The life of Polish artist and diplomat Józef Czapski (1896–1993) in many ways mirrored the intellectual trajectory of twentieth-century Europe. Yet readers have likely never heard of him. That is in part because, despite being exemplary, Czapski’s work is hard to contextualize. It does not fit neatly as either prewar or postwar. Instead, it reveals an old world still present in the new and seeking to understand what it had become. With new translations of Czapski’s writing and a wonderful new biography by Eric Karpeles, Czapski comes alive for English readers with a depth and clarity previously absent. One can hope, then, that the time for Czapski’s revival has come.
For most of his life, Czapski felt torn between the cosmopolitanism of Europe before the 1940s and the patriotism he felt driven by World War II to embrace.
Czapski was a gifted painter but also a compulsive, talented diarist and essayist. In the salons of Europe, Russia, and North America, he mingled with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, André Gide, and Anna Akhmatova; Czapski even appears, in a romantic light, in one of the latter’s poems. Over the years, he had relationships with both men and women, including Canadian heiresses and the younger brother of Vladimir Nabokov.
Born in Prague into an aristocratic family, the young Count Hutten-Czapski spoke German with his mother and French with his governess. He briefly studied law at the Imperial College in St. Petersburg before moving to the newly independent Poland to become an artist. Czapski soon dropped his title and the Germanic surname Hutten; as Józio Czapski, he then moved to Paris with a group of his painter friends, where they lived on a shoestring budget with little support from their families. Over the next decade, he had his first homosexual affairs, mingled with major European modernists, and developed into an increasingly admired painter. Upon returning to Poland in the thirties, he was rewarded with his first solo exhibit. By the time he was in his early forties, his bohemian wanderings appeared to have led him to a sustainable, predictable career as an artist.
Then, in a matter of weeks, his familiar existence was in ruins. German forces invaded Poland from the west and the Red Army advanced from the east. Czapski enlisted as a Polish army officer and was soon captured by the Soviets. The USSR began a clandestine massacre of Polish intelligentsia and officers in spring of 1940, but Czapski was one of very few officers to escape, eventually joining a renascent Polish army that fought Nazi Germany alongside Soviet forces. With this army, led by general Władysław Anders, Czapski fought his way through the Middle East back to the Mediterranean, and finally to Paris.
But like many others, Czapski remained haunted by the thousands of Polish officers who disappeared under the Red Army's watch. What actually happened was a closely held secret, but in 1941 Anders ordered an investigation into the matter, which fell to Czapski to carry out. For a plethora of diplomatic and intellectual reasons—ranging from Winston Churchill’s need to placate Russia to the French intelligentsia’s ongoing romance with Stalinism—Czapski's investigation was met with hostility by both the Soviets and the Allies. For the rest of his life, Czapski remained torn between the cosmopolitan self he had so carefully fashioned before the 1940s, and the minoritarian, nationally marked position into which he was shoehorned by the events of the war and the ethical commitments they demanded from him. Neither Polish dissidents nor Western Europeans would ever accept him completely; to both, his unwillingness to embrace either a purely cosmopolitan or a purely nationalist identity seemed like proof of what Polish dissident journalist Adam Michnik describes as Czapski’s “naivety.”
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The slim volume Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp offers a poignant—but in itself rather cryptic—document of Czapski’s vertiginously shifting worldview. Delivered and transcribed while Czapski was a POW in Gryazovets from 1939 to 1940, the lectures were intended to bolster his fellow prisoners’ faltering morale and intellectual activity. Czapski made elaborate notes for the lectures by relying entirely on memory of having read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913) in the 1920s while recovering from his breakup with Sergei Nabokov.
Czapski attempts to turn Proust into a source of consolation within a world whose principles and priorities are nothing like those of a French salon.
What solace can Proust provide him and his fellow prisoners in their dramatically changed circumstances? Czapski is unsure. At times, his lectures feelingly paraphrase Proust’s plot twists, as if the writer’s parables about the vanity of social desires were in themselves comforting. Particularly drawn to Proust’s fictional writer Bergotte, and to the pliant visual and writerly imagination he embodies, Czapski writes tenderly about the way Vermeer’s paintings reveal to Bergotte, at the very end of his life, a depth of human connectedness that transcends our individual selfishness. Czapski also extolls Proust’s open-mindedness, downplaying the French writer’s satirical edge to elevate his supposed equanimity in the face of delusion and prejudice:
In [Proust’s] work we come across an absolute absence of bias, a willingness to know and to understand as many opposing states of the human soul as possible, a capacity for discovering in the lowest sort of man such nobility as to appear sublime, and in the seemingly purest of beings, the basest instincts.
Czapski insists that Proust’s equanimity—as well as an endless curiosity about small details of perception and sensation—remained with him until the end of his life, even during times of extreme physical suffering.
Based on such passages, Czapski’s Lost Time has often been read as consolatio philosophiae: it tries to use philosophically minded literature to make more palatable the increased awareness of its author’s own seemingly impending death. That assessment is not completely incorrect. But it underplays the desperate, vague awkwardness with which Czapski attempts to turn Proust into a source of consolation within a world whose principles and priorities are nothing like those of a French salon. It also overlooks the palpable guilt and confusion Czapski begins to attach, even then, to his own continuing survival, a sense of fracture that will make his life after the war seem like an impossible afterlife.
Czapski hints at these darker dimensions of his attachment to Proust when he describes In Search of Lost Time the account of “the slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood.” While in the prison camp and in the years after, Czapski embraced a patriotism that he wished had not been stirred in him, a passion that did not fulfill but rather interrupted the bohemian life he had hoped to have.
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Inhuman Land (1949) finds Czapski a decade later having fully shouldered this patriotic burden. The book reports on his experience spearheading the investigation to prove that the Soviet Union had murdered thousands of the Polish intelligentsia. Published in France with much difficulty and long untranslated into English despite interventions from George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, Inhuman Land is equal parts memoir and a collection of testimonies. Czapski describes himself narrowly surviving dire prison conditions: bitter cold, nonexistent food rations, and transfers across large territories in overpacked freight trains. During this time, he begins collating a “card index of missing people” whose disappearance no one can explain to him. After the war, this index grows into an official diplomatic project:
I had come out of Russia and had searched for our missing comrades on behalf of the commander of the Polish Armed Forces, tormenting myself and others as I traveled to Kuybyshev, Chkalov, and Moscow, and then spent months and months on end working with an entire team of colleagues to draft, check, and supplement lists featuring names of thousands of those men.
As Czapski becomes increasingly certain that his fellow officers have been massacred, he finds that few people on either side of the emergent Iron Curtain are willing to listen to his story or confirm it.
In his postwar writing, Czapski views his changed world through the eyes of an aesthete, demonstrating both the portability of early modernist sensibilities and their hothouse quality.
As a story about postwar governments trying to overlook Soviet war crimes and an extended testimony to the brutality of Soviet rule, Inhuman Land presages later and more famous works such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1974) and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories (1978). Yet comparing Czapski to Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov risks misleading his potential reader. Czapski had been propelled into a new chapter of European history, but he still carried his old, Parisian self with him. In his writing, he views his violently changing world through the eyes of an aesthete, in ways that are—like his prison lectures on Proust—equal parts trenchant and dreamlike, proof of the portability of early modernist sensibilities as well as of their hothouse quality. Describing his time in the Gryazovets prison camp, Czapski frequently likens his jailers and fellow soldiers to canonical literary characters. In his opinions about postwar politics, he quotes from Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz. Upon first setting eyes on a Middle Eastern landscape, he compares it to an orientalist painting remembered from childhood:
From my memory a vivid image emerged of a painting by Józef Brandt in a heavy gilded frame that used to hang in my family home. Today’s direct impressions of the East were like an overprint on top of that old, rather faded memory.
In Iraq, he becomes enraptured with a pristinely new notebook: “My new notebook had a gold inscription in Persian on its turquoise cover. As soon as I saw it I pounced on it like an alcoholic on vodka.” To read such sentences makes one realize how much one overlooks, conceptually, by dividing European culture into the prewar and the postwar. It is strange and revealing to think of the people of 1930s Paris and the Weimar Republic not just as killed in the war or escaping before it, but as stumbling through its midst in a way that can sometimes seem like sleepwalking.
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In Poland, Czapski’s cosmopolitan tastes and his complicated sexuality have proven to be incompatible with the traditional image of Polish Cold War heroes.
In Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski, Eric Karpeles powerfully confronts these historical and affective complications. Years of research into Czapski’s unpublished diaries and pilgrimages to his remaining paintings—now strewn around the world, from Kraków to Chicago—give Karpeles’s biography great depth and sensitivity. A painter and an art critic himself, Karpeles helps his reader appreciate Czapski’s art alongside his writing. He also richly recounts Czapski’s life after the events of Inhuman Land as he continues to reside in the suburbs of Paris, occasionally traveling abroad to promote Polish dissident writing, until his death in 1993.
Even while sometimes succumbing too easily to Czapski’s idealism about prewar Poland, Karpeles poignantly captures the reasons why Czapski’s homeland has still only incompletely embraced him. Some of these reasons have to do with the long-term effects of communist censorship. Others derive from Czapski’s cosmopolitan tastes and his complicated sexuality, which are ill-suited to the traditional image of Polish Cold War heroes. In a moving episode, Karpeles visits a young member of Czapski’s family in search of sketches and memorabilia to find the tables turned on him: the young man earnestly asks Karpeles if he knows whether Czapski was gay. That an American should have to confirm this family rumor—given the known existence of gushing love letters between Czapski and men such as Ludwik Hering—says volumes about the swathes of modernist culture that Polish society would prefer to ignore.
“Vision is a shock,” Karpeles quotes Czapski saying, “where willful choice between this or that is powerless—a miracle of beauty which one alone can see; unique, fleeting, imperceptible or even held up to ridicule by others.” Given the history he lived through, Czapski's commitment to these ideals made younger friends compare him—in a way Czapski might have appreciated despite himself—to the unworldly, childlike Prince Myshkin from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. This unusual affective and sensory openness makes Czapski an imperfect critic of his time just as it made him an imperfect, if charming, émigré diplomat. But with the passage of time, such openness also renders Czapski uncommonly astute as a witness for his period’s contradictory forms of universalism and idealism, so many of which he enacted and partly believed in. As a modernist painter in a war camp, a bisexual Polish patriot, a cosmopolitan, pacifist Cold War writer, Czapski reminds his readers how many twists and alleys of our twentieth-century history we still know very little about—and how much we might be blinded to by our preconceptions about its fault lines and agents.