All the time, however, I’m divided into the person who already knows how to play the game the way they want him to, and another person who is immersed in his own thoughts. About human society as a marvel. And about Polish themes, thanks to that issue of Literary Notebooks.
I continued my assiduous reading of Milosz (in translation, of course). Precisely because I had to read in translation I have considered that his prose has necessarily meant more to me than his verse, despite my absolute love of many of his poems. (I contrasted this with my reading of Auden, to me a very comparable figure in terms of intelligence, philosophical depth, and religious commitment: because Auden wrote in my language his prose and verse held a rough balance for me). In January of 1989 I read The Land of Ulro and had the singular experience of finishing a book which I then immediately began to re-read. It is my favorite of his prose works, and I have read it perhaps a dozen times. That autumn and winter of 1989 the Soviet imperium collapsed and no figure came to mind more than Milosz as incarnating the decades leading up to those events.
I knew exactly this historical contact (at one
remove: the remove between life and death) when visiting the grave of Walker Percy at St. Joseph’s Abbey just about six months
after he died. It was a beautiful autumn
day in St. Tammany parish, such as he might have described in one of his
novels. As my wife and I walked away, a
man who looked incredibly like Shelby Foote
was walking toward the grave. Was he
visiting the grave of his old friend? It
wasn’t until we were practically on top of him, when we saw it wasn’t. Later, I thought, how many times must this
gentleman have been stopped by people saying how much they enjoyed him on Ken
Burns’ documentaries (embarrassing all parties involved)?
Several years ago, when I was avoiding work by commenting heavily on Amy Welborn’s old Open Book blog, the subject came up of meeting “famous people.” It caused me to reflect. I had grown up in Oregon, the son of a Teamster business agent, and from an early age was used to seeing prominent political people around the place, including a certain United State Senator who was certainly a family friend and at our house any number of times. Since then, I’ve met any number of people “in the news.” Why, to put the matter crudely, is coming into contact with writers of a different order than with people in “public life”? I think I see the answer, very dimly, but damned if I could articulate it…
I read of Milosz’s death in the Washington Post on a Sunday morning in August 2004. My family was away, and I was nursing a headache from the previous night (yes, I know) as the sunlight poured on the dining room and I was flooded with memories of my two encounters with the man, of having read almost everything of his translated into English, and of what I knew of his life now come to an end. As if in confirmation of that life’s struggles, over the next few days certain nationalists in Poland crawled out from under the rocks, casting aspersions on Milosz as insufficiently Polish and hence not Catholic “enough” (echoes of Native Realm) and the Pope, dying in Rome, had to telegraph that this was not so.