My Century (New York Review Books Classics)
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In My Century the great Polish poet Aleksander Wat provides a spellbinding account of life in Eastern Europe in the midst of the terrible twentieth century. Based on interviews with Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, My Century describes the artistic, sexual, and political experimentation --in which Wat was a major participant-- that followed the end of World War I: an explosion of talent and ideas which, he argues, in some ways helped to open the door to the destruction that the Nazis and Bolsheviks soon visited upon the world. But Wat's book is at heart a story of spiritual struggle and conversion. He tells of his separation during World War II from his wife and young son, of his confinement in the Soviet prison system, of the night when the sound of far-off laughter brought on a vision of "the devil in history." "It was then," Wat writes, "that I began to be a believer."
random calamity of his own suffering. Twenty-five years later, when I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona’s House, those words came back to me and with them the face that I had imagined then, the face of a Christian, a stoic sage of Gulag Russia. “A curse on whoever invented the name . . .”—anger about a name, the meaning of words, semantics. The loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom,
with a guard beside him. Clearly a trustee, the librarian waited patiently until we had made our selection. Not an easy decision either; they were all excellent books, but Dunayevsky had instructed me to be careful to choose the thickest volumes so they’d last the whole ten days. A conflict between quality and quantity. But why do they give prisoners books in Lubyanka? For me that’s an enigma, a mysterium tremendum. I had a constant inkling of some menace lurking behind all those amenities, those
arrested; you could tell he’d been in a long time. A handsome face, shriveled, bony, the face of a Polish nobleman. Long-headed—a Nietzschean type of face. A long narrow face. A handsome Polish nobleman; all he needed was a long drooping moustache. But in fact he looked rather like an old English gentleman, a graduate of Eton and Oxford. Very refined. Long-legged, he moved with ease, quick despite his age and his obvious weariness. His face was weary, very weary. He walked like a young man, his
desirable, but, on the contrary, the demand was for the highest exaltation, the entire emotional charge that Tolstoy or Chekhov or Pushkin had invested in their great works. Obviously, LEF did not understand that. We didn’t understand that either at the time. I have the impression that the French avoided this. There’s a certain difference here. The transition of the French—Aragon, Eluard—from surrealism to communism did not occur according to any constructivist model like the metropolis, the
affair with that émigré, he was already completely ruined, completely played out. Incredibly depressed, he didn’t want to talk politics, and he didn’t want to talk about his own troubles: RAPP’s attacks on him, the dissolution of LEF. But that was precisely what interested us greatly because we were LEFists. He had absolutely no desire to talk about things Soviet. He spent most of his time in the embassy playing billiards, and he drank a great deal at that time. He had grown terribly