Poet at the End of the World
Czeslaw Milos: A California Life, by Cynthia Haven, (Heyday Books), 256 pages.
Cynthia Haven’s Czeslaw Milosz: A California Life will be a boon to readers who’ve only recently become aware of Milosz and to those who have been reading him for forty years or more. Unconventional in form, a mix of biography and literary criticism, it is in many respects a refreshing antidote to Milosz: A Biography, the full-scale hagiography by Andrzej Franaszek published by Harvard University Press in 2017, a fat, rather indigestible book that was still an abridged version of the Polish original. Surprisingly, Franaszek’s is the only full-scale biography of Milosz to appear since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981.
Though Haven’s chronicle is short (243 pages), it has something of the ever-shifting, all-inclusive generosity of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. You never know who or what will turn up. We see Milosz through the eyes of many different interlocutors with whom Haven talked and corresponded: translators such as Clare Cavanagh, Lillian Vallee, Richard Lourie, Peter Dale Scott (a poet in his own right), and, especially, Robert Hass (ditto); the journalist Mark Danner; Milosz’s eldest son, Anthony; not to mention a host of others for whom she relies on the archives of memory, including peers such as Albert Camus and Joseph Brodsky. Like Boswell, she is indulgent (too much so in regard to Milosz’s womanizing) but not so smitten with her subject as to simply paper over his contradictions, his lapses, his all-too-humanness.
Is it possible to enjoy a book while simultaneously rolling eyes at the way its narrative is framed? Yes, certainly. In her acknowledgments, Haven thanks Steve Wasserman, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and now the head of Heyday Books, for publishing a series called “California Lives.” As Haven recounts, when she proposed a volume on Milosz for this series, Wasserman was initially nonplussed, but she won him over, for which we can be very thankful.
Here I will quote the beginning of the first chapter, titled “California Considered as an Island,” a longish excerpt but essential to get the flavor of the book:
In the late 1970s, Mark Klus was raking leaves and twigs at Czeslaw Milosz’s Berkeley home on Grizzly Peak. The former student of the Polish poet remembers him laughing, then explaining: “If California is not a separate planet, it is at least a separate colony of the planet Earth.”
What did he mean? “California was not wholly the Earth, because it was like a prehistoric landscape where human activity and civilization had no place, and were completely dwarfed,” Klus told me. “There is an air of detachment in California—throughout the West, really. For this reason, I say California was a desert for Milosz. He eventually developed a deep ambivalence toward the place—although what wasn’t Milosz deeply ambivalent about?”
I was born in California and, except for a couple of brief interludes, lived there until I was 46 years old, when my wife, the kids (as they were then), and I moved to the Midwest. As soon as I was old enough to think properly, I became aware of such preposterous statements about California. The more time passed, the more their idiocy grated on me, especially when they were featured in highbrow outlets such as the New Yorker. Much later, I learned that the same was true of the Midwest, with a very different set of po-faced pronouncements. Amazing, and yet humbling, in a way, that even someone as wonderfully perceptive as Milosz indulged in this sort of thing, which he would have rightly mocked had the subject been Eastern Europe.
A strong sense of the apocalyptic runs through the book, which is only fitting for the life of Milosz, who experienced one “end of the world” in Poland before moving to California. Sometimes the tone becomes breathless, as when Haven describes the fire that virtually destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018 (a town where I lived for a time, and where we had very close friends who were among those forced to flee just ahead of a wall of flames). I then thought of the colossal Northern California wildfire last summer in which my brother lost his house and almost everything he possessed, so I wasn’t inclined to carp at her breathlessness.
I didn’t know Milosz, alas, but seven or eight times I had short conversations with him, always at this or that event where he was reading or being honored—or both. One occasion took place in the mid-1980s. I had just read, for review, René Girard’s book The Scapegoat, which I found fascinating. (Haven’s intellectual biography of Girard, Evolution of Desire, appeared in 2018.) I asked Milosz if he’d read the book. He nodded to indicate familiarity, tilted his head a bit, and then said, “Not very… interesting,” the last word drawn out.
My favorite conversation with Milosz took place a bit later. I had told him that my favorite passage in all of his books was one near the end of “Bells in Winter” when the speaker says, “Yet I belong to those who believe in apokatastasis,” citing the passage in Acts that refers to “the restoration of all things.” I added that I was a Christian and that I shared that hope. His reaction startled me. He put a hand on my shoulder, squeezed it, and—looking directly at me with some intensity—simply said “Good.”
Not the least of the strengths of Haven’s book is her account of Milosz’s faith, an embarrassment to some of his admirers. She fully acknowledges his pessimism, his doubts, but she also gives full weight to the luminous hope that animates his finest poems. For that, I was very grateful.
John Wilson is contributing editor at the Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at the Marginalia Review of Books.