Reason Limps

Legends of Modernity

Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942–1943

Czeslaw Milosz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 266 pp.

He was “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.” This is how the Irish poet Seamus Heaney described Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), Nobel Prize-winning Lithuanian-born poet, novelist, and essayist. This “ambiguous privilege” spanned enough of the disasterous twentieth century to fill several lifetimes.

Milosz was raised as a Pole in Lithuania under Tsarist Russian rule. As a child, he witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. When he was twenty-eight and living in Warsaw, Germany invaded. After surviving the Nazi occupation, he lived through Soviet control of Poland, eventually sought asylum in France during the intellectual swirl of the 1950s, and took a professorship at Berkeley in the 1960s, just as the cultural revolution was beginning.

Throughout all the upheavals, he wrote-and was well regarded for it. But his fame and influence reached a new level once he began teaching at Berkeley, a critical node of Anglophone intellectual life. Though he never abandoned Polish as his primary form of expression, translators always stood ready to render his work into English, and Milosz became a virtual English writer just as English established its dominance as a global language. As his writings reached a wider audience, increasingly he became known for his eloquent and steadfast witness against communism in his...

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About the Author

Daniel M. Murtaugh is associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University.