I’ve been melting in the heat a little recently, as no doubt many of you have too! My reading has slowed down quite a lot during July, but I *have* been reading , and the book I want to talk about today is one which has been on my radar for some time. I received a proof of it ages ago (the original publication date was March 2020); then it was put back to April 2021, and finally was published in March 2022. Was it worth the wait? Well, yes – very much so!!

The work in question is “Memories of Starobielsk: Essays Between Art and History” by Josef Czapski (translated by Alissa Valles), and the author has appeared on the Ramblings before, when I covered his “Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp“. Perhaps his most famous work is “Inhuman Land”, where he relates his quest to discover the truth about the fate of thousands of Polish officers who were massacred in Katyn Forest in 1940. “Memories…” is related to both these works in that many of the pieces collected here were written during WW2 while these events were still recent, and also because some of them discuss art and literature. Czapski was primarily a painter, although on the evidence of the books of his I’ve read, his writing is outstanding.

“Memories…” gathers together the title work, as well as 19 other pieces labelled as “Essays, Interviews, Letters (1943-1987)”. All are powerfully and beautifully written, ranging from memories of meetings with Anna Akhmatova to thoughts on ‘Blok and Inner Freedom’. Many of the works collected here were written whilst Czapski was travelling on diplomatic business, and they’re presented chronologically and usually dated. Often they were published in ‘Kultura’, a leading Polish-émigré literary-political magazine which ran from 1947 to 2000; and it’s clear from pieces like ‘Katyn and the Thaw’ that Czapski never stopped following world events closely, determined that the fate of his fellows from Starobielsk would not be forgotten.

‘The poet is a child of harmony. He has to fulfil the world a role in world culture,’ Blok says.

That thread of memory runs through most of the works collected in this volume, and in fact one of the longest pieces, ‘Recollections’ (from an interview conducted in 1971) makes fascinating reading as Czapski looks back over his life. He discusses his art; what a painter needs to be able to work, and to recognise when his work is not going well and he needs to abandon it; and explores the work of other artists like Chaim Soutine. In all of these pieces, his analysis is measured yet there’s an underlying passion in his prose, and that comes out most strongly in the title piece of the book.

“Memories of Starobielsk” is a litany of memory; whilst held in the camp. Czapski had no materials to write or draw or record things and so as soon as he was able, he put down onto paper as many of the people and events he could remember from the camps. He was obviously determined to record as much as he could, and no doubt took these memories with him when he set out to try to find the truth about what happened in Katyn. It’s a particularly powerful and moving piece, and I must admit my heart broke reading about all these creative, cultured, talented people who were blindly massacred. Truly, war is evil.

Not knowing contemporary man, I know eternal man, whose face is visible/shines through in art. Why does Egyptian sculpture give me something more than rapture, why is the drawing of a horse in a cave across a distance of fifteen thousand years closer to me than the best drawing from Degas’s last period?

Jozef Czapski was obviously an intelligent, humane man who lived through unspeakable times and tried to help his comrades as well as ensuring they weren’t forgotten. He also brought his impressive intellect to a number of subjects, both written and visual arts, and it’s clear he believed that culture was essential to humanity. When I was writing about his “Lectures on Proust…” I commented “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 stand by that even more so, having now read more of his memories and more of his thoughts on art generally. As culture continues to be dumbed down all around us, we need to keep hold of the arts – I do believe they are what make us human, and I suspect Jozef Czapski would agree with that too. “Memories of Starobielsk” is a powerful, unforgettable book and kudos to NYRB for publishing this and his other works.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!