Like two gods. Herbert and Miłosz
An interview with Andrzej Franaszek, a biographer of both Zbigniew Herbert and Czesław Miłosz. Interviewer: Grzegorz Nurek
GRZEGORZ NUREK: You have written major biographies about two outstanding Polish poets: Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Is there a chance that those biographies will be translated into other languages to reach a wider audience, outside of Poland?
ANDRZEJ FRANASZEK: The biography of Czesław Miłosz that I authored was translated into Lithuanian and Belarusian a few years ago. A shortened English version was also released by Harvard University Press and distributed in the United Kingdom and United States. It is difficult for me to say how well it is selling. It had a surprising amount of reviews in the media. When it comes to Zbigniew Herbert’s biography, it has only been recently released in Polish in two large volumes. But I am not sure if any foreign publishing houses would be interested in translating it. Time will tell…
How long did you work on each biography and what were the challenges you faced?
Writing biographies is clearly a long term effort. As expected, I had to interrupt my work several times, for personal and professional reasons. I would say that it took me about five years for each biography. The most crucial part is the research, which involves working in the archives. Both of the poets I was interested in left behind vast amounts of information in the archives. Both saved documents and manuscripts of all sorts. Working with this kind of material is tedious and rewarding at the same time.
Where are the manuscripts of Miłosz and Herbert located?
The majority of Miłosz’s archives were purchased by Yale University’s Beinecke Library while Herbert’s archive can be found at the National Library in Warsaw. Also importantly, both poets had a strong connection with the Literary Institute in Paris and the Kultura magazine, edited by Jerzy Giedroyc. Hence, I used the archives of the institute, especially when researching Miłosz, while looking for information on Herbert I visited several places, from Toruń to New York and California.
In 1980 Miłosz received the Nobel Prize in literature. Herbert, however, never received it although he was very close. Why was it that the Swedish Academy never honoured him with this prestigious distinction?
It is likely that the decisive moment was in the second half of the 1980s, when Herbert had written Report from the besieged city, which was a very important volume of poetry that cemented his position in the literary world and among readers. It was also very quickly translated into English. Giedroyc, Kultura’s editor-in-chief, organised a lobby and started encouraging his circles to send letters to Stockholm. However, Herbert’s mental health turned out to be a problem. The second half part of the 1980s, when Herbert lived in Paris, was a ghastly period in his life. He suffered from depression and at times was experiencing a persecution complex. He was convinced that publishers were stealing his work from him and translators were doing a poor job. He would cancel contracts and send letters to translators prohibiting them from working on his poetry. He was very emotional which was difficult for Giedroyc and his strategy. I had the opportunity to read one of the letters that Giedroyc wrote to a colleague in Stockholm where he more or less writes that we have to put an end to the operation “Nobel for Herbert”, because even though he is a great poet, he is unpredictable and insulting as a person. It is very likely that the information on Herbert’s poor mental state had an impact on his chances of receiving the Nobel Prize. He surely deserved it for his writing.
So he was the closest in the 1980s?
His name appeared in earlier discussions among journalists – even in the second half of the 1960s. His poetry was translated into German and he had become quite known in West Germany.
What were your personal experiences with the poets? I gather that you knew Miłosz better, but you wrote some letters to Herbert.
I had the opportunity to meet Miłosz several times thanks to my work for Tygodnik Powszechny (a Polish weekly magazine – editor’s note) and later while working on his biography. Putting the professional aspect of these encounters aside, I would say that these were one of the most important meetings of my life. The presence of Miłosz, which was interrupted many years ago, is something that I personally miss the most. Herbert’s work fascinated me already in my high school years. Yet, I never had the chance to meet him in person. In the 1990s, when I began working for Tygodnik, I sent him a few letters. For instance, I managed to get a text from him about Jerzy Turowicz. However, I did not manage to do an interview with him. I understood that Herbert had become too sick for such an encounter to take place. I went to his funeral and I remember the moment when Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska laid two red roses on his coffin.
Czesław Miłosz’s funeral took place in Kraków and was accompanied by some protests. You took part in the funeral procession. How do you view and understand these events that took place then?
Miłosz generated numerous controversies. He faced animosity from parts of our society practically his whole life. After all he was part of a tradition that I would define as rational and critical patriotism. He had very strong opinions on Polish history, mentality, right-wing parties and the pre-war nationalist movement (endecja). Furthermore, he was critical of Polish antisemitism, xenophobia and intellectual laziness. Some people received these views with misunderstanding. For others, including myself, it became a school of thought on being Polish. A way of thought that did not mean hostility towards Polishness, but rather a skill that lets one recognise its negative sides as well. There was a part of society – probably a majority – that was annoyed by his criticism. Attacks on Miłosz already began in the 1950s, after he decided to stay in the West. For many Polish émigrés he was a suspicious person; first being a diplomat for the communists, then maybe a provocateur or an agent.
On the other hand, to those who were building a socialist Poland he remained a traitor. This animosity towards Miłosz always lingered. It was overshadowed by the Nobel Prize, but returned in the 1990s when the poet became engaged in the public debate in Poland. The last painful accent were the protests during his funeral. We were worried it would lead to some major incident, but thankfully the groups were small and unconvincing. After lengthy deliberations, Miłosz was laid to rest at the national sanctuary on Skałka. I think it is a shame that he was not put to rest in the more prestigious Wawel Castle which is where Polish kings and national poets are buried.
The relationship between Herbert and Miłosz was better or worse depending on the period. Do you think their conflict will ever be presented in school books, like the one between Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki?
Perhaps. However, when I talk to first year students of Polish literature, I often get the sad impression that their knowledge of Polish literature and history is not very extensive. It is quite frequent that there is no time in school for an analysis of contemporary history, as the high school exams force pupils to end their history courses in 1945. Overall, Polish students do not know much about Miłosz and Herbert, so it would be challenging to surmise that they would know anything about their personal conflict at all. The Herbert-Miłosz dispute is very intriguing, as it joins personal stories and politics.
The relationship between the poets goes back to 1958. At that time it was characterised by positive feelings, even friendship. There was a mutual fascination, also in regards to each other’s artistic work and willingness to help one another, which is best reflected in Miłosz’s translations of Herbert’s poetry. Then, came a spectacular fallout, followed by an ideological battle. An argument took place at Berkeley in 1958 with both poets being drunk – which did not help the situation. During the discussion Herbert could not accept Miłosz’s critical opinions on the Warsaw Uprising and the Home Army. In return he called Miłosz a coward trying to “take cover” during the war. Although they kept in touch, the damage to their friendship was irreparable. Herbert later apologised to Miłosz, writing he would “haunt him with a difficult love”, but Miłosz never trusted him fully again. He was of the opinion that Herbert had shown his true “Endek” [a pre-war Polish nationalist – editor’s note.] face. Herbert, on the other hand, apologetic as he may have been, was still convinced he was politically in the right. To him Miłosz was a naïve leftist who dreamt of changing the world, a delusion that leads to totalitarianism in his mind. It was all sealed in the 1990s with Herbert’s attacks on Miłosz calling him a man devoid of patriotism and an opportunist.
In 1990 Miłosz released A year of the hunter (A diary of one year in the Nobel laureate’s life, 1987-88 – editor’s note). It included some sceptical, but innocent criticism of Herbert and his intellectual master – Professor Henryk Elzenberg. Miłosz claimed they represented a typical metaphysical Polish movement, where the highest absolute was not God but the homeland. Herbert, who was already mentally weakened at that time, received this too emotionally. He reacted by writing a squib called Chodasiewicz, which was not only an unfair accusation of Miłosz, but also a weak poem way below his standards. He wanted to deliver an answer in the form of a book which he wanted to title A year of the lamb, as a critique of leftist thought. But he was too sick to write and it did not leave the planning stages. I believe it was a great shame that this book did not get finished as we would have a sound intellectual dual which would have been important to our culture. It brings some comfort to know that there was some kind of reconciliation between the poets in their last phone call before Herbert’s death. It marked a brief moment where they regained their former proximity.
Today the dispute between the two writers is much more about the content of their work – especially their attitude towards Polishness – than their personal relation. Herbert’s attitude to the Warsaw Uprising was very emotional, with no room for any criticism. In this he represented a large part of Polish society. Herbert was not a nationalist – that is clear, as he always emphasised that he was brought up in a multinational and multi-religious Poland. He did not however like Jan Błoński’s famous essay Poor Poles look at the Ghetto. In his view its description of Polish attitudes towards Jews during the German occupation was unfair. In short, both poets represent different attitudes towards our national identity, history and mentality. This is why it is crucial to learn about the dispute between them and form an independent opinion.
Your answer leads me to my next question. One could say that the poets were arguing because they were close; like a father and son or a master and apprentice. They disagreed (often provoking and offending each other) about national issues, attitudes towards history, the role of poetry, the validity of the Warsaw Uprising and Polish-Russian relations rather than their personal ambitions. This is more in tune with the disputes between the Polish bards of classical literature. In 1966 Herbert wrote in a letter to Miłosz that “If there is something I don’t like about you it is your fascination with Russia”…
Herbert was never interested in Russian culture or the broad understanding of the East. That probably can be explained by Herbert’s personal experience of the 1939 Soviet invasion in Poland. As a resident of Lviv, he was an eyewitness after all. He got to know Russia through deportations, arrests and terror. He saw Russia through the lens of aesthetical inferiority and an ideological lie. It was only later that he embraced Joseph Brodsky and Osip Mandelstam. He was of the opinion that Europe ends at the borders of the old Polish Commonwealth, beyond that is another world – Asia.
Miłosz, on the other hand, like Jerzy Giedroyc and Józef Czapski, belonged to the group of Poles that noticed that communism was also a tragedy for Russia and the nations of the Soviet Union. They were able to separate the totalitarian system from Russian culture. As a traveller and essayist, Herbert was more oriented towards the West: France, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean culture. The intellectual and essayist side of Miłosz was turned towards the East mostly.
In your book there is an amazing description of Herbert’s childhood and youth in Lviv and the nearby Bryukhovychi. It includes little known facts, like the one during the war where the Herbert family were feeding lice at the Institute for Typhus Research…
The Institute for Typhus Research was created in Lviv in 1920 by Rudolf Weigl. It is important to note that the typhus vaccine was very important for the military. That is why the Soviets and later the Germans both refrained from interrupting the research at the institute. They did not arrest nor send its scientists to concentration camps. The vaccine went straight to the Wehrmacht, but was also smuggled to units of the Polish resistance. Working for the institute and feeding lice was some kind of guarantee that one would not be taken from the street during German round-ups. This is why there were many representatives of the Lviv intelligentsia among these feeders. How was this lice feeding done? The research subject would get a small box with lice dotted with tiny holes. This box was attached to the person’s leg. The lice could be healthy or infected with typhus, which could of course be quite dangerous for the person. There are several surprising career paths in Herbert’s life. In 1953 he left the literary world….
Because of censorship, political pressure…
Since 1949 social realism was being implemented in Poland and censorship was tightened. Herbert managed to stick around for quite a while, not as a poet, but rather as an essayist and art and literature critic. He would write for different newspapers until 1953 – the death of Stalin. After the editors of Tygodnik Powszechny refused to publish an idolatrous obituary of the dictator, the journal was taken away from the editors and transferred to the segment of Catholics who agreed to collaborate with the authorities. At the time when the fate of the newspaper was being decided, Herbert had an offer to join its editorial team. Knowing it was a sinking ship he still decided to join it. This did not last long. Soon after he was without work, as a he had cut all professional ties in an act of solidarity. As he could not make a living off writing, he was forced to find other jobs. He was a calculating time keeper assessing the work of retired teachers at a co-operative. Then he was an office worker at a peat producing facility. These jobs were not very well-paid, nor were they close to the interests and ambitions of the poet.
In the anthology Poets read Herbert that you edited, well-known poets are asked to pick their favourite poems by Herbert. A near impossible task! Let me ask you the same question: What are your favourite poems by Miłosz and Herbert?
We have amassed volumes of poems. Some 1,500 pages of Miłosz’s poems and 1,300 pages of Herbert’s. If there was no ranking and I could choose one of personal importance, I would single out an early poem from Miłosz called The Meeting. It deals with transience, poses questions on what happens with people who have passed away and our feelings towards them. I remember that during Miłosz’s birthday organised by Tygodnik Powszechny, Jerzy Turowicz recited the poem from memory. He said the poem is an essence of Miłosz’s poetry and a prelude to all his later work.
When it comes to Herbert, the first poem that comes to my mind is “The prayer of the traveller Mr Cogito”. His most famous poetry is declarative (paradoxically a rare element in his work), demanding a high ethical stance from the reader (like in “The power of taste” and “The message of Mr Cogito”). I prefer another tone in his poetry. “The Prayer of Traveller Mr Cogito” recalls Herbert’s fascination with travelling, the world and meeting other people. The mission of the poet, according to the text, is to feel empathy with others, try to understand different languages and the suffering of others. The poem also reminds us that travelling can cure and relieve us from our own suffering, depression and sadness.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Andrzej Franaszek is a literary critic and lecturer at the Pedagogical University of Kraków. He is an editor with Tygodnik Powszechny and author of Miłosz. Biografia (2011) and Herbert. Biografia (2018).
Grzegorz Nurek is a Polish journalist specialising in cultural affairs.