fractious fiction
Essay by Ted Gioia

When Polish author and artist Józef Czapski got taken as a prisoner by the
Red Army in 1939, he must have known that this was tantamount to a death
sentence. Almost all of the soldiers interned with him died or disappeared
before the end of World War II. By his own estimate, Czapski was one of
only around four hundred survivors out of a group of 15,000—who “disappeared
without a trace somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle, within the confines of
Siberia.” Most were probably killed as part of a mass execution in the Katyn
Forest—a bloodbath denied by the Soviet Union, until Gorbachev finally
acknowledged the regime’s responsibility in 1990.

In the final months of their lives, the
victims of this massacre organized
a series of lectures, given by the
prisoners themselves and covering
a wide range of subjects—including
history, military affairs, literature,
painting and other topics. This
ambitious plan of self-education
was spurred, as Czapski described
it, by a deeply felt need to “take up a
kind of intellectual work that would
help us overcome our depression
and anguish, and to protect our brains
from the rust of inactivity.” The prison camp overseers tried to stop this
program, and some of the lecturers disappeared, supposedly transferred to
other locales. But the lectures continued, at first in secret, but later with official
sanction—provided that texts were submitted in advance to a censor for
approval.

This is the environment that spawned perhaps the most unexpected incident in
the history of Proustian studies—a field typically associated with elite doctoral
programs and venerable academic institutions. Czapski had not only read
Marcel Proust’s
À la recherche du temps perdu before the War, during eight
years he spent in Paris from 1924 to 1932, but had also developed close
friendships with many who had known the author personally. Now he agreed to
give lectures to his fellow prisoners on Proust's novel, renowned as one of the
most difficult works of modernist fiction—not just for its textual challenges,
marked by some of the most complex sentences in the history of literature, but
also for its imposing length, spanning more than 3,000 pages and 1.2 million
words.

The context here must have been challenging enough under the best of
circumstances, but to add to the difficulty neither Czapski nor his students had
access to even a single copy of the work they were studying. Whenever the
teacher had to cite a passage or incident, whether in the novel or the author’s
life, it had to be done from memory. In fact, that was the ground rule for
virtually all of the courses given at the Gryazovets prison camp. “Each of us
spoke about what he remembered best,” Czapski later explained with regard
to the prison camp lectures. So in this inhospitable setting, the captive artist
set about teaching from memory the great modern novel of remembrance.

Proust's reflections on memory are well known—after all, they constitute a major
theme in his work—but his impact on the reader's memory also deserves
attention. When I was at an early stage in my own lifelong relationship with
Proust, during my college years, I met a retired Stanford professor, then in his
eighties, who had read each volume in the work immediately after they were
translated into English. This had all happened back in the 1920s, but the
professor insisted that he still retained the most vivid recollections of the novel,
encompassing even specific scenes and minor incidents, more than a half-century
later. I now can attest to a similar phenomenon. Passages I read decades ago,
and even minor characters, never seem to lose their immediacy and significance.
This was clearly the case for Czapski as well, who talks in great detail about
a sprawling, complex work of literature that he must describe solely on the basis
of these lasting imprints on the reader's mind.

When you lack the scholarly apparatus of academia
and all its classroom trappings, you turn instead to
those even more basic elements in our appreciation
of great works of art: love, passion and awe. And
these Czapski possessed in full, even when all other
possessions had been stripped away. He speaks
of Proust’s work with as much exactitude as his
constrained circumstances allowed, but
supplements the inevitable gaps with a degree
of ardor that more than compensated for any
imposed limitations.

And as he digs more deeply into
À la recherche
du temps perdu
something miraculous happens.
The huge chasm  between the affluent Parisian man
of the world Marcel Proust and the incarcerated Polish prisoners begins to
narrow. Proust, after all, may have gained renown as a witty and charming
presence in the salons of his day, but when he embarked in earnest on his
career as a novelist, he renounced this fashionable world and isolated himself
to an almost pathological degree. Not only did he rarely leave his home, but he
sequestered himself even more tightly in his bedroom, where he had the walls
lined with cork to prevent sounds and pathogens entering from the outside.
The analogy of a prisoner in an isolation cell comes immediately to mind.

What Proust had to fall back on this setting
were the riches of recollection and reflection.
These proved inexhaustible, filling up page
after page of one of the most expansive novels
ever written. And now Czapski described some
of these remembrances to his rapt audience.
“I can still see them,” he recalled after the war,
“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, listening intently to
lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at the time.” Here
they felt a distinct “joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking that gave us
proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind.”

The lectures achieve an especially uncanny effect in their final pages, when
Czapski talks about Proust’s last days, and his fortitude in the face of his
declining health and inevitable demise. “Death had become truly a matter of
indifference to him,” Czapski tells his listeners at the conclusion of his lecture
series. Here again, the connection between French author and abject prisoner
stands out in sharp relief. Most who heard these words at the time were also
facing imminent death, which they didn't know with certainty, but in many
instances must have intuited from their forlorn circumstances.

I know it isn't fashionable to assign transcendental or metaphysical attributes
to literary works in the current day, especially not after decades in which our
greatest novels have been deconstructed repeatedly by lit crit elites and the
author has been declared null and void. But Proust’s masterwork resists this
demolition job, perhaps preeminently among the modernist classics. It is
beloved by those readers who preserve and master its difficulties, even today
almost a century after it was written.

And here, in this harsh corner of the Soviet Union, in an unheated mess hall in
a time of war, it did something even more amazing—casting its spell on
those who weren’t even allowed to read it, but merely gather the reflections of
its illuminating powers from a solitary witness to its greatness. We are
fortunate that he survived to bear witness to us as
well.


Ted Gioia writes on books, music and popular culture. His next book, Music: A
Subversive History
, will be published by Basic Books in 2019.

This essay was published on December 6, 2018
Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp

The most unusual document in Proustian studies finally appears in
English translation after almost eighty years
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Józef Czapski self portrait
When you lack the scholarly
apparatus of academia and
all its classroom trappings,
you turn instead to those even
more basic elements in our
appreciation of great works
of art: love, passion and awe.