Reading Proust in the Gulag

What books do we reach for when we know that we soon will die? And do we read to prepare ourselves for death, as the ancient Egyptians did with the “Book of the Dead,” or to distract ourselves from it — to break from the crisis of the present? Dying of leukemia in 2004, Susan Sontag carried “Don Quixote” with her to radiation treatments, and blitzed through “Persepolis” in her hospital bed at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Sigmund Freud, dying of mouth cancer, read Balzac's “The Wild Ass's Skin,” refusing all painkillers save aspirin to maintain his lucidity. In Saul Bellow's final novel, “Ravelstein,” the secular protagonist, modeled on the philosopher Allan Bloom, finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the sacred as he is dying of AIDS: “If he had to choose between Athens and Jerusalem, among us the two main sources of higher life, he chose Athens, while full of respect for Jerusalem. But in his last days, it was the Jews he wanted to talk about, not the Greeks.”

“Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp,” by the Polish painter, intellectual and writer Jozef Czapski, represents a unique contribution to this tradition of last books. Delivered to a group of P.O.W.s in a Russian labor camp where he was imprisoned in the winter of 1940-41, Czapski's wide-ranging lectures on Proust provide a rare glimpse into what it means to turn to art and literature at a time when mortality is on your mind. Born in Prague in 1896 to an aristocratic family, Czapski, who was fluent in Polish, Russian, German and French, fought for Poland against the Bolsheviks, eventually moving to Paris to pursue a bohemian career as a painter. Through the connections of the Polish pianist Maria Godebska-Sert, he was ushered into Parisian artistic and literary circles, where he met several friends of Proust, who had recently died. Discouraged by the difficulty of the French master's prose and the extravagance of his style, Czapski abandoned an attempt to read “Remembrance of Things Past.” After a romantic disappointment, however, he returned, eccentrically picking up the novel in the middle, with the sixth volume, “The Fugitive.” This early encounter blossomed into a literary obsession.


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