Reviewed by Sean Johnson
When Niccolo Machiavelli, oft-misunderstood and maligned, was exiled from his native Florence, he was reduced to a life of drudgery and relative poverty on a small farm, but he retained one tangible consolation—his books. He explained the solace they brought him in a letter to his friend and patron:
When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and . . . I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question . . . and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death.
Though Machiavelli by no means exaggerates his boredom, troubles, or dread, his circumstance is Edenic compared to that of Polish artist and army officer, Jozef Czapski. Czapski was captured by Germans in 1939 and handed over to the Soviets, along with twenty thousand of his fellows, for summary execution. Without explanation, however, the Bolsheviks spared three hundred and ninety-six of them, including Czapski, and shipped them to a single prison camp where they would endure hard labor and incessant attempts at Soviet reeducation. Clinging to the “joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking” of substance and import, the prisoners organized a series of after-hours lectures about their various personal interests and expertise. Through talks on the history of England, the history of books, the paintings of Degas, or the rigors of mountain climbing in South America, the men huddling in the frigid squalor of a prison mess hall found, like Machiavelli in his library, that “a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived.”
Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (published late last year by the inimitable NYRB), is the record of Czapski’s contribution to the lecture series. He elected to speak for several evenings on Marcel Proust and his seven-volume mammoth of a novel, In Search of Lost Time. “Each of us spoke about what he remembered best,” explains Czapski, but his choice of Proust, the author par excellence on the theme of memory, was especially poignant.
Without the aid of books, notes, or research materials of any kind, Czapski laid open Proust’s background and entire opus to his fellows, often recalling lengthy passages verbatim. Apparently, this recall surprised even Czapski: “After a certain length of time, facts and details emerge on the surface of our consciousness which we had not the slightest idea were filed away somewhere in our brains.”
Proust is the ideal writer to carry into extreme isolation, and not only for his preoccupation with the theme of memory. Whereas an author like Tolstoy—himself not known for brevity—might devote twenty-two pages to the description of a lavish ball, Proust could spend hundreds describing a single conversation. The abundance of physical and emotional detail furnishing Proust’s novel is ideal for stocking the storehouse of memory against the lean years of adversity. Predictably, Czapski’s own memory is most accurate when recounting to his companions the concrete details of Proust’s minute, painterly descriptions.
Czapski’s translator references a dictum of Samuel Beckett that “the man with a good memory does not remember anything, because he does not forget anything.” As the anguish of their incarceration beat down the memories of their former lives, remembrance became the special privilege of the prisoners. “Worn out after having worked outdoors in temperatures dropping as low as minus forty-five degrees, packed together underneath portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin,” they listened intently to reminders “of precious psychological discovery and literary beauty” possible beyond the cramped world of their imprisonment. Recall was rarely perfect, as Czapski himself admits, remarking that some subjects described by Proust “are fixed in my memory more vividly than others” and that what he chooses to relate is not necessarily what is most valuable, but “a hierarchy subjectively fixed by my enthusiasm.”
Proust wouldn’t begrudge Czapski any inaccuracies, either. “For Proust, a fact is never a simple fact,” and a memory is never a simple memory. He understood memory as a mediator of reality, “infinitely enriched and transposed in his brain by the vision of an artist separated from the world…so that [his] pages become much more an account of his own thoughts awakened by a collision with a fact, rather than just the facts themselves.” By extension, Lost Time becomes much more an account of Czapski’s own thoughts awakened by collision with Proust.
Mediated as he is by Czapski’s affectionate memory, Proust still comes through vibrantly. “A hothouse flower,” rare and always a bit out of step with his native world, Proust would sequester himself away from the Parisian high society that inspired the characters in his books. Czapski dwells with reverence on the artist’s surrender to “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, is a trial every creative being must endure.”
Always in poor health, Proust’s rare entrances into society taxed him greatly, but he could always summon the energy to charm his friends and gather material for his writing. When a wealthy patron once coaxed him into public with the gift of a box at the opera, Proust arrived late and sat with his back to the stage for the entire performance. When taken to task the following day, he goodheartedly recounted, in minute detail, everything that had happened on stage and the surrounding theater, including details no one else had noticed. “Don’t worry,” he quipped, “when it comes to my work, I’m busy as a bee.” This would be his rejoinder whenever someone remarked on his ever-shrinking public life.
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In the midst of his sweeping exposition of In Search of Lost Time, Czapski returns frequently to Proust’s own later-in-life seclusion. The frail writer would shut himself in a cork-lined room for days on end, working feverishly and at the expense of his own health. Proust made the sacrifice gladly, believing this removal to solitude afforded him “the capacity to analyze, clinically and coolly, to see all the dramatic and humorous details even in life’s most tragic moments.” As valuable as this ability was to Proust, he could not have envisioned how much more valuable it would prove to a group of Polish prisoners clinging to hope half a world away.
Lost Time is an apology for memory as an interior country to be grown and attended to in times of prosperity. And for those distrustful of “memorization,” it offers the subtle suggestion that enthusiasm is more than sufficient to get something “by heart.” Proust’s enthusiasm for the particulars of life and Czapski’s enthusiasm for Proust were loves, not labors, and both sowed seeds that would bear enduring fruit. Because Czapski and his fellow lecturers had been men of rich enthusiasms in peacetime, they could weather their misfortunes like the man who yearns for Innisfree in Yeats’ poem, with a place of peace he could “hear…in the deep heart’s core” and return to at will. After reading Lost Time we hear with new urgency the command to be “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.
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