Czeslaw Milosz's Self-Presentation in English-Speaking Countries

By Karwowska, Bozena | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 1998 | Go to article overview

Czeslaw Milosz's Self-Presentation in English-Speaking Countries


Karwowska, Bozena, Canadian Slavonic Papers


[I]f I had to orchestrate my fame like that [that is, like Gombrowicz] I would die of shame. I would have thought it beneath my dignity. So perhaps it was 1 and not "Master" Gombrowicz who was an arrogant squire? Or one of those Lithuanian grumblers? I did virtually nothing to launch myself on the contrary, I acted against my own interests if I felt like it, although I didn't go as far as Jan Lebenstein, who threw the most influential critic in Paris down a flight of stairs.1

I. THE CONTEXT AND GENERAL CHARACTER OF MILOSZ'S SELF-PRESENTATION Czeslaw Milosz received the highest recognition available to a contemporary writer, the Nobel Prize for literature, thirty years after his defection from communist Poland, and despite the sustained official ban on publication of his work in his native country. During those years, most of which he spent in the United States as a professor of Polish and Russian literatures at Berkeley, roughly half of Milosz's poetic works as well as several of his prose works had become available in English, with their critical reception gaining momentum in the mid-1970s, and culminating in the years following the awards of the Neustadt (1978) and the Nobel Prize (1980).

There is no need to emphasize that the recognition Milosz received was principally the result of the quality and character of his writings, although it would be difficult to deny that the political climate of the postwar period had also played its role in helping to generate and to maintain a broad interest in the literatures and literary affairs of the Soviet Bloc countries. But there is a further factor which constitutes a significant component of the Western reception of Milosz, namely, his self-presentation as a writer and thinker, or, in other words, the strategies which he pursued to make his work available to the Englishspeaking audience, to stimulate the receptivity of readers and critics to his writings, to find the most effective means of conveying his outlook, and to avoid or, if necessary, to correct misperceptions. It may be objected right away that the word "strategies" has implications which are at variance with Milosz's own statement placed as a motto to this article in which he denies any conscious effort on his part "to launch himself," or to "orchestrate his fame." And it is true that in comparison with Gombrowicz's aggressive pursuit of fame, Milosz's efforts to reach the English-speaking readers and gain recognition outside the confines of the Polish language lacked the elements of sensation and provocation that characterized Gombrowicz's rather flamboyant self-presentation. Nevertheless, the word "strategies," as will become clear, describes quite precisely the sustained and fairly complex way in which Milosz tried to present himself to English-speaking readers.

At least from the late 1960s onwards Milosz gave numerous readings of his poetry in major cities and universities in the United States and, though less frequently, in Canada.2 Despite some statements to the contrary he, in fact, took considerable care in making his works available to English-speaking readers and in providing them with appropriately chosen literary contexts and backgrounds. As early as 1967 he was in contact with the editors of Penguin concerning the publication of a volume of his poems, but abandoned the idea when they offered to publish them together with the poems of Attila Jozsef.3 Whether it was at this point or somewhat later that Milosz began to translate himself his poems into English is difficult to say, but it is clear that from the early 1970s onwards he did his utmost to exercise control over the quality of the translations of his work, giving special attention to the proper rendering of his "voice" and of the semantic aspects of his poems. In the mid-1970s he set himself the task of having some of his prose works translated into English and chose as translators his students at Berkeley. At the same time, he showed acute distrust of the mass media and of direct oral communication. …

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