In his essay “Sèvres” (trans. Lillian Vallee, Solidarity, Solitude, 1990), Adam Zagajewski considers a subject almost banal in its obviousness – the relation of our inner and outer worlds. He likens the two realms to “a blind man and a deaf man, whom quartering has condemned to co-existence in one room.” Think of an old couple forever quarreling or, even better, Zagajewski’s colorful (and parenthetical) metaphor: “(The inner life knocks on the door of the external world like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who always interrupt our supper, an interesting TV movie, or a sweet repose.)” Named for the suburb of Paris where the poet lived after leaving Poland, Zagajewski’s essay is a pleasantly rambling affair punctuated by useful phrases and ideas. Here is one of the latter:
“Inner life rebels against the cruelty of the external world. [That is a banality.] The great books of the twentieth century have been written against the monster by lonely people struggling with their own despair. [This is a banality worthy of Sartre, but now it gets good.] Nadezhda Mandelstam, who learned her husband’s poems by heart. George Orwell, a nonparty man among party men. Solzhenitsyn, the avenger endowed with a magnificent memory. The ailing Aleksander Wat telling Miłosz about Lubyanka. Simone Weil, to whom God revealed himself. Bonhoeffer in prison in Tegel.”
“Great,” yes, but many books are routinely called “great,” just as every flower is “pretty.” Zagajewski speaks of moral greatness along with the literary qualities of such books. Here are titles we might add to those named by the poet: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Zbigniew Herbert’s Report from the Besieged City. Whittaker Chambers’ Witness. Evgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind. Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. Readers will have no trouble extending the list. Such books do not constitute a genre. They share a moral kinship based on personal experience chronicled with rigorous honesty. The twentieth century was an abattoir, and only a few who survived were equipped to write about it. Let’s hope someday North Korea and Iran have their Mandelstams and Grossmans.
None of this is to say that totalitarianism is a prerequisite for creation of great literature. Ovid and Dante survived their own trials. Above, Zagajewski refers to My Century, Aleksander Wat’s “spoken diary” based on his recorded conversations with Czesław Miłosz. In his account of the time he served in Lubyanka, Wat recounts reading Machiavelli’s letters and the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu:
“. . . the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”
The Russian edition of Proust comes with an introduction written by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education. He was, in short, Stalin’s chief censor and enforcer of literary diktats. Wat writes:
“Like all Marxist critics, Lunacharsky, the last of the Bolshevik esthetes, did not write about the work itself but treated it as a sociological `trot.’ When reading his introduction, I realized that I was repelled as much by communism’s reduction of everything to the flat and the linear as by its atrocities.”