I had read Milosz for many years before I met him in person. In the late Sixties and in the Seventies I didn’t believe I’d ever meet him. He was then for me a legend, a unicorn, somebody living on a different planet; California was but a beautiful name to me. He belonged to a chapter of the history of Polish literature that seemed to be, seen from the landscape of my youth, as remote as the Middle Ages. He was a part of the last generation that had been born into the world of the impoverished gentry (impoverished but still very much defining themselves as gentry): he grew up in a small manor house in the Lithuanian countryside where woods, streams, and water snakes were as evident as streetcars and apartment houses in the modest, industrial city of my childhood. His Poland was so totally different from mine—it had its wings spread to the East. When he was born in 1911 he was a subject of the Russian Tsar; everything Russian, including the language which he knew so well, was familiar to him (though, as his readers well know, he was also very critical of many things Russian). I was born into a Poland that had changed its shape; like a sleeper who turns from one side to another, my country spread its arms toward the West—of course only physically, because politically it was incorporated into the Eastern bloc.
I grew up in a post-German city; almost everything in the world of my childhood looked and smelled German. Cabbage seemed to be German, trees and walls recalled Bismarck, blackbirds sang with a Teutonic accent.
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