Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski
Translated by Eric Karpeles

Josef Czapski was a remarkable man; of that, there can be no doubt; a polymath, his life took in painting, writing and essays as well as military and diplomatic careers. And yet, until NYRB issued his works plus a biography I’d never heard of him – which is actually quite shocking. Czapski lived through the bulk of the 20th century; born in Poland in 1896, he was a student in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, a painter in Paris mingling with the likes of Picasso, and during the Second World War fought as an office in the Polish army. Somehow, miraculously, he and a group of less than four hundred men survived the Soviet murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers (the Katyn Massacre); instead, they were incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp 250 miles north of Moscow, which was where this book has its genesis.

The surviving men had no knowledge of what had happened to their comrades; however, during the winter of 1940-41, with temperatures dropping down to as low as minus 45 degrees, they agreed to undertake secret lectures to keep up morale. Each man would speak about what they remembered best, and in Czapski’s case, his love of the work of Proust was his life-saver. Czapski had first read “In Search of Lost Time” (as it’s called in English here) during the summer of 1926, while he was at his uncle’s house in London and suffering with typhoid. His love of that work had stayed with him, and so when it came to the lectures, Czapski presented a series of thoughts on Proust, his life and his work. It’s heady stuff, and all the more remarkable when you think that these lectures were created and delivered without access to books or reference material, so were simply drawn from what was remembered and what Czapski retained in his head.

His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness who soundness is infinitely greater than our own.

And the lectures are remarkably entertaining. Czapski ranges over Proust’s life and influences; the society he moved in; the events and the characters in his great work; and how “In Search…” was Proust’s life’s work and in fact in many ways *took* his life. On their own, the lectures are deeply fascinating and illuminating; and I found myself quite desperate to pick up the third book in the sequence and carry on reading Proust. Czapski really shines a light on Proust’s work and his love of that work is patent.

The last volume of his novel… is the triumphant hymn of a man who has sold all his worldly possessions to buy a single precious pearl, who has measured all the ephemera, all the heartbreak, all the vanity of the joys of the world, of youth, of fame, of eroticism, and holds them up in comparison with the joy of the artist, this being who, constructing each sentence, making and then remaking each page, is in search of an absolute he can never entirely attain, and which, besides, is ultimately unattainable.

However, this is a book where context adds more and our knowledge of the background to the lectures brings extra depth to our reading of it. The latter is deeply affecting on two levels; Czapski’s highly personal response to Proust is in itself extremely moving. However, the lectures are a poignant reminder of the resilience of human beings in extreme situations and a striking illustration of how art and literature are as essential to us as air. The book is translated by Eric Karpeles, who provides an in-depth history of the genesis of the printed version of the lectures, as well as pointing out several other examples of how the memory of literature has helped those in camps to survive, from Primo Levi to Jorge Semprun, Yevgenia Ginzburg to Varlam Shalamov. It’s a testament to the power of words and the importance of literature that the deep love of those works of art helped to keep these prisoners sane whilst living through inhuman conditions.

I’m not making the case that the pages I speak about are the most valuable, it’s just a hierarchy subjectively fixed by my enthusiasm. I can’t recall ever having gone back to Proust – and I’ve done that many times – without discovering some new emphasis, some new insight each time.

“Lost Time” is a slim but devastating book; I became lost in Czapski’s thoughts on Proust only to be jerked back to the reality of where the lectures were given by his acknowledgement that he was working from memory alone with no texts to guide him. And yet his writings have a vitality and intensity born of the love of his subject, which just goes to show that the best teachers are the ones who are committed to their field. My NYRB edition is, of course, beautifully presented, with the excellent aforementioned introduction, as well as colour plates reproducing Czapski’s original schemes for his lectures and a useful glossary of names at the back. In fact, Czapski has been well-served by both publisher and translator; there is a large format NYRB softback biography by Karpeles (a painter and author in his own right, as well as a translator) of Czapski, and I’ll be covering that in coming weeks. Additionally, the publisher has issued an edition of “Inhuman Land”, Czapski’s work about his search for the truth behind the Katyn Massacre, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago; I’ll be covering that too.

I feel awfully ignorant that I’d never heard of Czapski until these NYRB editions, but grateful that the publisher is bringing these works out. Hopefully Czapski will now have a much wider audience in the English-speaking world; and works like his will continue to remind us of the horrors of the past about which we still need to be so vigilant if we’re to avoid a repeat performance…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks! As I mentioned in my earlier post, there is a fascinating-sounding event in London next week which explores Czapski’s work and if you can get along to it, do – more details here!