Literary biographies tend to come in two flavors. First, there’s the big, fat, encyclopedic type—the kind that gets called “magisterial,” the kind that wins awards. Think of A. David Moody’s three-volume Ezra Pound biography, or J. Michael Lennon’s recent 960-page doorstopper, Norman Mailer: A Double Life. Then there’s another type: shorter, stranger, more distinctive in style and argumentation. This kind offers not an exhaustive combing through of a life’s minutiae (“and then, on December 3, Joyce had three pints and two shots of whiskey, followed by some fish and chips…”) but a particular angle of vision, a critic’s sense of how the life and work fit together, or how and when they don’t. Think of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Herman Melville or Muriel Spark’s Mary Shelley: A Biography—both slender works of brilliance in which we see a fit of sensibility between biographer and subject. Two recent books, Andrzej Franaszek’s Milosz: A Biography and John Irwin’s The Poetry of Weldon Kees: Vanishing as Presence, exemplify these two styles.
The first biography of the Nobel Prize–winning poet in English, Milosz: A Biography was ten years in the research and writing, another six in the translating. Czeslaw Milosz led a historically interesting—which is to say, a deeply tragic—life. Born in Lithuania in 1911, Milosz and his family fled the German army during World War I, living for short periods of time in Estonia and Belarus before settling in Wilno, where Milosz also attended university. There, he became involved, first excitedly and then uncomfortably, with left-wing literary movements. He witnessed anti-Jewish violence—“not far removed from a pogrom” Franaszek tells us—and bravely spoke out against it.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Milosz left Warsaw, where he had worked for Radio Poland, only to sneak back into the Nazi-occupied city in 1940. There he published underground poetry, witnessed the Warsaw Uprising, and moved from safe house to safe house, narrowly escaping capture on several occasions. After the war, he became a cultural attaché at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., then ran afoul of the Communist Party and had his passport revoked. He publicly defected, living in exile—first in France, then in America—for most of the remaining fifty-three years of his life. He returned to Poland only after he had won the Nobel Prize and the Iron Curtain had fallen. (His poetry served as an inspiration for the Solidarity Movement.) As I said, it’s a historically interesting life.
Once you start talking about Milosz’s life, it’s difficult to stop. There are just too many interesting events and telling details, and Franaszek offers them in abundance. Once during World War II, at risk of being discovered with a falsified passport, Milosz swallowed his documents. For years, he had a freewheeling correspondence with Thomas Merton. (In general, Franaszek is good on Milosz’s complicated but essential relationship to Catholicism. He’s less good on Milosz’s many affairs, some of which took place quite late in his life. Franaszek informs us, by way of extenuation, that in 1981 the poet’s testosterone level was 755, “whereas men over fifty could usually expect an average of 300.” Good to know.)
We also get details about the bit players in Milosz’s life: a classmate, Stanislaw Kownacki, was obsessed with “constructing shortwave radios and staying in touch with other enthusiasts worldwide”; a relative named Eugeniusz was so absentminded that he was a few days into a hunting trip before remembering that he had locked his wife in the pantry.