Adam Zagajewski’s Another Beauty

It was a stroke of genius, on behalf of the New Yorker, to run Polish poet’s Adam Zagajewski’s “Try To Praise The Mutilated World” in the week following the collapse of the Twin Towers, when America – and indeed the world – felt little cause for optimism. Another poem – Auden’s “September 1, 1939” – written by a non-American, in a prior time, seems still more relevant, but where the Englishman offers us cynicism, the Pole compels us to hope. Another Beauty, Zagajewski’s 1991 memoir written in exile from his native Poland, attempts to reconstruct the Krakow of his adolescence, where he studied psychology and philosophy, joined resistance movements, and wrote his first verses.

He tells us, from the start, that the exercise is futile, that the city of his youth has been lost forever – “but, of course, we always seek what’s gone for good.” The memoir begins with a meditation on a photograph, “an aerial shot, taken from a plane or helicopter.” It’s the first indication we get that Zagajewski is not writing from his native land, but mining his memory at a geographic remove: from Paris or from Houston, where he taught creative writing. Still, his memory is keen:

It’s late afternoon, early evening, the sun slopes westward, the shadows are long and languid, nourished by the sunny day, sated. They’ve stretched out precisely along the line running east to west, and so run parallel to the churches’ elongated bodies, which were, as we know, built upon exactly the same axis, between the sunrise and the sunset, the two most important events of the day.

But the photograph conceals as much as it reveals, and having spent decades living under a dishonest regime, Zajagewski has no more patience for half-truths:

A bird’s-eye view reveals the city’s petty secrets, secrets that would be difficult to detect from street level. The view from above resembles a confession, the town admits its venial sins – but not its true, cardinal misdeeds, you have to look for these elsewhere, in memory and forgetting.

Foremost among these “sins” is the complicity of the Polish people in handing over their Jewish friends and neighbours to the Nazi death machine, and at several poignant moments, Zagajewski will reflect on this legacy and what it might say about him and his countrymen.

Most of the book, however, is not so weighty. Its structure, to begin with, defies narrative, interspersing anecdote with aphorism, traveling backwards and forwards in time at a moment’s notice. Standout moments concern, for example, his excitement at discovering Beethoven’s collected symphonies in a record store – and his disappointment at learning that his budget restricts him to purchasing just one. Or his description of that magical infatuation – common to all writers – with great books, made more meaningful in his case in juxtaposition with the Soviet propaganda mandated to him by his university professors. He falls into the habit of checking out two sets of books at the local library: those required to him by his course of study, and those selected by him:

The bad ones were written in a completely different language: flat, wooden, expository, and frequently false. The others, though, were ardent, infused with inspiration. It wasn’t just a question of prose versus poetry, mind over metaphors. The good books didn’t lack for thoughts, but the ideas sprouted with the imagery. The language wasn’t the dull, indifferent speech of a court reporter: it warmed and grew just as the book did. The language in them was a living entity; it made my heart beat more powerfully. These books spoke to me. They said that I too might follow the same routes one day, that I might pilot such aircraft.

No doubt this early appreciation for the great works of literature inoculated him against what he recognizes, belatedly, was a real possibility: that out of anti-communist zeal, he become as programmatic, wooden and dull as the Soviet propagandists he despised. It’s a trap many of his peers succumbed to: “I found more skepticism than daring in art as well, more irony, more narcissistic fascination with form than concern for the fittest subject of study: the great, stern, inscrutable world.”

Ultimately, the structure of Another Beauty – or perhaps lack thereof – stunts its growth. The observations are there, and they are often poignant and beautifully phrased – but occasionally they are trite, or obscure, or seem stunningly out of place. Are we reading a diary or a memoir? Zagajewski can’t seem to make up his mind, and the reader suffers for his indecision.