Book Review

Lost Time by Józef Czapski

a touch of proust

Lost Time. Let’s consider the title before we consider the book. Time is a resource. Time is finite. Time can be lost, time can be used, but time cannot, truly, be regained. Yes, as you may have already realised, I’m writing about Proust again.

There’s not much to say about Józef Czapski’s Lost Time outside of its context.

No, that’s unkind.

Lost Time is a lovely, short, novella-length essay on Á la recherche du temps perdu by an informed and engaging writer and artist who knew people who knew Proust, but it doesn’t really say anything especially revelatory about the text, certainly nothing more than the introductions and notes of the Christopher Prendergast Penguin Modern Classics editions. It’s pleasant and enjoyable, of course, to read someone who loves Proust raving about Proust, especially so soon after reading Proust.

Lost Time is a more personal, narrated and Polish-focused reading of Proust than previous Proust commentary I have encountered, and it also deals with the work’s legacy, too. These lectures were given in 1940/41, but not published until 1987 in French (which they were written and delivered in, despite being performed by a Polish man for a Polish audience), and this NYRB Classics edition is a brand new 2018 translation by Eric Karpeles, its first publication in English.

Czapski writes about time and memory and ageing, about friendship and romance, about the pleasures of reading and writing both poetry and prose. He also explores the developing critical interest in Proust and how this has expanded during the couple of decades that have passed since Marcel’s death (and the publication of the end of the novel). Czapski writes about Proust shutting himself away, dying for years, but only working when he had chosen to live no more.

Proust finished living his life so he could write his life: nothing new, nothing more, happened to or for Proust. This theory was to prove false, because the First World War found its way into the parts of the novel that were written, revised or edited following the war’s commencement.

War inserts itself into art, into literature. Deaths of many characters – most notably Robert de Saint-Loup – occur in the trenches, which obvs would not have been part of the projected plan Proust made when he first turned away from life and towards the page.

War inserts itself because of the death, pain, horror and decay it brings: these are unavoidable.

That is why the context – and the introduction – of Lost Time are the most important parts of this text. Czapski was a 40-something artist and writer who’d moved back to Poland for a bit after a couple of decades in Paris, when the Nazis invaded and he signed up to the army as an officer.

Unfortunately, though, the Polish army wasn’t ready for the Germans, and due to a secret deal between Germany and the Soviets, 20,000 Polish army officers were handed over as POWs to the USSR and all but roughly 400 of them were immediately executed and buried in mass graves.

Czapski and the other survivors were sent to a concentration camp for “reeducation”, and part of the plan to convert these Polish men – mostly educated and professionally successful – to Bolshevism (I mean Stalinism) was allowing them a [false] semblance of freedom. It is in this scenario where the Polish officers began giving lectures to each other, from memory, without references. A couple of early ones got politically out of hand (and the speakers were killed), but the lectures continued with tighter supervision.

That is why Czapski’s lectures have occasional factual errors, holes for memory, openly-acknowledged misquoting and rushed summaries: these lectures were delivered in a prison camp, and they had to be apolitical on the pain of death.

Lost Time is about how and when Czapski read Proust, what and how he got from the text, how and why Proust’s various international translations were more or less successful.

The initial Polish translator of Proust, for example, added paragraph breaks and line breaks around dialogue, ramping up the page count, but making the texts far more of a popular success (due to the impression of improved accessibility) than they had been in France. Allegedly, I mean, obvs, Czapski doesn’t cite his sources because they’re all from memory.

As an example of people finding a way to remain themselves while under extreme duress – if anything more psychological (the constant threat of execution) than physical (Czapski made his plans for the lectures (included here as colour polyglot prints accompanied by monoglot translations) while on [unpaid] sick leave from [unpaid] forced labour) – Lost Time is a marvellous illustration of hope and intellect and humanity in a nightmare situation. 

Time in prison is lost time, and Czapski – like Proust – managed to reclaim it, find it again, by using memory, by delving into his own past instead of his present.

In a prison camp being drilled in ideological pedagogy, a treasured book from earlier in ones life is helpful. This might be, too, the reason for my personal love and need for Proust (and others) during my own years of Lost Time.

I read a lot when I felt most outside of life, maybe that’s why I’m reading so much atm too.

I haven’t quite set myself in a cork-lined room, but I have set myself in Canada and have no social life nor any plans/the money to start one. I’m producing some work, yeah, sure I am, but what I’m not doing is producing something like Proust produced. Triumph of the Now is not Á la recherche du temps perdu, and nor is my poetry or the weird poetry-prose hybrid manuscript I’ve [hopefully not fruitlessly] been working on for many months.

We all lose time, we all memorialise only the past because we can only memorialise the past. To memorialise anything else is fantasy or falsity.

Telling stories is telling lies, wrote BS Johnson, but telling stories and telling lies – together or separately – is what everybody does, be that in writing or through speech. Language is always subjective, truth is false but memory memory memory is true. Time slips by and we have pleasures and we have horrors and some of us have more than one or the other but we all turn to dust and our souls, our very existence, is always finite.

We lose time, we gain time, but once we’ve gained Proust – until we lose our minds with age/death – we’ve gained something important.

Time spent with Á la recherche du temps perdu is not lost time, and as Czapski makes very clear here, literature can be a great and needed escape from reality.

Order Lost Time direct from NYRB here


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