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A Beautiful Human Being

Patrick Quigley

Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski, by Eric Karpeles, New York Review Books, 496 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1681372846

Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942, by Józef Czapski, transl Antonia Lloyd-Jones, New York Review Books, 480pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1681372563
Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, by Józef Czapski, transl Eric Karpeles, NYRB Classics, 128 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1681372587

Towards the end of Almost Nothing, the author, Eric Karpeles, describes meeting the poet Adam Zagajewski in a Krakow café. While waiting for drinks, they play a game inspired by the art of Józef Czapski and look around them for scenes that might have caught the artist’s eye as a subject for a sketch or painting. It could be something ordinary that would appear extraordinary when viewed in a certain way or from an unusual angle. A Czapski image could be a striking combination of colours or simply a solitary customer at a table. Józef Czapski (1896-1993), based his technique on capturing the essence of apparently banal situations – sunlight and shadow on a sleeping face, a line of people on a waiting-room bench or the shape of an abandoned railway trolley.

There are analogies with the epiphanies of James Joyce – moments of heightened perception or illumination which catch one unawares. Czapski’s revelations can be available to anyone who takes time to appreciate the pathos and transitory beauty of life. His art was the result of years of painstaking preparation, a lifelong struggle to find the correct image to express the ineffable in the everyday. His figurative approach was often disparaged as traditional, but he laboured in the borderland between abstraction and representation in a similar manner to his main source of artistic inspiration, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). It was a difficult path that resulted in his marginalisation in the mid-twentieth-century art world when abstraction was the height of fashion, but he is increasingly appreciated as an artist whose life and work shines with a rare integrity and beauty.

Karpeles’s book is the first biography of Czapski, whose long life encompassed the roles of artist, soldier, writer, military propagandist, educator, occasional diplomat and unofficial conscience of Poland. He gave lectures on Proust to fellow prisoners in a Soviet prison camp. On his release he was commissioned to search for the whereabouts of 22,000 “missing” Polish officers in the Soviet Union. In wartime Tashkent he had a brief but intense tryst with the poet Anna Akhmatova. Later he became chief propaganda and education officer for the Polish army in exile under the leadership of General Anders. “I had no idea what life can be,” exclaimed a French scholar on hearing Czapski give a rare talk about his experiences in World War Two.

Almost Nothing is a celebration of an artist with an intense appreciation of art and life, an exploration of what it means to be fully human. When a critic claimed that Czapski’s painting of a bedside table and a piece of string amounted to almost nothing, the artist agreed, but asserted that the image could be viewed as containing almost everything. In fact, the biography could be retitled Almost Everything for the astonishing range of characters and incidents within its pages.

Józef Czapski is of interest for three interconnecting reasons. First, his lifelong engagement with history from childhood on an isolated country estate in the Russian empire, his constant commitment to Poland through two world wars and the Cold War decades and his survival to witness in old age the beginning of the post-communist era. Second, his long apprenticeship and artistic development, stretching from the 1920s to the end of his life, in which he honed and perfected a technique to express his vision of the spiritual aspects of reality. Third, the critical writings, essays, journals and letters in which he recorded his artistic and spiritual struggles: a rich resource for those interested in the development of the creative process. These include the penetrating prison camp lectures on Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, demonstrating a faith in literature as a means to transcend the most daunting circumstances.

Czapski was born in Prague in 1896 to a Czech mother and Polish father. Both parents were descended from a cosmopolitan elite of aristocratic families that had directed the affairs of Europe for centuries, serving in the highest echelons of the various empires. Józef’s sister, Maria, described her extended ancestors as “a sort of European family”. Their Polish grandfather, Emeryk Czapski, amassed a great collection of antique coins which he described as “the nerves of things, the witness of history”; they are now on public display in the Hutten-Czapski Museum in Kraków. Another ancestor visited Ireland in 1832, where he found enthusiastic support for Polish independence. A contemporary and cousin was Georgy Chicherin, who became the first commissar for foreign affairs in the USSR. The Czapski family had history in their blood.

Józef was the fifth of eight children and shared the physical characteristics of the family – all were tall and slender with refined features – “like a row of holy candles”. They are instantly recognisable from old photographs as they pose for the camera with slightly ethereal expressions. The children were brought up on the family estate, Przyluki, near Minsk in modern Belarus, then part of the Russian empire. They were kept in relative isolation from the native “White Russians” and grew up speaking Polish, German and French with a small amount of Russian.

Karpeles passes quickly over Czapski’s childhood, which has been well-documented by Maria in her chronicle A Family of Central Europe and the memoir Through the Storm. Despite a Catholic upbringing, Józef, Maria and another sister, Karla, became disciples of Leo Tolstoy and tried to live according to his teachings on pacifism, vegetarianism and renunciation of the body. Józef was educated in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution where the Czapski siblings attempted to bring Tolstoy’s gospel to the masses during the upheavals in 1918. History took a different course and Józef decided he could not detach himself from the world; he joined the new Polish armed forces to defend the borders of independent Poland. More information might have been welcome about his actions in the Polish-Russian war of 1920, which resulted in him receiving the decoration Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest award for bravery. A weakness of the biography is that Karpeles is more comfortable with French than Polish language sources and his findings are accordingly skewed in that direction.

After the peace of 1921 the Czapski estate came under Bolshevik control and the siblings had to fend for themselves. Józef and Maria settled in Kraków, where he began to study painting, eager to learn new approaches in opposition to what he viewed as the narrow nationalistic and rigid conventions of Polish art. In 1924 he organised a group visit of artists to Paris for a six-week holiday ‑ which lasted for seven years. He was a slow developer, but aristocratic connections were useful for making contacts in the art world. His cousin, Princess Dolly Radziwill, and Pablo Picasso organized a high-society ball to raise funds for the struggling artists.

In 1926 Czapski fell ill from typhoid fever and recuperated with an uncle in London. As he could do nothing but rest for a month, he read through the volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu and was overwhelmed by the author’s relevance to his artistic exploration. He would continue to study Proust and learn from his work for the rest of his life. A period in the South of France led him to the art of Pierre Bonnard, whose position between Impressionism and abstraction appealed and shaped his approach to painting.

He settled in Warsaw in the 1930s and acquired a modest artistic reputation. One of his paintings was included in Poland’s contribution to the World’s Fair of 1939 in New York. When Germany invaded Poland on 1st September, he joined the cavalry reserve, but was captured by the Soviets when they invaded eastern Poland two weeks later. This was the beginning of two years’ imprisonment, when he was moved from camp to camp within the Soviet Union. It was his first experience of the Gulag, the massive system of incarceration which then held millions. The Polish prisoners were held in the usual cold, dirty, disease-infested conditions, forced to perform manual labour and badly fed while their captors pondered what to do with them. They included many of the best-educated sections of Polish society, including a Polish relative of Countess Markievicz. In order to sustain morale, the prisoners organised lectures; Czapski’s contribution was a series of talks on Proust’s novel. Without texts to work with, he had to depend on his memory to recover and recreate the past – one of the themes of Proust’s work.

To assist recall he devised coloured charts, some reproduced in Lost Time, recognisable to the modern reader as “mind maps”. In late 1940 and early 1941 he delivered the lectures in French to weary prisoners at night which enabled them to dwell on subjects other than cold and hunger. The society balls and intrigues brought them into a colourful world far removed from their grim surroundings. The lectures are still a fascinating literary exegesis and an excellent introduction to Proust; an occasional error shows how even the sharpest memory can edit and distort. They were later typed and published in French and Polish. As Karpeles had written a study of art in Proust’s work, a friend sent him the French edition. He was amazed to discover he knew nothing about Czapski and began the journey which led to the biography. As part of his project he translated the letters in Lost Time, their first English publication in a companion volume to Almost Nothing.

The other companion volume is Czapski’s memoir Inhuman Land, originally published in Polish in 1949 followed by a truncated English version entitled The Inhuman Land in 1951. It has been republished by New York Review of Books in a new translation by Antonia Lloyd Jones with an introduction by Timothy Snyder in a restored edition with additional material. The main section of the book covers the period of Czapski’s release from prison in September 1941 to his departure from the Soviet Union in late 1942. Due to foreign representation on his behalf he narrowly escaped the fate of over 22,000 Polish officers and police murdered by their Soviet captors at Katyń and other locations in the spring of 1940. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 the Soviets reversed their policy towards the Poles and began releasing the surviving prisoners. These were soon joined by hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens deported to the Soviet Union after the 1939 invasion.

As the Poles began to organise, General Wladyslaw Anders, leader of the Polish forces in the USSR, was perturbed at the number of missing officers. He thought they must be lost in the vast Gulag system and commissioned Czapski to search for them. The Soviet authorities pretended to assist, but placed every possible bureaucratic obstruction in his way. One strange aspect of this story is that Czapski had had a similar task in 1918 when he searched for Polish soldiers in revolutionary Russia. A contact in St Petersburg revealed they had been executed by Bolsheviks as they attempted to escape back home. As he went about his task in 1942, Czapski kept a journal of his search for truth in the maze of the Soviet system.

Despite many grim experiences he maintained the pose of an impartial observer confronted with the rule by terror that had engulfed the Soviet Union. Chapter after chapter depicts the suffering of ordinary citizens on the edge of destitution. He wrote: “Nobody could possibly understand it ‑ it would take … a new Tolstoy or Proust … to describe the atmosphere that prevailed in Russia … and the things that would suddenly give the game away in the course of ordinary, everyday life – a small gesture or a memorable glance. It wasn’t the difficult conditions or the hunger – all that was less awful than the suppression of humanity, the mute look in the eyes of people among whom just about everybody had lost at least one of their closest relatives to the camps in the north.”

The pages of Inhuman Land pulse with an awareness of the nerve of history in the life of the individual. Czapski was steeped in Russian culture and conversed with Soviet citizens at every opportunity, but he found a great difference from his previous experiences of the country. In contrast with the questioning attitudes of 1918 the average person he met in 1942 was reluctant to express any independent opinion. “They invariably think in dogmas,” he wrote, but he had compassion for their plight. Inhuman Land is a classic document of quest and wartime reporting. This fuller version is welcome as the previous edition was long out of print, but the extra chapters on the postwar situation are really independent essays which detract from the impact of the wartime memoir. These were written in a different tone and could have been saved for a forthcoming edition of Czapski’s essays from New York Review Books.

Almost Nothing depends on passages from Inhuman Land for Czapski’s wartime experiences, including his brief encounter with Akhmatova in Tashkent. They developed a close affinity, but knew they were closely watched and the affair could not progress. After some months he was obliged to report that he could find no trace of the missing officers. The Poles were preparing to leave the Soviet Union and Anders appointed Czapski as chief officer for information and propaganda, which involved preparing newspapers and education classes for the soldiers and thousands of children in the retinue of the army.

Art was never far from his mind, but he only had time for brief sketches of fellow soldiers or scenes through which the Polish survivors passed on their odyssey from the Soviet Union through Iran, Iraq and Syria before settling in British army bases in Palestine. The children and families were dispersed across the world while Czapski accompanied the Polish army on its campaigns in Italy. When the bodies of murdered Polish officers were discovered at Katyń in 1943 a propaganda war erupted between the Nazis and the Soviets, each blaming the other for the atrocity. The result was confusion in the public mind in postwar years as communist fellow-travellers in the West refused to countenance Soviet responsibility. The massacres could not be mentioned in the Soviet-dominated People’s Republic of Poland, in which free minds like Czapski had no place.

After the end of the war Czapski relocated to France, where he resisted the appeal of an immediate return to art; public affairs occupied his mind and the priority was to expose the truth about his murdered comrades. He was adamant that the postwar generation could not return to the artistic detachment of the 30s and wrote: “We have emerged naked from a burned world.” The exposure of the great lie of Soviet propaganda became his mission as he wrote Inhuman Land and engaged in postwar diplomatic activity which included a lecture tour of the United States in 1950 and testimony before a US Congressional investigation into the Katyń massacres in 1952.

As it had been in the nineteenth century for Chopin and Mickiewicz, Paris again became a refuge for Poles in exile. In a Paris suburb Czapski and others founded and published the Polish intellectual journal Kultura from 1947 to 2000. Although banned in Poland, it had a worldwide circulation and published many of the prominent writers of the age including Czesław Miłosz, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Zbigniew Herbert and many other Polish writers on politics and culture. Maria joined him in Paris where they lived in tiny quarters above the headquarters of the journal.

Karpeles is also an artist and his affinity with his subject illuminates the chapters dealing with Czapski’s life in postwar Paris and subsequent development as an artist and public intellectual. Despite his ascetic nature he was one of the leading figures in the Polish émigré world and engaged with many visitors to the city. The Paris chapters are a fascinating account of an artist steeped in culture and history. He was acquainted with Charles de Gaulle and French intellectuals such as Albert Camus and André Malraux and influenced the Cold War debates of the era.

Czapski continued to read Proust, absorbing the spirit of the writer who attempted to capture the elusive spirit of the moment. Karpeles follows a similar path as he immerses himself in Czapski’s art and writing so that he practically merges with his subject. He does not simply look at the subject of a picture but absorbs its impact from a distance, moving closer and closer to the canvas until he can feel the texture of the paint. The biography includes an account of Karpeles’s travels in France and Poland and encounters with Czapski’s family, friends and associates. While the biography leans heavily on essays and letters published in French, he uses a translator to access the voluminous journals written in Polish, rich in quotations, poems and sketches that make up a visual map of the author’s mind and spirit. “I live on quotations and they rescue me,” Czapski wrote to Miłosz.

Czapski’s pictures are often deceptively simple, almost cartoons, but Karpeles brings us beneath the surface to follow the method and purpose of composition. Many of the paintings have the intensity of religious icons, even though the subjects are of ordinary life. The reader is encouraged to identify with Karpeles in his pursuit of Czapski ‑ the more intensely one looks the more will be revealed as one’s perception of the world becomes richer and sharper. Czapski once claimed that painting was for him a form of prayer. Karpeles could have delved more deeply into his subject’s religious beliefs and rather glides over the way his subject reconciled his attachment to the Catholic church with his bisexuality.

When the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski visited Czapski in Paris he found “a beautiful human being, courageous, noble, but also hard-working … In his person high intelligence and remarkable artistic talent met with an active, almost naïve goodness – a rather rare combination.” For Czapski, friendships and influences were intellectual as well as personal and he became intensely engaged with the work of the Jewish mystical writer Simone Weil. His closest friends were some of the most prominent postwar Polish writers – Miłosz, Herbert, Zagajewski and the Solidarity activist Adam Michnik. Czapski had no difficulty in combining a passion for Polish culture and national independence with a cosmopolitan outlook. He is an example of how one can be patriotic and cosmopolitan at the same time. The role of Maria, a thinker and scholar in her own right, with whom he had a symbiotic relationship, is under-explored, but there are many aspects of Czapski’s life that could provide material for further books. He lived long enough to see the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian acceptance of guilt and the truth of the Katyń massacres placed on the historical record.

New York Review Books has inherited the mantle that Penguin used to possess in bringing vital books before a general readership. Czapski was neglected during his lifetime in communist Poland but is being discovered by new generations of readers and viewers. As if in compensation for past neglect, the Józef Czapski Pavilion has recently opened on the grounds of the Hutten-Czapski Museum in Kraków to enlighten visitors about the many aspects of his life and work.

Poles claim that much of the best writing on Poland has been done by outsiders such as Norman Davies, Timothy Garton Ash and Anne Applebaum. With his translation of Lost Time and his magisterial Almost Nothing, Eric Karpeles has earned his place in this select group. These beautifully designed and richly illustrated volumes bring the treasures of this fertile mind to many English-speaking readers for the first time and will hopefully inspire them to devise Czapski games of their own.


Patrick Quigley is the author of a novel, Borderland (Brandon 1994), and The Polish Irishman: the Life and Times of Count Casimir Markievicz (2012), Sisters Against the Empire: Countess Markievicz & Eva Gore-Booth (2016) and the forthcoming Stasko: Ireland, Poland and the Legacy of Countess Markievicz.



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