‘Czesław Miłosz: A California Life’ by Cynthia L. Haven: The West Coast’s Mythic Allure

Peter Schlachte

Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (256 pages; Heyday) is as much as portrait of a place as it is of a person. Cynthia L. Haven’s biography of the 1980 Nobel winner and towering voice in 20th century literature explores Miłosz’s work not distilled through the lens of his upbringing in Lithuania nor his formative years in Poland, but through his later life, residing on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley and teaching Slavic languages and literatures at UC Berkeley. From the opening pages, Haven writes beautifully of California’s history and landscape. Here she is describing California’s famously balmy weather: “At first, the unrelieved azure sky, the high-noon sun, is oppressive. The newcomer longs for shade, for dusk, for shadow, for stars. But one soon learns to sense the change of seasons not by snow or rain but rather by the difference between the radiant sunlight of summer that gives clarity and sharp relief to everything in its realm, and the lower slant of golden light in autumn, and then our haze-filled days of winter with lingering sunsets that diffuse light and scatter shadows.”

This is emblematic of Haven’s prose throughout the biography—her descriptions, regardless of topic, are not a means to an end. When she writes about California, it’s not merely to draw the connection between the land and Miłosz. Rather, Haven takes space to revel in the “hypnotic monotony” of the weather and the “alien, hyperreal” rocks along Highway 1. Her language is a place of energy, richness, and—fittingly—poetry.

California, as Haven notes, holds a singular place in the American psyche and a mythic allure for many artists and writers. It is an enduring symbol of the West, of excess and exceptionalism, but also of apocalypse, with its threat of earthquakes, wildfires, floods, volcanos, and drought. In this sense, it would be easy to mirror Miłosz and California: their shared exceptionalism; Miłosz’s Warsaw, razed during World War II, and the hills of California, burning annually; the stunning cliffs of Big Sur, and the stunning scope of Miłosz’s poetry. Haven notes these easy comparisons but pursues a deeper analysis. The biography is far better for it.

Much of the biography is thematically centered on four interconnected concepts: être, to be; devenir, to become; esse, being; and natura, nature. While the translations are simple, the concepts are nuanced and dense, grounded in Thomistic theology and serving as lenses through which to understand the world. Haven introduces these concepts in the opening chapter and returns to them throughout, linking the words and their attendant deeper meanings to key parts of Miłosz’s life and analyzing how his poems stem from and respond to each concept. The concepts become a guide for the biography, a heuristic through which the reader begins to gain some insight into Miłosz’s singular mind.

In one of the most striking passages of the biography, Haven includes an excerpt from the transcript of an interview she conducted with Miłosz over twenty years ago, the two of them returning again to devenir and être. The excerpt, included toward the end of the book, is brief, but it demonstrates Miłosz’s vast depth of knowledge, his respect for the realm of letters and ideas, and his capacious ability to analytically reflect on his own work. The biography is full of people quoting Miłosz and sharing anecdotes from his life, but this is one of the rare occurrences where he speaks for himself. Here, the reader begins to understand why former students and colleagues speak of Miłosz with such reverence, and why, elsewhere, Haven calls Miłosz “an oceanic thinker.”

            This, ultimately, is what is most noteworthy about Haven’s biography. Behind her rigorous research into Miłosz’s life and her meticulous knowledge of his poetry in both Polish and English is a clear adoration for the man and his work. It shines through in brief passages: when Haven meets Miłosz’s translator, Robert Hass, at a Peet’s café to leaf through her “battered” copy of Miłosz’s Collected Poems; the delight Haven takes in describing how the furnace in Miłosz’s home was likely broken for a decade, a testament to his “fierce unworldliness.” Haven conveys that this adoration for Miłosz was shared by most who had the lucky pleasure of interacting with him. Indeed, she shares how Robert Hass, when asked what it was like to translate Miłosz, “responded in a heartbeat: ‘like being alive twice.’” Hass’s response is a beautiful statement, succinctly capturing the thrill that a deep relationship with great art can evoke. This is reflected in Haven’s description of the relationship between Hass and Miłosz. She writes: “It seemed…that there was no longer a Hass and a Milosz but rather a symbiosis, the two men, at least in this, had become one.”

The same symbiosis seems true of Milosz’s relationship with California. Haven reminds us that despite living in California for four decades, Miłosz never considered it his home; it was always a place of exile, a stopover before his unexpected but perhaps inevitable return to Poland. Nonetheless, the biography makes the strong case that Miłosz’s poetry was irrevocably influenced by his experiences in California, from witnessing the social upheaval at Berkeley in the 1960s to spotting deer on his morning walks around Grizzly Peak. 

Toward the end of the biography, Haven asks what Californians can learn from Miłosz. The question is simple enough, but Haven’s answer, partial as it is, is a heady one. She again addresses être and devenir, how to be and how to become, how to learn from the past and look to the future at the same time. Ultimately, however, Haven admits that there is no answer: “The subject eludes the rational mind the more we think about it, the more we try to pin it down, like trying to grab a fistful of water. It is, perhaps, best seen through averted vision, like a star or a distant planet.” That is how Haven chooses to end her book, describing the stars above Grizzly Peak as Miłosz would have seen them from his house, sharing with us the view that Miłosz once had, seeing California through his eyes.

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