Józef Czapski: Soldier, Critic, Eyewitness, Painter
Events in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay area
Józef Czapski was a beautiful human being, courageous, noble but also hard-working; occasionally a soldier, journalist, diarist, always writing, drawing, always with a sketchbook in hand, always ready to help friends and strangers. –Adam Zagajewski
Józef Czapski’s essays on Proust, written in a Soviet prison camp: these proved the unlikely impetus to Eric Karpeles’s remarkable biography of the Polish painter and writer, who bore witness to twentieth-century history in its peculiarly brutal Polish incarnation. –Clare Cavanagh
Józef Czapski (1896–1993) lived many lives—as a soldier, public figure, historical witness, memoirist, essayist, and painter. His ninety-six years nearly span the twentieth century in its entirety. He was a student in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution and a painter in Paris in the Roaring Twenties. As a Polish reserve officer fighting against the invading Germans in the opening weeks of the Second World War, he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and survived the Katyn Massacre. He never returned to Poland but worked tirelessly in Paris to raise awareness of the plight of his homeland, overrun by totalitarian powers. Czapski was a towering public figure, but painting gave meaning to his life.
Previously little-known in English, this year New York Review Books is bringing three books by or about Czapski to American readers. Almost Nothing is the first English-language biography of Czapski by painter, writer, and translator Eric Karpeles. Karpeles has written critical works on Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickenson, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Rothko.
Karpeles has also translated Czapski’s unique work Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. While in a Soviet POW camp, Czapski – working from memory – composed and delivered a series of lectures on Proust (in French) to his fellow-prisoners. This unparalleled feat of the critical imagination is now available in English for the first time, revealing Czapski as one of the greatest Proustians – even under terrible wartime conditions.
Later this year, Czapski’s memoir Inhuman Land will also appear in English, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In 1941, tens of thousands of Poles were released from Soviet prison camps and allowed to join a Polish army being formed by General Wladyslaw Anders. Anders assigned Czapski the task of investigating the disappearance of thousands of Polish officers. Blocked at every level by Soviet authorities, Czapski discovered these officers had been shot dead in the Katyn forest by the Soviet secret police. This wrenching memoir, which also details the arduous trek of Anders’ Army through Central Asia and the Middle East to join the invasion of Italy, is a towering achievement of historical writing.
Eric Karpeles is a painter, writer, and translator. His comprehensive guide, Paintings in Proust, considers the intersection of literary and visual aesthetics in the work of the great French novelist. He has written about the paintings of the poet Elizabeth Bishop and about the end of life as seen through the works of Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Rothko. The painter of The Sanctuary and of the Mary and Laurance Rockefeller Chapel, he is the also the translator of Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Lorenza Foschini’s Proust’s Overcoat. He lives in Northern California.
Full Tour Details:
New York, NY
Thursday, November 8
With historian Irena Grudzinska-Gross and translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones
McNally Jackson (Manhattan)
52 Prince St
Tuesday, November 13
With historian Anka Muhlstein
16 Washington Mews
Thursday, November 15
With translator Jan Pytalski
Solid State Books
600F H Street NE
Friday, November 16
With translator Clare Cavanagh
5751 S Woodlawn Ave
Point Reyes Station, CA
Friday, November 23
Point Reyes Books
11315 State Route 1
San Francisco, CA
Thursday, November 29
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Ave at Broadway (North Beach)