The summons to Warsaw in 1950 was one of many hinges of fate in Milosz’s life—moments when he could have become an entirely different person, or simply disappeared. Franaszek’s richly detailed, dramatic, and melancholy book is full of such close calls. Born in 1911 to an aristocratic Polish family in Lithuania, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time, Milosz was swept up in the maelstrom of the twentieth century from the beginning. When he was three, the First World War made him a refugee, as his family fled the advancing German Army. His father, an engineer, served first the tsarist and then the Bolshevik government, and the family spent the war years crisscrossing the region—Belarus, Russia, Latvia, Estonia. In a late poem, Milosz recalled an episode from 1918, when they were trying to get home to Lithuania during the chaos of the Russian Revolution. At one train station, he was separated from his parents:
. . . the repatriation train was starting, about to leave me behind,
Forever. As if I grasped that I would have been somebody else,
A poet of another language, of a different fate.
At the last minute, a stranger reunited them. But a sense of the caprice of fate never left Milosz. “The things that surround us in childhood need no justification, they are self-evident,” he wrote in “Native Realm,” a memoir. “If, however, they whirl about like particles in a kaleidoscope, ceaselessly changing position, it takes no small amount of energy simply to plant one’s feet on solid ground without falling.”
After the war, the family settled in Wilno—now Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, but at the time a majority-Polish city. Even as a boy, Milosz was passionate and ambitious, with an intense seriousness that made it hard for him to accept the conventional routines of church and school. A childhood friend compared him to “a tomcat, constantly tense and grumpy”; later in life he acquired the nickname Gniewosz, which blended his name with the Polish word for “anger.” In his teens, he was capable of gestures of melodramatic despair. On one occasion, edged out in a romantic rivalry, he put a single bullet into a revolver and, Franaszek writes, “spun the barrel, put it against his head and pulled the trigger.” He lost—or maybe won—this game of Russian roulette; but, in Franaszek’s telling, it’s clear that any kind of calm or satisfaction remained elusive to the end of his life.
Such a condition is hardly surprising for anyone of Milosz’s generation, in that part of the world. Millions of his contemporaries lived through, or died in, the First World War; the Lithuanian Wars of Independence; the Polish-Soviet War; the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R., in 1939; the Holocaust; the Eastern Front of the Second World War, which passed back and forth across the country from 1941 to 1945; and the postwar occupation by the Soviet Union. Milosz’s course was complicated by the fact that his class and national allegiances were anything but straightforward. He grew up speaking at least four languages, and, although his family belonged to the Polish gentry—and still owned a country estate in Lithuania, where he spent the happiest days of his childhood—they were, like most of their class at the time, quite poor. “My material existence was so primitive that it would have startled proletarians in Western countries,” Milosz reflected later.
As an aristocrat without money, and a Pole whose homeland was Lithuania, Milosz could not wholeheartedly embrace any of the political identities swirling around him. Postwar Poland, newly independent after more than a century of tsarist rule, experienced a sudden surge of chauvinist pride and annexed much of Lithuania, including Wilno. Milosz was repelled by the Poles’ religiosity and nationalism—their growing hostility to Lithuanian, Jewish, and Belarusan minorities. In 1931, Wilno University, where he was a student, was convulsed by anti-Jewish riots. Milosz, Franaszek writes, was “among the few defending the Jewish students.” (Jerzy Putrament, not yet a Communist, took part in the riots, beating Jews with a heavy cane.)
Milosz was at the university from 1929 to 1934, and he published his first collection of poems in 1933. He drew close to several left-wing student groups, but, although his anti-nationalism made the left a natural home for him, he could never bring himself to become a full-fledged Marxist, much less a member of the Communist Party. His sense of truth was too individual, too much a matter of poetic perception, to submit to the dictates of a party, even one that claimed to be acting according to the laws of history. “Reading articles by young Polish Marxists, one suspects that they really wish for this period to herald a future which sees the total demise of art and artistry,” Milosz observed in a 1936 essay. “They are preoccupied solely with sniffing out betrayal and class desertion.”
In 1937, Milosz moved to Warsaw to work for Polish Radio. There he fell in love with a colleague, Janina Cekalska. Janka, as she was known, was unhappily married to another man, a film director. She aspired to become a director herself, and had founded an organization to promote leftist filmmaking. But she soon put her ambitions aside, seeing her mission as the development of Milosz’s talent, and she became a crucial reader of his work. Milosz, who had already been through several stormy and bruising love affairs, worried that committing himself to Janka might compromise his artistic calling, but they soon started living together, and they married some years later. It proved to be a difficult marriage. “She was a rational person, but made a mistake choosing me,” he said late in life. He was, he realized, “not at all material to be a husband and father.”
By the end of the thirties, Milosz’s intellectual position was becoming intolerable. He was opposed to everything the Communists opposed, yet he suspected that a Communist takeover would be disastrous. At the same time, anyone could see that Poland’s future held war or revolution, or both. Contemplating the fate of his country, he wrote, years later, “I had a kind of horror, some basic dread.”
It is only against this background that one can make sense of the decisions Milosz made after Germany’s invasion of Poland, in September, 1939. In the initial chaos, he fled Warsaw and took a circuitous route back to Wilno, which was momentarily free, because Lithuania was still independent. But, in 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, leaving Milosz with two equally dire choices: remain, and live under Stalinism; or return to Warsaw, and live under Nazism. Either path would be extremely dangerous. The Soviets were purging and deporting Polish intellectuals; the Nazis were indiscriminately killing Poles, and herding Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto. In July, 1940, Milosz decided that Warsaw was the better choice, and he managed to smuggle himself across the border and into the General Government, as Nazi-occupied Poland was called.
Recounting this episode, Franaszek emphasizes Milosz’s desire to return to Janka, who had remained in Warsaw. But Milosz, in “Native Realm,” dwells less on love and more on his political and intellectual motives. “I had run from Stalin’s state to be able to think things over for myself instead of succumbing to a world view imposed from without,” he explains. “There was complete freedom here, precisely because National Socialism was an intellectual zero.” Communism, by contrast, exerted a terrible moral pressure, because it claimed to embody historical truth and justice, so that dissenting from it turned one into a sinner or a heretic. Nazism threatened the body, whereas Communism demanded the surrender of the soul. For a poet like Milosz, the latter seemed like the greater sacrifice.