Milosz and His Fans


Molly Wesling in Brick (via Bookhaven):

For five years I worked part-time for the poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz at his home in the Berkeley Hills. Miłosz was seventy-nine when I started taking dictation in Polish and English, helping him answer queries and invitations, mostly finding ways to say “no” in the gentlest of tones. Every so often though, I’d get to transcribe a gem like the letter above.

Once a week I caught the bus to 978 Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Miłosz would greet me at the door, shake my hand with a slight bow, and invite me to his study. By then he had a facial tic: his shaggy eyebrows twitched up and down as he talked. Carol, his American second wife, a lovely, funny woman with a southern twang, would bring Miłosz a glass of vodka. I’d whip out my steno notebook and get to work. Several hours later, Miłosz or Carol would drive me home, a steep descent and a slightly unnerving experience when Miłosz was at the wheel. The view was glorious—often the sun was setting over San Francisco Bay—but I would silently fret about the brakes on his mid-1980s sedan, and the odd headline a mishap might inspire.

To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.

— Czesław Miłosz, Road-side Dog

At the top of his property near the street, Miłosz had a carriage house that he rented out to graduate students, including the sociologist Ted, with whom I fell in love, and, when Ted moved out to live with me, my old friend AnneMarie, a lawyer-in-training. Neither of them had much use for poetry or deference to the landlord called by Joseph Brodsky one of the greatest poets of our time. AnneMarie referred to him as “Cheesy Meatloaf”—her approximation of his Polish name. But she was impressed by the gold medallion that rested on a side table next to the phone in the living room. I’m pretty sure any visitor who used the phone took a surreptitious moment to trace the visage of Alfred Nobel and hold that orb up to the light. When Miłosz went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a year as a writer-in-residence, leaving Ted in charge of his cat and his rhododendrons, the medallion remained in situ, just another knick-knack amid the piles of books and papers. Miłosz himself was not much impressed.

Another part of my job was to open and sort the mail, setting aside the letters from Miłosz’s admirers. I wondered about the crumbs tucked into letters from his Polish readers. Later it dawned on me that they were the bruised remains of communion wafers after a journey through the international post. Miłosz dutifully signed blank cards for autograph seekers and sent photos of himself when requested. He didn’t reply to everyone, but some letters caught his fancy, and he would strike up a correspondence—as with this aspiring writer, whose intelligence and longing jump out from the page:

Guilin, Guangxi 541001

P.R. China
October 14, 1993

Dear Mr. Miłosz,
. . . Perhaps having read western literature and philosophy too much, I appear to be a stranger in my own country. Now, I try hard to improve my English writing ability, hoping to express deeply my understandings of Chinese culture in Standard English someday.
As I have longed to be writer from a child, it is not my end to come to America to study Engineering, but I have no other choice. In China, it is difficult to change one’s occupation, at the same time, I am not willing to waste nine hours in a factory every day. I wish I will be admitted to a literary school to read William Faulkner, to study his cycle of stories about Yoknapatawpha County.
I have enjoyed reading an essay excerpted from “Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition.” Would you please send me this book? For an ordinary Chinese youth like me, it is impossible to obtain any of the original masterpieces. I have taught myself Spanish in order to read Garcia Marquez, for example, but I never get “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
With kindest regards,
Wei Rui

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