Adam Zagajewski's Letters Of Loss

The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski was born in the ancient capital of Lvov, but cherishes no early memories of the city. Lvov was occupied by the Germans at the time of the poet’s birth. After the Red Army occupied the city at the end of World War II, Zagajewski’s family was forcibly repatriated—or “resettled”—in Gliwice, an industrial Silesian city formerly in Germany. Zagajewski was still an infant at the time. Although he would later return to his birthplace, which is now Ukraine’s Lviv, it was never a “home.”

The mythic city is nevertheless central to his psychological landscape. In his 1983 poem “To Go to Lvov,” first published in Zeszyty Literackie and translated by Renata Gorczynski, he laments: “why must every city / become Jerusalem and every man a Jew.”

. . . and there was too much

of Lvov, it brimmed the container,

it burst glasses, overflowed

each pond, lake, smoked through every

chimney, turned into fire, storm,

laughed with lightning, grew meek,

returned home, read the New Testament,

slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug,

there was too much of Lvov, and now

there isn’t any . . .

Zagajewski’s recent essay collection Slight Exaggeration, a long meditation about exile, displacement, dispossession, memory, and literature, is extracted from a life that seems penciled into a historical moment—that is, postwar Central Europe. However, he makes the particular universal when he writes: “Loss alone touches us deeply, permanence goes unremarked . . . . The displaced live in times of peace but carry the war within them. Everyone else has long forgotten, but not they.” The displaced “carry secrets, they bear a loss, an abyss, a longing within them,” he repeats. “The displaced may suffer, but a certain secret order governs their lives.”

Zagajewski’s family never recovered from the irrevocable loss: Its internal rhythms where shattered, its psychological tapestry unthreaded. His aunt Ania “never made peace” with her new home, and remained a skeptical newcomer for six decades. His grandfather, in his last years, “confused the boundaries between countries and cities and thought that by some miracle he’d gone back to his Lvov.” His father, a successful engineer of local renown, constantly collected albums, books, and maps of Lvov, before mind and memory vanished, a devastation the poet tells and retells in this volume (“he’s lost his memory, but I haven’t lost my memory of him”). His unfanciful father considered poetry “a slight exaggeration”—hence the title of the essay collection—yet nevertheless copied out “To Go to Lvov” to share with fellow émigrés.

Zagajewski’s primal tristesse cannot be confined to Lvov or any other locale. It reaches around the world, embracing his eventual emigration to Paris, his sojourns in Berlin and the United States, and finally Kraków, the literary heart of an “exceptionally polemical, and often petty, country.” It configures his worldview, in music, art, novels, poetry, aesthetics, language, civilization.

* * *

Zagajewski’s conversational style is distinctive, and the cadence is recognizable in his poems and essays. (Translator Clare Cavanagh conveys it well.) I was introduced to it a decade ago, an afternoon conversation that stretched into early evening, as we walked along the Planty, the public park that encircles Kraków. His words are tentative, unassertive, provisional, yet self-assured. The slight tonal “uptalk” lift at the end of his sentences as he turns a problem round, exploring its different angles, cannot ruffle his considerable authority. Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska are dead: Zagajewski has survived the generation of greats, and matched it with a greatness of his own, a postwar brand of metaphysical heft and gravity that shoulders the singular legacy of Polish literature into the 21st century.

Slight Exaggeration patiently picks up where the poet left off a dozen years ago with A Defense of Ardor, extending his line of thought on painters, poems, composers, and history. Initially, the observations seem disconnected and a little unpruned, until certain names begin recurring (French-Romanian writer E. M. Cioran, for example, or composer Gustav Mahler, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, novelist Robert Musil)—and each time he repeats, the impression on the reader is richer. Clearly, he is weaving on a very large loom, and the shuttle that disappears out of sight swings back to pull the threads tighter. The disparate reflections weave into a long thought, the result of years, decades, a lifetime. And occasionally his trademark associative musings open into seminal mini-essays.

Zagajewski wonders why the wartime letters of the lawyer Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, who resisted Hitler’s abuses nonviolently, move him so much with their impeccable moral brilliance; those of a favorite poet, the wily and self-protecting Gottfried Benn, so little. He also admires artist and writer Józef Czapski’s integrity, too: “Czapski sometimes speaks of himself—but always in terms of the ceaseless battle he wages for clear vision, for full use of his gifts, the battle to imbue his life with maximal meaning.” And Simone Weil? “Weil tortured Czapski, and she still tortures us.” What does it mean that we celebrate the birthday of Mozart and the “liberation” of Auschwitz on the same day? (He hesitates to use the word “liberation,” which implies a certain energy and esprit, for the Allied soldiers’ entry into hell.)

Time teaches tolerance for what cannot be changed. And in the course of his telling, time overlaps and leaves traces on the present. For example, he observes that the Gestapo occupied his Kraków apartment during the occupation: “A Gestapo officer no doubt occupied the room in which I now write.”

Much of Zagajewski’s mulling takes place on his long walks around the city. He shares his bibliography for walking, recommending Italian poet Eugenio Montale, Greek diplomat and poet George Seferis, the Czech poet Vladimir Holan. One can almost hear his Polish-accented drawl as he writes, “And so we live, torn between brief explosions of meaning and patient wandering through the plains of ordinary days.”

In these pages, we are sitting with him at one of the outdoor cafés on the edge of the Planty after a leisurely walk, sipping dark wine as the light falls and the strings of lights on the nearby trees illuminate the patio. The conversation lingers awhile, before he finally heads homeward in the growing darkness, to the apartment once occupied by the Gestapo, and to his beloved wife Maja Wodecka, whose presence and initial, “M.,” hovers over the book, too.

Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard will be published in April with Michigan State University Press.

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