At times it resembles social anthropology, a thick description of the lives of the literati, political prisoners and deportees during an extremely turbulent period in Europe’s history. At other times My Century suggests a gossip column about avant-garde writers and the intellectual elite, full of lighthearted commentary on ideology, sex and very often both. Wat lends a chummy atmosphere to gatherings at Shklovsky’s apartment, where the great director Sergei Eisenstein and the humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko were among the guests:
Paustovsky was there and Zoshchenko with his lovely young wife, who had a beautiful figure. Eisenstein used to come sometimes too, a fantastic person in a demonic sort of way. His eyes. When he looked at you, you knew you were being photographed. But he did that with his soul; it wasn’t just physical. Strange eyes–I’d never seen anything like them. Marshak, the children’s writer, came every once in a great while. But Zoshchenko was there all the time. And there was Shnaider, a marvelous man, a screen writer. He was in the final stages of tuberculosis. He’d also written some prose, which I read, very un-Russian prose, not a trace of any political tone or subtext. And there was Miss Shub, one of the founders of the avant-garde in film, Kinooka. That was the club.
Never mind that it was 1941, Wat had just arrived in Kazakhstan, he had to hide for fear of being arrested again, his body had been ravaged by prison life, his family was still missing. Wat’s account pushes bewilderment and fear backstage, foregrounding his keen perceptions of the moment.
Because Wat’s story focuses on the three decades between 1920 and 1950, arguably the most eventful years in the lives of himself, his family and his countrymen, the book is suffused with an air of careful reflection as the poet-philosopher plumbs his past triumphs and errors. To Wat’s credit, this reflection never takes on the maudlin or self-indulgently nostalgic tones that too frequently burden the literary memoir as a genre, perhaps because Wat seems to have come to terms with his past long before this project was undertaken. Of particular interest is the theme of conversion–religious, ideological, aesthetic–to which Wat returns often in his discussions with Milosz. Given the torments Wat and his family suffered under the Stalinists, it would be understandable if he were to flagellate himself on occasion for his youthful attraction to Communism, but he does not. Instead, he describes Communism most often in religious terms (“I consider any aid I render to Communism a mortal sin”); having suffered his due in Purgatory by the time these conversations were recorded, Wat manages to address his past with unflagging sobriety and judiciousness. Consider, for instance, his description of being led away to an interrogation in Lubyanka, Moscow’s infamous prison:
That was my first time in Lubyanka’s Kafkaesque corridors. The guards who were escorting me clicked their tongues before turning a corner, to alert other guards escorting other prisoners. Sometimes they used their metal buckles to make a sound. Everything was quiet at Lubyanka, perfectly quiet, and it was only in that corridor (it was around eleven o’clock) when passing an office door that I heard a woman scream, a woman being tortured. She had a beautiful contralto voice; I wrote a poem about it. A terrible scream, just one. Later on I learned that, supposedly, screams like that were stage-managed. They weren’t always authentic; they were done to induce the proper mood in the prisoners in the neighboring cells. Anyway, that was the first scream in the night that I heard at Lubyanka.
Such sure detachment rarely enjoys the company of true incisiveness in life writing. The most acute observers of historical catastrophe are very often too inarticulate to provide much more than bone-dry ledgers of names and dates: Witness the evolution of the “Written With” genre of political autobiography. Otherwise, in the case of magnificent prose stylists like Vladimir Nabokov, Primo Levi or Witold Gombrowicz–Wat’s contemporary and compatriot–the experience of history bends to the dictates of artistry, resulting in what we commonly call the “semi-autobiographical.” But for all the elegance of Wat’s mind, he never strays into fancy, nor does he compromise his consideration of the past with simplification or apology.
It is in the stunning fortitude of these reflections that readers will find this book’s greatest value, and not in an undeviating survey of Wat’s undeniably fascinating life. For the latter, one must turn to Tomas Venclova’s Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast (1996), the definitive critical biography, which places the entangled material of Wat’s work in a much more easily navigable historical and cultural context. Despite the best efforts of the editors of My Century, including their addition of a chronology, a glossary of proper names and digestible chapter headings, the text is a monster; the glossary of proper names alone runs sixteen pages. As memoir composed orally, with no concrete plans for later publication, the text flits associatively from one topic to the next until its author alights on an issue of special interest, whereupon he digs in with remarkable intensity and vigor of mind. Indeed, this is that uncommon kind of book that an engaged reader can revisit year after year, jumping around at one’s leisure. Until the reader establishes that foothold, however, it may be difficult to weather the blizzard of unfamiliar place names and personalities before arriving at Wat’s brilliant treatments of the nature of political terror or of how one’s sense of time changes in prison.
The dizziness that My Century induces is a natural consequence not only of the method of the book’s composition but of the identity of its co-creator. In his own development as a writer and thinker, Czeslaw Milosz is perhaps a little too much like Wat himself: They know so many of the same people, have read so many of the same books and have faced such similar ideological crises that there is almost never a moment of incomprehension or misunderstanding between them, which means that if the reader happens to lose the thread of the conversation, neither Wat nor Milosz is likely to extend a helping hand.
Slightly more problematic is the fact that, much as he usually succeeds in making his presence inconspicuous, Milosz is very much Wat’s collaborator in this autobiographical endeavor. He asks perceptive questions, certainly, spurring Wat toward his own virtuosic discourses, but Milosz also intrudes, sometimes with silly enthusiastic interjections (“Fantastic”), sometimes with more egregious editorializing. A noteworthy example comes early in the book, when Wat is talking about a meeting with Paul Éluard:
Wat:…Now he was with his new wife, whom he’d met in Mexico. A French woman, very brave, and no doubt a communist. On the whole the wives played an enormous role in all that. The wives, especially the Jewish ones, played an enormous role in pushing writers toward communism.
Milosz: It’s no secret that women have no sense of measure.
Wat: Yes…. And so Éluard arrived, and an interview with him appeared in the press.
It’s a funny moment, since Wat himself doesn’t seem to know what to do with Milosz’s oddly misogynistic comment. Funnier still is that the editors didn’t remove such passages from the finished text, which preserves Milosz’s heavy imprint despite the years of painstaking transcription, editing, translation and re-editing it took to bring this book to an English-speaking audience.
Or perhaps this is not so odd. Milosz has had some hand in virtually the entire existence of Aleksander Wat in English, from Lillian Vallee’s translation of the story collection Lucifer Unemployed (1990), for which Milosz wrote the foreword, to With the Skin: Poems of Aleksander Wat (1989), translated by Milosz and Leonard Nathan. Given Milosz’s enormous stature as a poet, one might get an exaggerated sense of Wat’s place in Polish letters, especially in light of the fact that so many of the outstanding Polish writers who have not been graced with the Milosz stamp of approval have failed to find the international audience they deserve. With more specific regard to My Century, the force of Milosz’s reputation may have inhibited the editors from excising his more intrusive remarks or, for that matter, eliminating them from the book altogether, since the foreword and introduction lay bare the text’s provenance anyway.
This is not intended as an indictment of Milosz, who need not answer for his personal tastes, and whom we should thank for bringing us My Century in the first place. But it does say something about the culture of American publishing, which has a tendency to latch on to one or two writers–usually living in the United States, usually Nobel laureates, a Milosz, a Joseph Brodsky–and to treat them as arbiters of good taste from abroad. One has to assume that without Milosz’s name emblazoned on the cover, the English version of My Century would have remained out of print.
One might also have hoped that a new generation of editors would have been less reluctant to improve on the current work. Rather than adding to or rearranging the text, which Richard Lourie has rendered into English exceedingly well, the New York Review Books edition is a photo-reproduction of the first English printing. This version of My Century represents slightly more than half of the text as it originally appeared in Polish. It is mildly disappointing that no effort has been made to reconsider the earlier omissions or to make the text more user-friendly to first-time readers, for while Milosz’s interruptions can be a nuisance, and while the flurry of exotic names and places may prove daunting for the uninitiated, My Century is a monument to powerful autobiographical writing. Now that Poland’s long-awaited accession to the European Union is upon us, there may be no better time to sit down with Wat and consider the many reasons such an occasion would have been inconceivable in his lifetime.
Sadly, Wat never lived to see the publication of the work that would secure his literary legacy. By July 1967, ten years before My Century would first appear in Polish, Wat could no longer bear his physical anguish and declining health: He took a bottle of sleeping pills and died quietly at his Paris apartment. And yet it is a testament to the book’s genius that it nevertheless earns the title its editors imposed on it. By describing just a few momentous decades, Wat succeeds admirably in capturing an entire century’s worth of spiritual and ideological struggle.