Miłosz: A Biography

By Andrzej Franaszek, translated by Aleksandra Parker and Michael Parker,Harvard university press, £30

Near the outset of this new biography of Czeslaw Miłosz, the Polish poet and Nobel Prize-winner, is a beguiling depiction of a time of peace in rural Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), where Miłosz was born in 1911. For its harmony between inhabitants and nature, and between the social classes, it might be the Shire. The world, young Miłosz learned, could be “a homely place, blessed by human toil and care”.

But this “earthly paradise” would not last: “States were falling, countries passed away / Chimeras of the human mind besieged us,” he wrote in “Caffè Greco”.

From the age of 10, Miłosz lived in Wilno (Vilnius), “a Baroque pearl hidden among the vast Northern forests”. He thought he would grow up to be a botanist or ornithologist, until the cruelty of nature began to disturb him.

Once, in his late teens, demented by a perceived amorous betrayal, he played a solo game of Russian roulette. The sensitive boy-cum-adolescent conjured up by Andrzej Franaszek seems very similar to the aged man staring out from the cover of the book: gruff but vulnerable; curious but guarded; kindly but fierce.

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