Engaging life of a little-known artist and writer who was on hand for some of the 20th century’s major events.
Józef Czapski’s long life (1896-1993) stretched over almost all the 20th century, and he knew everyone. Descended from “various noble houses—Baltic, Austrian, Russian—with a smattering of Polish ancestry,” he considered himself a Pole. He was more liberal than his mother, who employed only Catholic servants at the family’s estate, but he shared her broad interests and intelligence. Czapski entered the Polish army during World War I and was soon given a special assignment because of his fluency in Russian: namely, to travel inside Bolshevik Russia and retrieve three Polish officers who had disappeared there. At the beginning of World War II, when Poland was invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union—“a stab in the back,” Czapski wrote, “that accelerated the collapse of our last holdout against two great totalitarian powers”—he narrowly avoided being executed by the Soviets, an atrocity for which he would ever after seek justice (and attain a small measure of it toward the end of his life). Along the way, he had a love affair with a member of the Nabokov clan, painted exquisite portraits, wrote books on Proust and other subjects, and traveled everywhere, including America, for which he had little enthusiasm. Writes biographer and translator Karpeles (Paintings in Proust, 2008, etc.), who discovered Czapski accidentally through a friend who himself discovered him through a chance remark by Canadian writer Mavis Gallant about the brilliant Polish exile community in Paris, “he spared himself no disenchantment.” A central episode in Czapski’s life was his internment in Russia before being allowed to go to British territory, which he recounts in Inhuman Land (just published, also by NYRB); Karpeles sheds abundant light on that episode, giving us a nuanced portrait of a man of parts.
A Zelig-like figure, Czapski is, by Karpeles’ account, “largely unknown to American readers and artists.” This fine biography serves as a useful corrective.