Monday, December 18, 2017

Milosz: A Biography II

1931 was a confusing year in Milosz's life, and he was not completely forthright about it in his public writings. Franaszek makes an admirable effort to sort it all out, but some of the details may be lost forever. Milosz established a friendship with the successful poet, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, and visited him in Warsaw; he made the river trip to Paris that I mentioned in my comments on Native Realm and began a romantic relationship with fellow law student, Jadwiga Waszkiewicz, the younger daughter of a wealthy Wilno gynecologist. Franaszek speculates that she later became pregnant and had an abortion. It seems that Milosz did not want to get married, and they broke up permanently in 1935. Late in 1931, Milosz decided to transfer to Warsaw University to finish his law degree, and it isn't clear why. Franaszek thinks that, due to his inability in mathematics, he may have been worried about flunking a statistics course, which he would have been required to take at Wilno in order to complete his degree, and that he may have thought that Warsaw would be a preferable location for establishing his career as a poet. As it turned out, the students at Warsaw University were much wealthier and better prepared than he was, and Milosz flunked out after just one semester, returning to Wilno.

So far, the only "character" issue that has arisen has had to do with why Milosz broke up with Jadwiga. From the point of view of her family, he was a narcissist and took no responsibility for his actions. It may have been that he simply did not want to be forced to marry and support a family at the cost of destroying his ambitions as a poet. At first glance, this Machiavellian attitude does not seem admirable, but in the long run it may have been a good choice. He was only twenty-four at the time, and, to put it in a familiar context, I have been thinking about my own situation when I was twenty-three. I was living with my then-girlfriend in Columbus, Ohio, and her parents decided that we should either get married or break up, since cohabitation of an unmarried couple was unacceptable within their milieu. I don't think that they had much interest in our well-being, and their motivation seems to have been to maintain their carefully cultivated public image as conservative, small-town bourgeoisie. I attempted to avert the marriage but was forced to choose, and, not having any particular plans or good advice at that time from any source, I acceded to their demands, and we were married in February, 1974. Certainly, it was not an optimal marriage for me. As time passed, my ex-wife-to-be increasingly seemed stupid, self-centered and cold, in addition to possessing the unpleasant neurosis that runs in her family, and, though she wouldn't admit it then or now, she was obsessed with her perceived social rank, which was always lower than she thought, and her self-appraisal seemed ludicrous to me given her deficiencies in social skills. In fact, one of the reasons why I had been attracted to her in the first place had been that she needed help. As for her family, although we always remained on cordial terms, they were of no benefit to me whatsoever with respect to emotional or practical support, and conversationally they fell into the category of boring, provincial Midwesterners. On the whole I would say that I got no benefit from that eleven-year marriage, unless you count children, and in hindsight I would not repeat that mistake. My entire experience in the Midwest, spanning about four decades, now looks like a complete waste of time, but that's a different story which I won't delve into now. Therefore, even though Jadwiga Waszkiewicz seems to have been superior to my ex-wife, I can't say that Milosz made an error by not marrying her. They communicated by letter late in their lives, but did not meet again.

Milosz completed law school in Wilno in 1934 and then received a scholarship to study French language and literature in Paris for a year. This proved to be a confidence-builder for him, as Paris was the cultural center of Europe, and his uncle, Oskar Milosz, had lived there for many years and was well known in literary circles. I think that Czeslaw's trajectory as a writer was significantly derived from a model he picked up from Oskar, though in writing style and ideas they probably diverged considerably. Milosz partook in literary and political discussions, museums and brothels and circulated among both émigré Polish groups and native Parisians. When he returned to Wilno, which was then part of Poland, in late 1935, his life began to take on a ho-hum tone. He held a boring position at Polish Radio. In 1936 he published a volume of his poems, Three Winters, which was well-received by critics and launched his career. The political atmosphere was becoming polarized, with right-wing Polish nationalists on one side and communist sympathizers on the other. Milosz was not particularly radical, but he was too left-wing for the Polish administrator in charge of the Wilno radio station and was fired in 1937. He then managed to get a job at Polish Radio in Warsaw and moved there. At this job he met his future wife, Janina (Janka) Cekalska. Janka was married to someone else at the time, but this did not prevent them from developing a relationship.

In 1939, all hell broke loose when Germany invaded Poland at the onset of World War II. The invasion seems to have caught the Poles off guard, and few were prepared for it. At the time, Milosz and Janka were in different locations and became separated for some time. He hoped to reunite in Paris but was unable to make the arrangements. She remained stranded in Warsaw, and he, by a circuitous route through Soviet Ukraine, became stranded back in Wilno. The lives of most Poles were imperiled by Nazi bombing and the Soviet Army. Stalin, like Vladimir Putin today, was itching to seize more territory. Traveling without the proper documents meant almost certain death, and several of Milosz's friends died during this period. Milosz himself was already fairly well-connected in Poland because of his literary reputation, and he felt guilty about the advantages that he received with the help of wealthy acquaintances of whom he tended to disapprove because of their unearned privileges. Finally, he made the perilous journey from Wilno to Warsaw in 1940, as described in Native Realm, was reunited with Janka, and remained there for the duration of the war.

I am finding Milosz's life quite engrossing, and will continue on this biography as time permits over the next few weeks. The author, Franaszek, not only has done his homework, but he has also done a good job ferreting out Milosz's emotional state at each phase of the story, which is something that not all biographers do well.

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