To be in the Polish Army in 1940 more or less amounted to a death sentence. Fighting against both the Nazi and the Soviet armies—then allies—enlisted men would, surviving battle, be conscripted as slave labor. Officers, particularly if captured by the Soviets, would be shot once in the back of the head and buried in mass graves. Between April 5 and May 5 alone, some twenty-two thousand officers met this fate. So, what would the odds be of an aristocratic Polish officer, an artist and aesthete in his forties, surviving the war, in captivity (and, what is more, surviving to the age of 96)?
Czapski’s fate was shared by some four hundred fellow officers. Imprisoned in the camp of Gryazovets, a bombed-out Orthodox convent some 250 miles north-east of Moscow, these officers found themselves freezing, lousy and starving—but alive. And, what is more, allowed a certain degree of intellectual autonomy, despite the re-education they were forced to undergo by their captors. To keep their spirits and indeed their sanity, these officers organized a series of lectures, based on whatever each could remember best from their earlier lives; and what Czapski chose to lecture on was Marcel Proust’s great roman fleuve, À la recherche du temps perdu.
These pages represent an almost incredible act of memory, as well as intelligence. Separated from the book’s introduction and glossary of selected names, Lost Time (original title: Proust contre la déchéance, or “Proust against decline”; the lectures were delivered in French) consists of only 50-odd pages on Proust himself; but it is often the way that the key to Proust’s massive work lies in brevity (Cf. Samuel Beckett’s monograph on the writer, published as Proust and Three Dialogues).
To suborn one’s own memory to engage with a novel which is itself a supreme act of memory has something almost inevitable about it. Naturally, there was no library at Gryazovets. Everything had to be pulled from one’s own head, and it is remarkable how much Czapski managed it: his recall not just of plot and detail but also the precise phrasing used by Proust would humble many an academic.
Not that this is an academic work. This serves as an introduction to Proust; no prior knowledge is assumed beyond vague familiarity. In fact, a case could be made for saying that Lost Time’s ideal audience consists of those who have not read Á la recherche...
Czapski begins in a way which Proust himself might not have approved of, “Every great book is profoundly tied in one way or another to the very matter of the life of its author.” In Contre Sainte-Beuve Proust declaimed against regarding fiction as disguised autobiography; but there is no getting around the autobiographical nature of Proust’s novel. And we mustn’t forget the circumstances in which Czapski is writing, either. When he describes Proust writing under the shadow of death, we are well aware that he is under the same shadow, even if it comes in a different guise. Which makes Czapski’s lucid, almost chatty style all the more remarkable: and when he recalls certain passages, it is with an intensity that mirrors the intensity of the work itself. Describing Swann listening to the sonata by Vinteuil (i.e. César Franck—probably) which is associated with his love for the courtesan Odette, Czapski writes: “Swann, worldly, supremely reserved, knowing how to hide any intimate emotionality under a mask of indifference, is incapable of holding back his tears. A precise description, perhaps Proust’s most difficult and affecting, appears in the following pages: that of the music itself, the same motif pours forth miraculously from the violin’s sound box, freshly reopening the barely healed scar on Swann’s painful wound at the depth of his being.”
That’s almost worthy of Proust himself; and one can imagine the effect such emotion recalled would have had on the hearts of his audience. Sixty years on, and in another country, another world, and these lines have the power to pierce. Czapski’s book is one of the great labors of literary love: a testament to the power of great writing, to elevate and to remove us from our daily cares, whether they are mundane or desperate. (Karpeles’s excellent introduction reminds us of other writers who found themselves suddenly recalling whole swathes of literature in the most terrible of circumstances: the locus classicus being Primo Levi’s sudden and unforeseen ability to quote passages from Dante’s Inferno in If This Is a Man.) Wisely, such mistakes as Czapski made in his remembrance are left to stand, corrected only in the footnotes; and it is remarkable how few such mistakes there are. The parallels between Proust’s summoning of the past and Czapski’s own do not need to be labored. This is one of the great works of literary criticism, but different from so many others precisely because of the inseparable circumstance of its creation. It is a testament not only to Proust’s great work, but to the very notion of literature as salvation, of escape into another world, a world remade.
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He was a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.