Czeslaw Milosz has a captivating mind. In Native Realm he invites readers to join him on what his subtitle calls “A Search for Self-Definition,” and is a journey from the wooded interior of what is today Lithuania, where he was born into a family of Polish-speaking gentry, through his young adulthood in interwar Warsaw, past the terrible crucible of the Second World War in Nazi-occupied Poland, and finally into postwar political exile after he broke with the Communist government and his own socialist tendencies. When Native Realm was first published in 1959 (the English translation dates to 1968), his long and fruitful years in California were ahead of him, as was his Nobel Prize. The Communist yoke seemed firmly settled on Poland. Milosz could see where it fit poorly, but even he could not see it being loosened. Twenty-one years after Native Realm was published in English, Poland held its first semi-free elections since World War II; every Communist candidate who was on the ballot was voted out. Milosz eventually returned to his native country, dying in its ancient capital of Krakow in 2004.
The beginning of Native Realm is far from that, in so many ways. At Milosz’s birth in 1911, the area where his family lived was part of the Russian Empire. The Great War came and upended much in that part of the world, not least because it was soon followed by war between Soviet Russia and a Poland that returned to Europe’s map for the first time since 1795.
The process that was taking place in Eastern Europe, more or less simultaneous with the building of the railroads, was not paralleled in other parts of the continent; it is closer to what happened in the American South after the Civil War. It was not accidental that I mentioned Faulkner earlier. Poles find the atmosphere of his novels considerably more familiar than that of Balzac’s or Zola’s. In Poland as in the American South, the equilibrium of a whole community was disrupted by a sudden shock. The impoverished gentry fled to the cities, but their former customs and habits did not altogether disappear. Far from it. They left their stamp on all classes; thus, the Polish proletariat, not to speak of the intelligentsia, which maintained close ties with the surviving members of the nobility, inherited many of the gentry’s characteristics. (p. 31)
That attachment to the values of the nobility — Poland’s was an elected king, and the electorate of the time was a larger share of the populace than the share of the British people who could vote for Parliament — made many Poles keen on democracy even during long years of Communist oppression. Milosz shows how other values from the old Polish gentry, namely disdain for money and commerce, could also open people to the changes promised by the government the Soviets installed after the war. Many paragraphs, throughout Native Realm are like this one: ranging forward and backward to trace connections, relating art to politics and daily life, supporting sharp judgments, and offering details from Milosz’s own background to illustrate all of the forgoing elements. They make the book a delight to read actively, to argue internally with Milosz, or just to consider his perspective and the many unexpected notions he brings.
For example, his father gained a technical education in Riga, which was then a largely German-speaking city within the Russian Empire. That background put him in demand as industrialization leaped forward in pre-Revolutionary Russia. The family spent a year in Krasnoyarsk. His father once sailed with Fridtjof Nansen.
But Russia was open space where a man did not run into his fellow-man at every step, and whoever grew to like her was bound to feel unhappy in other, more civilized countries. That is what happened to my father. When he lived in Poland later on, he constantly complained of the lack of breadth, of the smallness of everything …
What the Russian Empire was like in its last phase I cannot know … Revolutionary propaganda condemned that era to nonexistence because its industrial upswing did not fit the thesis that everything began in 1917 as if it were the first year of creation. But Europe’s belle époque, with its frenzy of initiative, riotous living, colonial exploitation, cosmopolitanism, and the fever of its port cities also defined the tempo of the Russian Empire, and one cannot help wondering how things would look today if the same economic system extended from the Atlantic to Kamchatka. (p. 39)
Everywhere I turned, Native Realm offered something interesting, people from Milosz’s distant past brought back to life, worries and imaginings as real upon reading as they were to the schoolchild living through them, and often linked to debates and questions that are posed anew in every generation. “A taste for independence, a loathing for all hypocrisy, a defense of freedom of conscience joined with intellectual arrogance, an obsession with purity, and the conviction that I understood more than anyone else” (p. 81) came close to derailing his education in high school. He fought with a priestly side of his Catholic school and was protected by a humanist side. With hindsight Milosz not only recognizes his faults, but regrets that the priest missed an opportunity:
However, if he had devoted even a fraction of the time that the humanist spent on one verse from Horace to reading and commenting on the Book of Job, for example, it would have profited us much more than his short accounts of the prophets, whom he treated only insofar as they prefigured Christ. He could have taught us the value of a respect for mystery, which forbids utterance of the highest name. He could also have shown us that Judaism … conceived of Creation in a dynamic way, as a dialogue, a perpetual upsurging of constantly modified questions and constantly modified answers, and that Christianity had inherited this trait. Had he proceeded in this manner, he would have vaccinated us against the reality that human things not only are but become. To put it another way: he would have accustomed us to history. But the priest lacked imagination, and he warded off the impingements of the modern world with the shield of a rigid outlook. (p. 83)
When the book reaches World War II, as it must, Milosz brings the same combination of specific people and acts paired with overarching and deep human questions. He tells of crossing the border between the parts of Poland occupied by the Soviets and by the Nazis, the people who shared his journey, people along the way on whom he perforce depended buy who might just betray him for any number of reasons. Of larger events, he again offers pungent and surprising assessment: “For a study of human madness, the history of the Vistula basin during the time it bore the curious name of ‘Government-General’ makes excellent material. … But the system introduced into the Government-General had nothing to do with the necessities of war; in fact, and this was obvious to every spectator of the events, it ran counter to the interests of the German Army. The colossal energies that were mobilized to implement this system—that is, wasted on purely arbitrary goals—ought to fill us with awe at a century in which ideology prevails over material advantage.” (p. 229)
Native Realm closes with Milosz’s brief time as a cultural emissary of the post-war Communist government and his eventual choice to depart from that service and go into exile. Even there, he surprises: “But I liked New York, I liked to melt into her crowds. Most of all I got to know the American countryside, which restored me, after a prolonged interval, to my boyhood. Like all Europeans I had painted for myself a false picture of technology’s reign in America, imagining that nothing was left of nature. In reality her nature was even more luxuriant even than the wooded regions where I grew up, where the farmer, plowing with a wooden plow, has for centuries been wreaking effective destruction.” (p. 260)
He meets Einstein, he remembers his escape and many others who didn’t make it, he breaks with a close friend who has risen high in the Communist cultural apparatus — high enough even to protect Milosz when he falls under suspicion. Native Realm relates all of this and so much more. Milosz the intellectual may be receding into history as the struggles of his time fade further into the past, but Native Realm shows a writer and thinker whose edge is not dulled at all by the intervening decades, one who relates his life and family to larger currents, and to questions that are never fully answered as long as there are people to ask them.