Monday, May 8, 2017


I've been reading To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, by Czeslaw Milosz, and am not sure at this point how much I'll write about it. Some of it repeats from his memoir, Native Realm, which I commented on earlier. At the moment I am finding memoirs slightly oppressive, because they draw you back to a distant past which is only partially remembered, and much is irretrievable. When I try to remember my own past in detail, I soon find it frustrating that I can't remember, say, the name of an elementary school teacher. Straining to recall something that I haven't thought about for fifty years can induce in me a state similar to claustrophobia. Our brains didn't evolve to become huge repositories of information, and an unexpected dysfunction may emerge when one obsesses about one's past. It may be safer and more productive to weave a simple narrative about it and leave it at that.

In Milosz's case, his life had been severely disrupted, and he was aware enough to lament what he knew had been lost. With his poetic sensibility, he reminds me of Dylan Thomas in A Child's Christmas in Wales, though with a more adult, less playful emphasis. Unlike Dylan Thomas, he experienced a life that was spent mostly in exile, and although Paris may not have seemed too far from home, the U.S. certainly did. I respect Milosz because he struggles with meaning and looks at his life more seriously than most writers, even ones with similar backgrounds. Take, for example, Vladimir Nabokov, whose privileged life in Russia was ruined by the Russian Revolution. I was not impressed by Lolita when I read it long ago, because I thought it took a needlessly cynical position on the U.S. and was psychologically shallow. If it hadn't been a novel about pedophilia written by an author with a Russian-sounding name and good academic credentials, I don't think it would have become popular. The impression I have of Nabokov is that he resented having to work for a living, despised Americans, surrounded himself with sycophants and was too self-important to be a good observer. I may be wrong, but I'm unwilling to read any more of his books to find out. Another memoirist, Barack Obama, wrote Dreams of My Father and received critical acclaim. He too experienced disruptions in his life, but they were on a minor scale. He is neither as skilled nor as insightful a writer as Milosz and most likely wrote the memoir in order to embellish his image prior to his entry into politics. I probably won't read his post-presidential books.

There are several essays in Milosz's book that I haven't read yet, and I may or may not comment on them individually.

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