BOOK REVIEW / Here and there, with pistols in windows: 'Beginning with my Street' - Czeslaw Milosz: I B Tauris, 19.95

Czeslaw Milosz is one of the few survivors of a generation whose work was scorched by the war and then by communism. The recurring theme in these musings on literature and history is the tension between that life and art. Born in prewar Lithuania, he found his way to the hothouse of artistic Paris in the thirties, worked in the Polish Underground during the war and survived the Warsaw uprising of 1944. He lived through the founding of the socialist state in Poland and then escaped into the role of emigre in the West, first in Europe and then in the sunny climes of California. His finest poetry and fiction has almost exclusively cast back to the pre-war world of his youth across the abyss of 'an earth polluted by the crime of genocide'. 'For then 'humanity' was for me an abstraction, while now it has the shape of emaciated prisoners in their striped garb, of corpses in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto, of a hand with a pistol in a window that will be changed in a moment into a gaping hole by the fire of a tank'.

His are pained, often brutal reflections on how writers can deal with the horror that has been the twentieth century. He wrestles with the extent to which any artist, and he means himself, can be fully human if they can turn the inhumanity they lived through into art. He asks how much reality poetry is able to bear and talks of anti-Nazi works written between 1939 and 1945 in ghettos and prisons whose 'authors were merely human and to the extent they were human, they lost artistically'. Such work is a document but not art and the poems he wrote in the Warsaw underground which most moved his audiences 'seem weak to me, while those which then looked enigmafic, cruel and full of offensive mockery now seem strong'.

Milosz's experience of war in Poland gnaws away at the heart of all his writing - 'all art proves to be nothing compared to action'. Yet as other essays in this collection illustrate, his writing has proved the opposite. For Milosz is one of the writers from 'the other Europe' who sought during the years of Soviet oppression to preserve and develop the genuine cultures of their homelands. For Poles the heart of such labours was the magazine Kultura, published on a shoestring out of a suburban Paris house. Milosz's essay on one of its founders, Zygmunt Hertz, is a tribute to those who 'lived simultaneously both here and there', people often dismissed as the detritus of history and who are only now, often posthumously, being granted their victory laurels. Milosz was just one of a number of writers published by Kultura whose achievement was to preserve a cultural continuity which has provided post-communist Poland with a living tradition and identity. The cultural confusion that has overtaken Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union owes much to the lack of an equivalent emigre grouping of real authority.

And yet Milosz knows identity is essentially amorphous for anyone brought up in the borderland of cultures, religions and languages that was prewar Eastern Europe. Though he writes in Polish, Milosz's Lithuanian upbringing makes him 'someone from outside' even to other Poles. The Wilno streets refered to in the title of this volume pay testimony to a host of past influences - German, Russian, Jewish in a world where the experimental art of Paris was a close as the capital of Warsaw. But his remeniscences like his poetry while redolent of a lost world avoid any sense of nostalgia. He paints no rose-tinted picture of different ethnic groups living in harmony as have some Polish emigres but he is equally 'deeply offended and pained by Jewish hatred of Poles, despite their surprising forgiveness of Germans and Russians'. In his honest voice resonates the best of that lost world. 'Living as I did in such a city (with a vibrant Jewish culture) I ought to have acquired some knowledge but custom placed an obstacle in my path. Jewish and non-Jewish Wilno lived separate lives. I knew nothing about the history of the Jews in Poland . . . . only much later in America did I begin to learn.' He omits to mention that in 1938 he was sacked from his job on Wilno radio, apparently at the request of the Catholic Church, for inviting a Jewish rabbi to talk.

His 1979 dialogue with Tomas Venclova, the Lithuanian writer and thinker, on the status of Wilno (Polish name) or Vilnius (Lithuanian name) after forty years of Lithuanian-Soviet control is prophetic. He talks of the Polish and Lithuanian nations having gone through terrible experiences, 'defeated, humiliated, trampled upon. The new generations will talk to each other differently. We must reckon with the fact that in the ideological vacuum that has developed, nationalism will keep returning to its well-worn tracks.' Given the present state of Polish-Lithuanian relations (bad) and the furious flood of nationalisms that have engulfed us since the end of the Cold War, the reader would love to know what Milosz has to say today.

Sadly there is nothing so contemporary in this collection of what are essentially minor pieces from the seventies and eighties. The lack of any contemporary essays means this volume is very much for the specialist. Indeed many of the essays written with a Polish audience in mind, will be obscure to any lay reader. Those interested in exploring the delicacies of the Milosz world for the first time would be better advised to turn straight to the poetry, his novel The Issa Valley or his extraordinary dissection of Stalinism in The Captive Mind.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own