Reading Proust in the Gulag

By Ayten Tartici


CreditCreditJoan Wong; Proust image by Otto Wegener. Tracks by Tommy Belt/Getty Images

What books do we reach for when we know that we soon will die? And do we read to prepare ourselves for death, as the ancient Egyptians did with the “Book of the Dead,” or to distract ourselves from it — to break from the crisis of the present? Dying of leukemia in 2004, Susan Sontag carried “Don Quixote” with her to radiation treatments, and blitzed through “Persepolis” in her hospital bed at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Sigmund Freud, dying of mouth cancer, read Balzac’s “The Wild Ass’s Skin,” refusing all painkillers save aspirin to maintain his lucidity. In Saul Bellow’s final novel, “Ravelstein,” the secular protagonist, modeled on the philosopher Allan Bloom, finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the sacred as he is dying of AIDS: “If he had to choose between Athens and Jerusalem, among us the two main sources of higher life, he chose Athens, while full of respect for Jerusalem. But in his last days, it was the Jews he wanted to talk about, not the Greeks.”

“Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp,” by the Polish painter, intellectual and writer Jozef Czapski, represents a unique contribution to this tradition of last books. Delivered to a group of P.O.W.s in a Russian labor camp where he was imprisoned in the winter of 1940-41, Czapski’s wide-ranging lectures on Proust provide a rare glimpse into what it means to turn to art and literature at a time when mortality is on your mind. Born in Prague in 1896 to an aristocratic family, Czapski, who was fluent in Polish, Russian, German and French, fought for Poland against the Bolsheviks, eventually moving to Paris to pursue a bohemian career as a painter. Through the connections of the Polish pianist Maria Godebska-Sert, he was ushered into Parisian artistic and literary circles, where he met several friends of Proust, who had recently died. Discouraged by the difficulty of the French master’s prose and the extravagance of his style, Czapski abandoned an attempt to read “Remembrance of Things Past.” After a romantic disappointment, however, he returned, eccentrically picking up the novel in the middle, with the sixth volume, “The Fugitive.” This early encounter blossomed into a literary obsession.

At the turn of the 1940s, Czapski found himself back in Poland fighting the German invasion. He was captured along with thousands of other Polish officers by the Red Army, which had conspired with Hitler to partition the short-lived interwar Polish Republic. He was subsequently imprisoned at Starobielsk, in modern-day Ukraine. In 1940, nearly 400 Polish officers, including Czapski, were transferred without explanation to a makeshift camp controlled by the N.K.V.D. in Gryazovets, a few hundred miles north of Moscow. In what came to be known as the “Katyn massacre,” the thousands of remaining Polish officers and cadets were summarily executed on Stalin’s orders.

It seems inevitable that death was never far from Czapski’s thoughts, consigned as he was to hard labor in rural Russia. As his biographer and translator Eric Karpeles notes: “Though they did not know that more than 20,000 of their fellow officers had been murdered by the Soviet authorities, the Polish officers at Gryazovets were keenly aware that their captors might kill them.” Czapski concluded as much in his own memoirs: “Each man lived on hope. … Each prophecy was passed around with faith, everything served as fuel for our hopes, but in fact that very feeling, that sense of being buried alive, was cruel, and it was unlikely that we’d ever get beyond the wire, unless to get a bullet in the back of the skull.”

In the face of that ominous possibility, Czapski and his colleagues came up with the idea of delivering nightly lectures, with each officer agreeing to speak “about what he remembered best.” Father Kamil Kantak, a former Polish newspaper editor, lectured on the history of human migration; Lieutenant Ostrowski, an avid mountaineer, recounted his expeditions in South America. Professor Siennicki, of the Polytechnic School in Warsaw, talked about the history of architecture, and a Dr. Ehrlich discussed the history of the book.

After first volunteering to speak on French painting, Czapski ultimately chose to lecture in French on Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” a text to which he felt “deeply indebted” and which he “was not sure of seeing again.” Miraculously, like Czapski himself, an abridged transcript of some of the lectures survived the war. He had dictated their content to two lieutenants, and the handwritten manuscripts, which have since been lost, somehow escaped the Soviet censor and were typeset. Shortly after the war, Czapski supervised a Polish translation. The lectures were not published in the original French until 1987 and not in English until last fall, when New York Review Books released a translation by Karpeles.

Proust is, without doubt, an odd choice for the gulag, a fact of which Czapski was well aware: “I can still see my companions, worn out after having worked outdoors in temperatures dropping as low as minus 45 degrees, packed together underneath portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin, listening intently to lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at that time.” Despite the poverty of their conditions, the assembled company was highly educated, which allowed Czapski to wander from Proust’s translations of Ruskin to the influence of Latin on his syntax. With no access to physical books in the camp, the lectures are naturally preoccupied with the almost Proustian exercise of remembering Proust’s text. At points, Czapski recalls long scenes with exacting precision, but he also cautions his audience that he may be jumbling things up. He calls the famous madeleine a brioche but at other times summons up details like an effortless juggler.

The most surprising fact about the lectures, however, is how they conclude: with a meditation on death. This move spares Czapski the accusation that he was merely escaping into the sensory, bourgeois richness of Proust’s art. He is not afraid to confront the specter of his own death head-on, and to use literature to do so. He broaches the topic by evoking the death scene of the writer Bergotte, in a section of “Remembrance” that Proust was editing in the final weeks before he died. Bergotte, by this point in the novel an invalid and shut-in, steps out to see an exhibition that includes Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” which Czapski, borrowing from Proust, describes as embodying a “mysterious charm,” a “Chinese perfection and delicacy.” Having taken in that sight, Bergotte quickly suffers a fatal stroke and dies in the gallery, overwhelmed by his senses. Czapski notes that Bergotte’s last wish is to view the paintings “one more time … though he knows well enough that, given his health, it’s risky for him to go out to see the exhibition.” A good death becomes linked to the experience of good art.

Czapski extends this observation about Bergotte’s death to what may have been on Proust’s mind in his final days: “It’s not possible that he did not understand, given the state of his health, that the enormous and feverish effort required to keep on with his work would precipitate his end. But he had made up his mind, he would not take care of himself, death had become truly a matter of indifference to him.” I am not sure if we ever truly achieve indifference toward death, but Czapski suggests that we can weaken its sting. That conviction is reminiscent of the thrust of the computer scientist Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture,” a talk he gave at Carnegie Mellon a month after receiving a terminal diagnosis. Explaining why he decided to deliver a lecture that required extensive preparation instead of spending every one of his last moments with his children, Pausch later wrote: “If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.” Czapski, like Scheherazade, gave his nightly lectures in Gryazovets not knowing what the morning would bring.

The last thing Bergotte saw was Vermeer; Czapski wanted one of the last things his comrades heard to be Proust — not as an escape but as a means of achieving a certain acceptance in the present that art and literature are uniquely suited to provide. Having survived the war, Czapski lived the remainder of his 96 years in exile in France, leaving behind nearly 300 volumes of diaries. Virtually blind toward the end, he knew his days were numbered. The morning of the day he died in 1993, he listened to Chopin on an old cassette tape. His last words, an allusion to Schubert’s “An die Musik,” were simply “Holde Kunst”: noble art.