ABC's of Apocalypse
Milosz's ABC's reviewed by Dana Gioia in San Francisco Magazine, December 2000
No Bay Area writer commands more public prestige or private respect than Czeslaw Milosz. It isn't just the Nobel Prize for literature the Polish émigré poet and critic won in 1980. Even before he earned that ultimate honor, I never heard anyoneno matter what his or her literary politicsspeak of Milosz with anything less than awe.
That enormous respect, however, is usually mixed with a large dose of intimidation. Milosz not only seems a major literary figure, he is also a profoundly European one. He may have spent the last forty years in California, but his prolific work remains rooted in the distant and turbulent history of Eastern Europe. Even his name announces his mysterious foreign status. Pronounce his surname correctly (Mee-wash), and even literati give you funny looks.
Born in Czarist-controlled Lithuania in 1911, Milosz grew up in the precarious new democratic Poland created after World War I. The young writer soon witnessed the destruction of his two homelands and survived both Hitler and Stalin. Meanwhile he became a leader in Poland's "Catastrophist" school of poetrya literary name that aptly describes the world of his early adulthood.
If this underground resistance member physically survived the Nazi Occupation, he soon lost his Marxist idealism in Stalinist Poland. He defected to the West in 1954. He lived first in Paris, but his sensibility had been too strongly formed by modern apocalypse to pursue art for art's sake. Milosz became the bard of history and deconstructionist of totalitarianismnot only in verse but in such prose classics as The Captive Mind (1953), an incisive study of the Communist mentality. In 1960 Milosz joined the faculty of U.C. Berkeley where he taught until he retired in 1984.
For readers curious to discover this formidable talent, there is no more accessible introduction than the new book, Milosz's ABC's. The ABC is a Polish genre composed of short prose pieces alphabetically arranged. Milosz has used the form to create an unchronological intellectual and spiritual autobiography. Composed of sections mostly only one or two pages long, the book moves in short lyric bursts of memory. The tone is intimate, but the content is impressively rich, including politics, history, literature, and religion.
Most of Milosz's ABC's consists of concise but evocative portraits of people the author once knew. Some are famous like novelists Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler, but many are forgotten Polish and Lithuanian intellectuals. Milosz's accounts of these brilliant idealists trapped by the tragedies or absurdities of modern history make chilling but compelling reading. (How easy and uneventful, by comparison, are the lives of American writers!) So expressively does the author summon up their memories that soon the reader not only shares Milosz's interest in their lives but also feels his complex emotional attachments.
"Because we live in time," Milosz writes, "we are subject to the law that nothing lasts forever." Milosz's ABC's attempts to rescue a few exemplary people, places, and events from oblivion. "My heroes appear in a flash," the author confessesadmitting that he could have treated his material more expansively in a novel or memoir. But he has been true to his talent. Milosz's ABC's may be written in expository prose, but its impact is lyrically poetic.
2000 Dana Gioia
First published in San Francisco Magazine (December 2000)