Robert Fulford's column about Czeslaw Milosz

(Globe and Mail, May 15, 1999)

A complex writer who enjoys plain statements, Czeslaw Milosz begins his recent book, Road-Side Dog, with the simplest and most traditional of opening phrases: "I went on a journey." He remembers riding in a two-horse wagon across the Lithuanian countryside, long ago. As each new village appeared, the barking of a dog announced the arrival of the wagon. Milosz briefly sketches this nostalgic scene, then mentions offhandedly where the trip is taking us: "That was the beginning of the century; this is its end."

Milosz, the 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize, 88 years old next month, has seen more of the 20th century's changes than almost anyone. "I come from a place without automobiles, bathrooms, or telephones," he said in his book Visions from San Francisco Bay. That rural isolation remains part of him: "I am still that same small boy who on his first visit to the big city was alarmed by the sound of water in the toilet"; he thought he had broken it by pulling the chain.

Since then, he has lived under the Nazis and the Communists and the capitalists. He has written for underground magazines in wartime Warsaw, and for The New Yorker. He's been desperately poor and comfortably prosperous. He's been a Marxist, of sorts, and today he remains a Roman Catholic, of sorts. Empires have risen and fallen around him. Hitler came to power in 1933, the same year Milosz, 22, published his first book of poems; for a dozen years, the Nazis dominated the lives of Milosz and everyone he knew. Then Hitler gave way to Stalin and his heirs, who lasted much longer and sometimes looked as if they would last forever.

As a young man, Milosz thought the Marxists were vital and bracing; he learned later that they were death under another name. But eventually they, too, went away. Lithuania, where Milosz was born to a Polish family, was erased from history when it was appropriated by the Soviet Union in 1940 -- and then was reborn in 1991 as the Republic of Lithuania. Milosz also suffered erasure. For nearly 30 years, from the time he defected to the West until he won the Nobel Prize, official Poland declined to acknowledge his existence. After he won the prize, however, the Communist government in Warsaw claimed and published him, or parts of him: It printed his Nobel Prize acceptance speech only after editing out the anti-Communist part. Later, in the post-Communist era, he went home as a hero. On the monument to Gdansk workers killed during the 1970 protests, Solidarity inscribed a Milosz poem ("Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. You kill one, but another is born"), written in secret in 1950 when he was working as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in Washington.

In old age, Milosz has split his life between Krakow and Berkeley, where he taught at the University of California for two decades. Why go back to California? To feel, as he might put it, not-at-home. The nomadic life, forced on him by history, long ago became essential to his personality. He will not give up his outsider status: A Polish patriot, he nevertheless regrets (as he wrote in a journal entry, published three years ago) that some of his poems "promote that moaning -- noble -- patriotic Polish blockheadedness"; he regrets "my bouts of national orthodoxy" even more than his flirtations with communism.

Years ago, talking to a journalist, he speculated on why he had chosen California. Perhaps it was because "it gave me a perfect feeling of estrangement and isolation," which "is part of being alive in the 20th century." That emotion has always been an essential force in his poetry; the ruptures he has experienced, and the tragedies he has witnessed, are lodged in every line, so firmly placed that they easily survive translation into English. His prose writing is equally persuasive. The Captive Mind, published in 1953, analyzes what his preface calls a "stupefying and loathsome phenomenon," the creation of Communist orthodoxy in Eastern Europe. Having outlived its subject, that book deserves to stand beside two works of fiction on the same subject, George Orwell's 1984 and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

Milosz has always been anxious to remind us that dictatorship is not mainly a problem for intellectuals. Most of those who suffer are the anonymous, undocumented millions, their lives extinguished almost by whim. A 1960 essay, published in his collection Emperor of the Earth, tells in 14 heart-rending pages the story of Gilbert Brognart, a French teenager who went to Poland on holiday with a Polish friend in the summer of 1939, was caught there by the start of the war, blundered into trouble with the Soviet authorities when he tried to get home by way of the Baltic Republics, and vanished into a Siberian slave-labour camp, dying there 11 years later. His story eventually became known because, wherever he went, he wrote his name and home address on the prison wall.

Milosz, as much as anyone, has earned the right to pass judgment on his century and, in Road-Side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the most striking passages describe the nihilism that has followed the decline of religion and the rise of science. But Road-Side Dog is no formal attempt at a summing up: Its quirky title (referring not only to the dogs encountered on that trip long ago but also to Milosz himself, barking at the passing world from the side of the road) introduces an unclassifiable selection of comments, myths and anecdotes, bits and pieces that have fallen off Milosz's mind. On one level, he's a modest man; on another, he's the sort of writer who believes his notebooks are worth printing -- and, in this case, he's right.

Road-Side Dog reminds us, in its remarkable breadth, that Milosz is a historical phenomenon, whose life in the post-Soviet period has given renewed meaning to the words with which he opened his Nobel acceptance speech in 1980: "My presence here . . . should be an argument for all those who praise life's God-given, marvellously complex unpredictability."

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