Milosz's ABC's /
Czesław Miłosz ; translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine.
1st ed.
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
313 p.
0374199779 (alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
0374199779 (alk. paper)
general note
Translation of selections from the author's Abecadło Miłosza and Inne abecadło.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


ABRAMOWICZ , Ludwik. Wilno always was a city verging on a fairy tale, although when I lived there I never noticed that aspect of it. Of course, there were those secret societies in the past (we knew about the Scoundrels' Society, the Masonic lodges, the Philomaths), but during my student years I didn't think of the then present time as equally picturesque, and it was only later that I reconstructed it, after learning various details.

    Prior to World War I and well into the thirties, Ludwik Abramowicz published The Wilno Review at his own expense. This was a slender journal, far more significant than its modest appearance and circulation would indicate. He voiced the opinions of a select group of knowledgeable people, something like the élite circles of the Enlightenment. He was a Mason by conviction, which meant that he was faithful to those customs of our city which, in the twentieth century, too, favored the formation of exclusive groups in the name of noble slogans.

    In 1822, when the Masonic lodges in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were ordered to disband, Wilno had ten such lodges, not counting the secret youth societies. Still, certain families preserved the Masonic traditions--the Romers, Puttkamers, Wereszczaks, Chreptowiczes. It was only in 1900, however, that the Societas Szubraviensis (the Scoundrels' Society) was resurrected and held its weekly meetings in the House Under the Sign of the Dogcatcher, in a building, that is, with a view of the statue of Muravyov the Hangman. This was not a lodge; at most, it was a discussion group, organized by Attorney Tadeusz Wróblewski, who was a legendary figure in Wilno and the founder of the Wróblewski Library.

    I have no firsthand knowledge of these resurgent lodges, but I have heard and read about them. Circa 1905, the Lithuania and Tomasz Zan lodges were formed (Wróblewski was active in the former), and it seems the Zealous Lithuanian lodge, too, was reborn. The lodges (many university professors belonged to them) were active in the interwar period, as I learned from my former professor, Stanislaw Swianiewicz, who, even though he was a fervent Catholic, was on very friendly terms with the Masons. Without that particular milieu, in which social ties were almost indistinguishable from organizational ties, Wilno's soul would have been much poorer.

    Ludwik Abramowicz was the spokesman for an ideology in which democratic thinking, multinationalism, and "localism" were united. Before World War I, not only Poles but also Lithuanians, and Belorussians, too, belonged to the Lithuania lodge. After the war, it split along ethnic lines; at the same time, the adherents of "localism" opposed the National Democrats (Endecja) and condemned discrimination against other languages. The best-known "localist" Masons (these concepts virtually overlapped) were Michal Romer, Attorney Bronislaw Krzyzanowski, and Jan Pilsudski (the Marshal's brother), but the localist orientation also had adherents in other semisecret groupings such as the Senior Vagabonds' Club. The Wilno Review was a publication of Polish-speaking Wilno, but it took a stand against the incorporation of Wilno into Poland and in favor of restoring the multiethnic Grand Duchy, with Wilno as its capital, and criticized Józef Pilsudski for renouncing the federal idea.

    This was a completely utopian program, rejected alike by the majority of Poles and by Lithuanians and Belorussians. Abramowicz's close collaborator, Michal Romer, who had joined the Polish Legions in Krakow in 1914, cut the Gordian knot in his own way, breaking with Pilsudski on the issue of Wilno. He moved to Kaunas, where he taught law at the university, and was twice elected rector of Kaunas University. He left a multivolume diary, written in Polish.

    I used to read The Wilno Review , and I think it had an influence on me. I cannot stop myself from imagining Abramowicz as the high priest Sarastro in Mozart's Magic Flute --a noble and somewhat naive reformer who believes in mankind's reasonableness.

ABRASZA . I first met Abrasza in Paris, when I was living in the Latin Quarter after breaking with the Warsaw government, so it would have been 1952. He was a Polish Jew; his surname was Zemsz. He was studying at the Sorbonne; to be more precise, he was an eternal student, or rather, he was one of those people who cling to a student's existence as an alibi, to avoid bearing the burden of a career, a salary, etc. He told me a few things about his past. He had served with the Polish armed forces in England where, according to him, he was tormented by anti-Semites. Then he fought against the English in Palestine. In Paris, he was very poor; he lived in a garret somewhere, and Jeanne Hersch and I made several attempts at helping him, but here my memory has gaps. I met him again in 1970, I think, after the student revolt of 1968. He had played a very active role in that uprising. Asked why, he responded: "For no reason; for the sake of a row."

    The year 1968 was different in Berkeley than in Paris, with different causes and a different course. True, the Berkeley students tried to burn books, but they didn't destroy trees like the French students, who cut down the plane trees on Boulevard Saint-Michel in order to build barricades. Seeing the demagogues who were the leaders in Berkeley, I felt not the slightest temptation to join them; at the same time, I can understand Kot Jelenski, who approved of the Paris revolt, a more radically liberating universal revolution, and universal copulation. Unfortunately, one's assessment of those events depended on one's age, it seems. I was fifty-seven at the time, and I suspected that, at best, I envied the students.

    Abrasza committed suicide, but I know neither the date nor the circumstances.

ACADEMY of Arts and Letters, American. It is modeled on the Académie Française, which also functioned as a codifier, heatedly condemning words considered too regional or specific to a profession (agriculture, fishing, hunting), standing guard, as it were, in defense of a unified "classical" French language. When Poland achieved independence in 1918 there were endless debates about a Polish Academy of Letters until finally it was called into existence, but not without some wild clashes. It established a Youth Prize, and when Stanislaw Pietak was awarded it in 1938, Boleslaw Micinski, who was in France at the time, wrote to his mother in the mock Russian he used when he wanted to be funny, "It vood hev bin bedder hed Milosz gut prize."

    I myself would become an academician. America has two academies. The first, in Cambridge, is the Academy of Arts and Sciences, which mixes scientists from various fields with scholars of literature, music, and the fine arts. I was elected to it--as a professor, it seems. The other, in New York, led a dual existence for a long time as the Institute of Arts and Letters and as the Academy of Arts and Letters. I was elected a member of the Institute in 1982, and several years later we voted to merge into a single Academy. All the most famous creative people in the fields of literature, music, architecture, sculpture, and painting in America belong. Generous prizes from bequests by private individuals are distributed annually. The Academy has its own beautiful building in which parties and dinners are held so the élite can celebrate each other's honors. Living on the West Coast, I was able to participate in these celebrations only once or twice. Over many drinks in the garden, in the bright light of a May afternoon, I conversed with Dwight Macdonald for the last time; he died soon afterward. The old goat was fascinated by my companion, who really did have on a beautiful dress, and who looked beautiful, too.

    The Academy is not made up solely of distinguished old men, and there are definitely names on its membership list which will last. Nonetheless, election to it is determined by fame as measured by the rumors and gossip of the New York establishment, which means that enduring value and momentary fame reside in the same house. One can see that in the roster of foreign honorary members of the Academy. The seven stars of our Eastern constellation were Bella Akhmadulina, Václav Havel, Zbigniew Herbert, Milan Kundera, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Voznesensky, and Evgeny Evtushenko. When the last was elected, Joseph Brodsky resigned from the Academy in protest.


Copyright © 2001 Czeslaw Milosz.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-11-13:
"Man has been given to understand/ that he lives only by the grace of those in power./ Let him therefore busy himself sipping coffee, catching butterflies." So muses Polish migr poet and Nobel laureate Milosz in one of his earlier poems, and such might be the principle guiding this most recent collection of his writings. Bits and pieces of memoir are ranged in alphabetical order, making up a curious glossary of a life lived in Poland and the United States and a literary career spanning six decades. Reminiscences of Poland before, during and after WWII occupy much of the volume. Even when Milosz is chronicling his life since he settled permanently in California in 1960, after a period of exile in France, his memories center on friends made in childhood at school in Wilno. Brief character sketches are intermixed with reflections on subjects like Milosz's sense of obligation to the Polish language and Polish literary tradition, his admiration of poets like Walt Whitman and Joseph Brodsky, and, more generally, on themes like curiosity, fame and terror. It is these sections that will engage American readers, who elsewhere are likely to flounder in a sea of names. The fragments of autobiography collected in this edition represent only a selection from the texts of two Polish ABCs, and readers will be grateful for the culling. It is difficult to escape the sense thatDlike butterflies in a dusty caseDthe scraps of memory affixed here have lost their living glitter. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-09-15:
The Nobel prize winner's thoughts and memoriesÄin ABC format, a popular genre in his native Poland. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, September 2000
Kirkus Reviews, November 2000
Publishers Weekly, November 2000
Booklist, December 2000
New York Times Book Review, February 2001
Chicago Tribune, March 2001
Los Angeles Times, March 2001
Washington Post, March 2001
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Unpaid Annotation
Perhaps my ABC's are instead of: instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the twentieth century, instead of a memoir. Each of the individuals remembered here sets into motion a network of mutual allusions and interdependencies linked to the facts of my century.The ABC book is a Polish genre, a loose form composed of short, alphabetical entries. In Czeslaw Milosz's conception, the ABC book becomes a sort of hybrid autobiographical reference book, combining citations of characters from his earlier prose works and poems with references to real historical figures-like Camus, Cezanne, Edward Hopper, Arthur Koestler, and Mark Edelman; the Polish writers Gombrowicz and Herbert; and the poets Baudelaire and Frost-who were particularly influential during his formative years, to places, and to broader topics such as "The City," "Unhappiness," and "Money." Another fascinating entry in Milosz's bold opus, Milosz's ABC's is an engaging tribute to a brilliant mind.
Publisher Fact Sheet
The ABC book is a Polish genre, a loose form composed of short, alphabetical entries. In Czeslaw Milosz's conception, the ABC book becomes a sort of hybrid autobiographical reference book, combining citations of characters from his earlier prose works & poems with references to real historical figures--like Camus, Cezanne, Edward Hopper, Arthur Koestler, & Mark Edelman; the Polish writers Gombrowicz & Herbert; & the poets Baudelaire & Frost--who were particularly influential during his formative years, to places, & to broader topics such as "The City," "Unhappiness," & "Money." Another fascinating entry in Milosz's bold opus, Milosz's ABC's is an engaging tribute to a brilliant mind.
Main Description
"Memories, dreams and reflections from the Nobel Laureate"The ABC book is a polish genre-a loose form related to a hypertext novel-composed of short, alphabetically arranged entries. In Milosz's conception, the ABC book becomes a sort of autobiographical reference book, combining entries concerning characters from his earlier work with references to some of his memory poems. He also writes of real, historical figures like Camus who were particularly influential during his formative years, and of broader topics such as "The City," "Unhappiness," and "Money." Another fascinating entry in Milosz's bold opus, "Milosz's ABCs" is an engaging tribute to a brilliant mind.
Unpaid Annotation
The ABC book is a Polish genre, a literary form loosely composed of short, alphabetically arranged entries. In this "splendid" volume (Edward Hirsch, The New York Times Book Review), Czeslaw Milosz's telling eye for detail and sharp judgements create unforgettable portraits as he combines sketches of characters from his earlier prose works and poems with references to real historical figures. Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edward Hopper, and Arthur Koestler are among those who come under his scrutiny, along with the poets Charles Baudelaire and Robert Frost and the Polish writers Witold Gombrowicz and Zbigniew Herbert.This overview extends beyond profiles of real and imagined people to places that have had particular meaning in Milosz's own personal geography. His focus ranges from Szetejnie, where he was born, and Berkeley, where he has lived for almost four decades, to places he has visited, such as Bend, Oregon, and Sierraville, California. Fluidly intermingled withthese entries are his reflections on broader themes such as "City", "Misfortune", "Love", and "Knowledge".Witty, erudite, eloquent, and outspoken, Milosz's ABC's is at once a fascinating self-portrait and a unique reflection on twentieth-century politics, poetry, and prose.

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