STILL ALIVE by Jan Kott

STILL ALIVE

An Autobiographical Essay
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A splendid evocation by an eminent theater critic and philosopher (The Memory of the Body, 1992; Shakespeare Our Contemporary, not reviewed) of what it meant to be alive--sometimes barely--during the tremendous upheavals in Europe caused by the Second World War and the installation of the Communist regime in Poland. Kott, who was born in Poland in 1914 and emigrated to the United States in 1966, follows ``the dictation of my memory and its often intricate meandering'' to tell ``a philosophic tale'' of a time when ``history ha[d] broken loose from its mooring.'' He warns us, in effect, that not all of this narrative is reliable when, after describing a scene with a naked woman in a shower, he admits that ``the scene in the shower with Maria--the water was actually ice-cold--never took place.'' But even if some of the events described didn't take place (and we don't know that they didn't), the book is faithful to a deeper emotional truth. It recounts Kott's struggles as a Jew baptized a Catholic by his father, who ``felt that otherwise there would be no future among Poles''; his efforts to gain religious certainty, which took him for some months into a Dominican monastery; his experiences of the German invasion and then the partition of Poland, when he faced death by starvation or execution on several occasions; his life as a trader selling stockings, sugar, dollars, and gold because ``when death is cheap, food is expensive''; and his membership in the Communist Party, of whose record ``I could scarcely claim ignorance.'' Of that time, he writes, ``I have great difficulty in recognizing myself in those first two years after the war and still more trouble judging myself....I was enchanted with myself...and I remember that enchantment more than our arrogance, more than my own arrogance.'' The Communists were, he says, sure of history, as though it belonged to them. His wife never shared this view, and he was eventually disillusioned with Communism, broke with the party, and successfully reached the United States. Writing sometimes in sharp dramatic episodes, sometimes in an autobiographical stream of consciousness, Kott shows an unerring sense of the telling detail that imprints a scene in the memory. A riveting book.

Pub Date: April 13th, 1994
ISBN: 0-300-05276-6
Page count: 291pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1994