A Soldier and Artist Fights for Liberty

When Eric Karpeles received a slender book in the mail from an old friend, he was a painter and a writer on art and literature, with a particular interest in Marcel Proust. His friend had sent him a book by another painter, in French, on the subject of Proust. “One June day,” he had never heard of Józef Czapski; “the next day I was hooked.” We have his friend to thank for Karpeles's translation of the little book on Proust, and the project that became a comprehensive biography of its author.

No wonder he was hooked. Czapski (1896-1993) led a long and extraordinary life. His intellectual and artistic achievements are ultimately his most important but, as Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski shows, he seems also to have been present at more events of historical and cultural significance than just about anybody.

The Foreign Minister's Nephew

Born into the Polish nobility, Czapski was part of a family that included Baltic Germans, Czechs, Russian speakers, and committed 19th century Polish patriots. He was raised in a fervently Catholic household and educated in St. Petersburg as an adolescent; there were relatives in Vienna and Prague and Paris. For a time, Uncle Count Franz was Austrian foreign minister; when he once pushed past a waiting Jewish doctor to claim a first-class train compartment (the emperor had summoned him), his arrogance gave the doctor nightmares that later turned up analyzed in a groundbreaking book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

Czapski served briefly in the Russian army in 1917 before returning to Poland, where after a stint in art school he saw more significant military service in the Polish army during the Russian-Polish war of 1919-20. (He would encounter one of his military instructors, Lieutenant de Gaulle, again.) In the 1920s he and a group of contemporaries travelled together to Paris to paint, learning from the work of Paul Cézanne and Pierre Bonnard and meeting such present and future notables as the Nabokov brothers Sergei and Vladimir, the novelist Julien Green, the Polish-French art patron Misia Sert, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sergei Diaghilev, and Pablo Picasso.

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