The great Hungarian poet György Faludy recounts in his autobiography, My Happy Days in Hell (1962), that, while imprisoned in the Soviet labor camp in Recsk between 1949 and 1952, he gave seminars in the evenings to his fellow inmates on history, literature, and philosophy, quoting the primary texts from memory. One day, one of his auditors, Joska Borostobi, explained that he no longer wished to participate in the discussions: “Last night, while you were talking about the Platonic ideas, I suddenly realized that I had lost interest in intellectual matters. . . . I think that in the future I shall sleep more and think less. I shall live the life of the algae.” Exactly one week later, Borostobi collapsed and died. Faludy, however, survived not only the camp but also all those who had tried to kill him. He himself died, his intellect perfectly intact, in 2006, three weeks before his ninety-sixth birthday.

Faludy’s story came irresistibly to mind when I was reading Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Eric Karpeles—the translator, who is also Czapski’s biographer—explains the background in a helpful introduction.1 (He also adds biographical notes on the leading people referred to.) Like Faludy, Czapski, a Pole of aristocratic background, lived a long life (1896---1993), becoming a talented artist. He had spent much of the 1920s in Paris, mixing with bohemia and the beau monde. Late in 1939 he was captured by the Red Army and miraculously avoided the fate of more than twenty thousand Polish soldiers and intellectuals who perished in the Katyn massacre, being sent instead to a prison camp at Gryazovets, two hundred and fifty miles from Moscow. Again like Faludy, he gave lectures to his fellow prisoners, among them those on Proust, during the winter of 1940–41, which are recorded in Lost Time.

There are several puzzles about these lectures. They were given extempore in French, from diagrammatic notes made by Czapski in Polish, some of which are reproduced by Karpeles, with translations. Subsequently, they (or possibly only some of them) were dictated, in abridged form, to two comrades, whose handwritten transcriptions were then typed up, whether by them or others we do not know, and somehow smuggled out of the ussr, eventually reaching the Princes Czartoryski Library of the Krakow National Museum, where they are today. All this was done under the eyes of the camp authorities. Again, one has to use the word “miraculous” to describe their survival. The lectures are divided into a preface and five sections, but, appropriately, these are not cumulative or strictly logical in development; rather they circle around familiar ideas for a fresh assault. The relaxed spontaneity of oral delivery is preserved.

As Karpeles observes, “Czapski reenacted the very endeavour of À la recherche” in this “process of reclamation,” which was also an “act of resistance” to his captors’ attempt to dehumanize the prisoners. Intellectuals in other camps made similar efforts to keep their minds alive—Karpeles cites Jorge Semprún, Yevgenia Ginzburg, and Primo Levi, although not Faludy—but it is the congruence (and equally the incongruence) of text and context which makes Czapski’s case so striking. Where he cited Proust in French, he was usually entirely or largely accurate. (Errors are left in the text but corrected in footnotes.) Proust had died in 1921, and in the preface Czapski, who had known many of his friends in Paris, explains that he first discovered À la recherche in 1924, when it was still appearing in installments. Initially indifferent to Le Côté de Guermantes, he was absorbed by Albertine disparue when it appeared in 1925, and read the rest while recovering from typhoid fever. He gives a sketch of the cultural milieu in which À la recherche was composed—a world in which Cubism and Futurism seemed to have left Proust behind—and outlines Proust’s increasingly eccentric and isolated way of life. With telling irony, he remarks that “more and more, [Proust] lost all sense of time”—one remembers Beckett’s brilliant aphorism, “Proust had a bad memory” (because he had to write everything down). He notes Proust’s habit of delayed reaction—attending the opera, for example, and making conversation, apparently oblivious to what was going on, but able the following day to recount the performance in the minutest detail. We recognize this as Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”; it is part of Proust’s romanticism, which also led him to admire Ruskin. The same principle underlies the famous episodes of the madeleine and the uneven paving stone in Venice.

Czapski neatly compares the experience of reading Proust to that of navigating a river, “slipping along on an apparently monotonous tide” but carried away “by the wave’s ceaseless motion, as of life itself.” Sentences and paragraphs can run to enormous length, yet one is astonished by the unfaltering mastery of rhythm and tempo in the prose, as one is by the best novels of Claude Simon, Proust’s most distinguished successor and one of his greatest admirers. It would be interesting to know whether Czapski ever read Simon: he sees, as Simon was to do, that Proust’s elaborately descriptive imagery, far from being simply decorative, is in itself a variety of narration. It’s another form of his romanticism—the imagination and the external world react upon one another, combining “what they half create/ And what perceive,” to quote Wordsworth again. Lapidary clarity, Czapski reminds us, was a stylistic imperative only introduced into French by the Encyclopédistes: neither Rabelais nor Montaigne would have been baffled by Proust, whose vocabulary, in any case, is simpler than theirs, the challenge for the reader being syntactic rather than lexical. (It’s true, as Czapski says, that Proust admired Mallarmé, but to introduce him into the equation seems a false move.)

It is interesting to see what Czapski neglects or ignores. Someone who knew Proust only through these lectures would have little idea that he was a great comic writer and social satirist. The Baron de Charlus figures as a masochist and Wildean victim, the Verdurins as hypocritical snobs; so they are, but the gleeful sense of the absurd with which Proust often treats these characters is not brought out. Again, although Swann’s entanglement with Odette is discussed, that of the narrator with Albertine receives little attention—to my relief, frankly, since these seem among the weakest parts of the novel, chiefly because Proust’s transposition of his chauffeur, Agostinelli, into female disguise creates a damaging degree of inauthenticity. The relevance of an author’s biography to an understanding of his work had, of course, prompted Proust to write Contre Sainte-Beuve (1908–09), but it is obviously pertinent to the later work too.

A particularly interesting passage occurs when Czapksi remembers the episode in which, after the narrator has had to call off a projected trip to Venice due to illness, his grandmother gives him an engraving of a painting of a photograph of St. Mark’s or some other tourist attraction (Czapski can’t quite recall) by way of compensation. This indicates how what we call reality is never perceived directly but at several removes. “For Proust,” Czapski says, “a fact is never a simple fact.” Whereas Tolstoy’s description of the soirée that opens War and Peace occupies perhaps twenty pages and gives us, in brilliantly condensed form, a complete conspectus of Petersburg high society in 1805, a description of a reception at the Guermantes’ may go on for dozens of pages, but this is not because Proust is being tediously minute: rather because he is opening up “a vast web of associations that leads to other associations”—although never the free associations of automatic writing. They constitute “an endless search” for the new form in which, and only in which, the awareness of reality—a new kind of reality—can be rendered. It is, as Czapski remarks in a later lecture, “a world of ideas . . . a complete vision of life” that “requires the reader to revise his own scale of values.”

Czapski compares Proust to Pascal, admitting the paradox: what have the Christian ascetic and the hedonistic sensualist in common? Proust sees through the vanities of worldly ambition, worship of youth and beauty, above all romantic love, and insists on the necessary detachment of the true artist. In this, the final, lecture, Czapski seems on less secure ground. Proust’s pursuit of a vocation is not like Pascal’s; there is no severity or puritanism in Proust’s morality (and he is a deeply moral writer). Czapski himself notes the difference between Pascal’s “anti-carnal rage” and Proust’s more objective stance. Behind the diagnoses of vanity and the meditations on fleeting time lie tenderness and pity rather than censure and scorn. The solitariness of the artist is different from that of the hermit.

Proust in his cork-lined room, writing frantically to the end, puts into the mouth of the writer Bergotte, a character from À la recherche, in his final moments, a self-reproach, quoted by Czapski as: “My sentences were too dry and too little worked over.” Proust, at any rate, couldn’t be accused of that! Nonetheless, Czapski feels that he sees Bergotte as a kind of surrogate (Bergotte also scarcely ventured out of his room, he also was kept alive by a multitude of medications) and that, in describing Bergotte’s death, he foresaw his own. Czapski cites the passage in which the narrator questions whether Bergotte is “dead for good,” but his memory lets him down at this point. Karpeles informs us that he gives the color of the little patch of wall which Bergotte admires in the Vermeer painting as pink, not yellow, but there is a more important lapse. He compares Proust’s thoughts to those of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, who insists that as a compensation for our puzzlement about many things in this life we are granted an instinctive feeling of kinship with the other world. Similarly, Proust writes (this is my translation): “everything in our life happens as though we came into it carrying the burden of obligations contracted in a previous existence.” There is nothing in life which obliges us to be good, or even polite, or to create works of art which may be ignored by the multitude: “All the obligations which have no sanction in this life seem to belong to a different world, founded on goodness, scruple, sacrifice.” Czapski then cites—admitting that it is not verbatim—the “sublimely poetic” closing comment about the night of Bergotte’s funeral:

And all night, in all the illuminated windows of the bookshops of Paris, his books, open three by three, kept vigil like angels with their wings unfurled over the body of the dead writer.

This is, in fact, almost completely accurate, except that Czapski omits one crucial phrase: the French reads “ . . . kept vigil like angels with wings unfurled and seeming to be, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.”

Proust did not, of course, believe in a Christian resurrection. What he affirms magnificently here is the immortality of the artist in his work. It is ironic that Czapski left that out, or forgot it, since his lectures are a shining vindication of Proust’s aesthetic faith. Czapski’s example shows that the cultural heritage of the West can sustain human beings even in their darkest hours. Those who lose that belief, as the story of Joska Borostobi tragically suggests, may also lose their hold on life.

1Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, by Józef Czapski, translated by Eric Karpeles; New York Review Books, 128 pages, $15.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 7, on page 60
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