Category Archives: Literary Criticism

Portraits From Life

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Portraits From Life –
Modernist Novelists & Autobiography
By Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Oxford University Press – £20.00

Every instance of autobiography is as unique as the life it relates.

Let it be said that biographies and autobiographies can be a profoundly risky phenomenon. Especially when one considers that they are the only books some people will ever read; which, given the degree to which those responsible for writing them can pick and choose what to leave in and what to invariably leave out, really is quite something.

After all: ”A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages.”

What’s more, there is a subliminal tendency on behalf of most readers, to simply abide by what has been beguilingly bequeathed.
As if it were gospel.
As if written in stone.
As if forged upon the template of the ever increasingly curious mind.

Forever more.

There is of course a flip side, which is just one of the reasons I was lured into reading Portraits From Life – Modernist Novelists & Autobiography by Jerome Boyd Maunsell.

An overtly compelling read that endeavours to divulge the difficulties and possibilities of autobiography, by investigating seven canonical Modernist writers (Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, H. G. Wells and Edith Wharton); the book rightfully takes most, if not all of the above to task: ”[…] grasping only a part of life, or an aspect of character, cannot be helped. There is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative. For this reason, biographers cherish the elusive essences which define characters: the telling glances or moments that reveal a whole person […] Yet can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?”

It is precisely the reflective regaling of said fluidity of most people’s lives – their true ”sense of character caught only on the move” if you will – which wholeheartedly accounts for any form of underlying plausibility within biographical writing.

That said, it is surely all in the telling?
Or perhaps more importantly, the light and shade thereof, which, as Maunsell well knows, is so (cunningly) capable of immense literary sparkle: ”[…] taking heart from Leon Edel’s memorable image of the biographer struggling with the multiplicity of ”intractable” facts, or the ”tons and tons” of material left behind by many lives, Portraits From Life aims to arrive – if only for a moment or two – at that ”tiny glowing particle” which contains the ”human personality.”

And arrive these 216 pages most undoubtedly do, even if one does feel the need, the temptation or the simple desire to actually cross decipher – especially where Conrad (in relation to Ford Madox Ford) and Stein (in relation to Pablo Picasso) are concerned.

David Marx

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The Plural of Us

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The Plural of Us –
Poetry and Community in Auden and Others
By Bonnie Costello
Princeton University Press – £37.95

When will we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love.

          ‘The Future of Us’

Poetry’s ‘we” can be highly nuanced and variable […]
marking overlapping and concentric circles.

          ‘Speaking Of Us’

In the final chapter of this highly focused book (‘The Future of Us’), Bonnie Costello endeavours to once more enter, and finally come to terms with the great chasm of an elongated, and at times self-induced ambiguity; by highlighting the non-definable space that surely lies betwixt the most pronounced personal of ‘I,’ and the most assumptive universal of ‘we.’

In so doing, she reinvests a certain assertion that the reader might readily agree with what is at best, a poetically endorsed thesis, wherein analysis takes centre stage almost throughout these 225 pages ( excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Biography and Index). For example, when she writes: ”Whatever the scale of relations, being is always already being ”with” – ”we are pressed, pressed on each other” – and one effort of the poetry is to discover meaningful unity within this condition of proximity, for ”we have chosen the meaning /of being numerous;” are we to readily agree?

What does the authoress essentially mean when she writes of ”meaningful unity”?
As for the ”condition of proximity,”this surely differs in relation to each and every varying circumstance?

I have to confess to initially being drawn to The Plural of Us – Poetry and Community in Auden and Others, largely due to the Auden in the title. For along with Eliot and both Dylans’, Auden is for me, the quintessential poet of the twentieth century.

As such, I was inquisitive to embrace the rather scientific formality of the subject matter ([…] some poetry seeks to harness the rhetorical power of the first-person plural to posit and promote community, often where there is social fragmentation. It can also alert us, intentionally or not, to the pronoun’s dangers and exclusions […]), within the context, or at least within the realm of the Auden trajectory.

Rather like Costello herself: ”He is perhaps the preeminent modern poet for thinking about groups and group organization, intuitively and in the abstract, but he is he rarely fixed to a particular theory or ideology for long. He is the poet of ”private faces in public places,” and of ”private stuff”and ”public spirit,” interested in the tensions and continuities between our intimate lives and our historical relations. He loves theories and doctrines, sometimes to the detriment of his verse, and passes through them like the pages of a calender, but the questions remain the same, and give coherence to the process. He is a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with, in part because he is always thinking, always changing position and genre.”

One could readily assert that it was said change that enabled Auden to remain at the vanguard of true poetic thinking.
Even to this day.
All the more so I’d have thought, simply because he did wrestle with (and love) theories and doctrines. Even if he did pass ”through them like the pages of a calender.”

That Bonnie Costello substantiates the fact that Auden was ”a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with,” accounts for much this book’s adherent allegiance to that of deciphering what its title suggests.

As not once does Costello remotely deviate or straddle off course.

There again, she appears to understand Auden all too well: ”As a ventriloquizing poet, always playing us back to ourselves so that we may hear what we mean, he is highly sensitive to the many postures and tonalities that can arise in the use of the first-person plural.”

In and of itself therefore, many could readily assert that this book is something of a first within its field; or, as Jahan Ramazani, the author of Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres, has since written: ”Bonnie Costello’s exquisite book brilliantly explores how Auden and other poets use the first-person plural to conjure collectivities into being even as they also unsettle them. Her rigorous and commanding reflections on the pronoun ‘we,’ her luminous close readings, her deep knowledge of lyric poetry, and her nuanced yet cogent arguments make this book a model of literary criticism.”

As the title The Plural of Us might suggest, this book circumnavigates the plurality of humanistic value in such a way that sheds new light on an oft, far too forgotten subject.

David Marx

Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare –
Place, ”Race,” Politics
By Shaul Bassi
Palgrave Macmillan 

It is certain that, without Machiavelli, Shakespeare’s tragic theatre would not have been the same.

          (‘Neocon and Theoprog: The New Machiavellian Moment’)

We should continue to insist that race is less a property of an individual or group than a cultural and political process with no basis in science (pace the current obsession with genetics). As a consequence, there is no contradiction in dropping”race” as a noun while keeping all its morphological variants that point to it as a process and a relation: racism, racist, racial, racialization, and raciology. Concurrently, to investigate human difference in Shakespeare, we may start making a better use of the less compromised and more nuanced category of ethnicity.

          (‘Iago’s Race, Shakespeare’s Ethnicities’)

William Shakespeare has always been relevant, and this occasionally hard hitting book ensures that perhaps now, today, more than ever. Reason being, I’m hard pressed to think of a particular era in my lifetime, where racism was so devoutly entrenched at the forefront of the everyday. Especially within the wide-open expanse of such varying and inflammatory portals where social media – which, lest it be said, we all partake in on an almost daily basis – plays such a resolute part.

A medium, where let’s face it, there can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that an entire array of Iagos’ await to condemn and criticize; way beyond any reasonable doubt where racism, is jut as ugly and festering a cancer today, as it has ever been. One need only behold the prime influential cancer growth that is Donald Trump – the President of the United States of America no less – who, for whatever vile and vindictive implication, remains as openly and acutely racist, as it is humanely possible to be.

In all, we live in profoundly dangerous, incendiary times, of which Trump (very closely followed by his many mortals in crime) is doing his up-most-best, to further instil and promote an already volatile society. A society, where the afore quoted ”racism, racist, racial, racialization and raciology” appears to be flourishing un-checked to such a worrying degree, that it is nigh out of control. And if it isn’t out of control, it’s dire, deplorable trajectory appears to have most certainly been (fully) embraced by Britain’s purveyors of Brexit; which, given the full title of this book, triggers the thinking as to where William Shakespeare might have stood on the fiasco that is Brexit.

Furthermore, were one to hurl the likes of Italy’s Niccolo Machiavelli into the equation – which this most simmering of an evocative book does more than handsomely – one ought to indelibly know that one is in for one hell of a literary read.

To be sure, as such is already made abundantly clear in the ‘Introduction: Country Dispositions’ where Shaul Bassi writes: ”This experimental set of readings aims to ask what special relations might obtain between the Italy of Shakespeare and the Italy of a certain line of modern thought, as mediated above all by the work of Machiavelli. Capitalizing on these critical orientations, Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare examine aspects that have remained largely unexplored, arguing that the productive dialogue between the early modern and the postmodern […] can be usefully supplemented by a consideration of key moments of the long pre- and post-independence history of Italy, a country that at the time of Shakespeare was a mosaic of disparate political entities and that only in the nineteenth century, when Shakespeare was first imported into Italian culture, became a unified state.”

Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare – Place, ”Race,” Politics, is a totally clear-cut analyses of that which its title purports to; although it does need to be stressed that it is the most timely pertinence with which it has been written, which fundamentally accounts for its rather unfortunate, albeit current relevance: ”[…] in contemporary Europe, a continent that is increasingly multiethnic but also socially deteriorating and fragile, where the foreigner, especially if her religion or skin colour is different from the majority, is liable to become a convenient scapegoat”’ (‘Fixed Figures: The Other Moors Of Venice’) – my italics.

The whole idea of the ‘scapegoat,’ is what surely describes today’s (predominantly) Western society at best, that, if noting else, is just one of the many, many reasons these 201 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Bibliography and Index) warrant both reading and embracing.

David Marx

 

A History of Modern French Literature

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A History of Modern French Literature –
From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century
Edited by Christopher Prendergast
Princeton University Press – £41.95

”In Shakespeare’s time ”century” didn’t mean a hundred years; it meant a hundred of anything […]. As for the French term siecle, this didn’t originally mean a hundred years either.”

               (‘Introduction 1’)

There is a certain irony in the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is celebrated as the inventor of modern autobiography. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau was obsessed with origins, and he offered in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men) one of the most influential accounts of natural man ever written.

               (‘Rousseau’s First Person’)

To describe this book as an exceedingly well analysed and tantalizing tomb of French induced, literary depth, might initially appear as something of a detriment to not only the book, but also the vast complexity of French literature itself. Reason being, it is so much more than that which the title might initially suggest. As it’s also a historical, as well as philosophical analyses on the subject; which, in and of itself, has more of a complex trajectory than one would ever care to fully comprehend.

As Michael Wood, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University has since been noted as saying: ”This is a tremendous achievement, bringing into a single volume much of the best writing and thinking on French literature that is currently available anywhere.”

Can’t really argue with that, as most of its 652 pages (excluding a List of Contributors, Acknowledgements and Index) are a quintessential revelation in themselves; just as the book’s editor, Christopher Prendergast, nigh substantiates in Introduction (I): ”I have already used the word ”glimpse” in connection with one of the contributions. The term could be generalised to encompass the whole book as a collection of glimpses, angled and partial snapshots (which, with variations of scale, is all history can ever be). On the other hand, it is not just an assortment of self-framing windows onto the French literary-historical world. It’s unfolding describes, if in patchwork and fragmentary form, the arc of a story centered on the nexus of language, nation and modernity.”

A History of Modern French Literature – From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century is a book which one can obviously read from beginning to end; but it’s also a book that can be dipped into at random – as if a most inviting reference work.

For instance, Wes Williams’ third chapter ‘Marguerite de Navarre – Renaissance Woman‘ opens with enough inviting and informative information, one is simply enticed to want to read more: ”Sometimes described as the ”first modern woman,” Marguerite de Navarre occupies an extraordinary place in French Renaissance culture. Commonly referred to simply as ”Marguerite,” in part because of the secondary meaning of the name as ”pearl,” she was, as well as sister to King Francois I, a skilled political operator in her own right, working to effect change within the French court and on the wider European stage.”

Likewise, Christopher Braider’s seventh chapter ‘Moliere, Theater, and Modernity,’ which begins: ”The classical tragedians of seventeenth-century France are routinely said to have invented the modern stage. A key element was the three ”unities” extrapolated from Aristotle’s Poetics, demanding that a play’s action unfold within a single natural day; be confined to a single, readily identifiable place; and exhibit the logical consistency required to convey an air of internal natural necessity and coherence.”

To be sure, almost all of the book’s thirty chapters begin and intrigue with that of a similar persuasion; which, to once again quote Princeton’s Michael Wood, accounts for A History of Modern French Literature being ”highly readable and full of energetically pursued arguments […], it will last for a long time, precisely because its notions of history are so flexible and imaginative.”

Indeed, if nothing else, this book almost underlines the fact that the history of literature, can only benefit from disciplined speculation with regards the possibilities of the past.

Once again, Christopher Prendergast reasserts as much mid-way through ‘Aims, Methods, Stories,’ when he writes: ”[…] the loss of the historical sense as that which demands that we try to understand and appreciate the past (here the literary past) on its terms rather than our own, while remaining aware that we can never fully see the past from the point of view of the past. On the other hand, if the past is another country, it is not another planet, nor are its literary and other idioms, for us, an unintelligible babble.”

The book commences in the sixteenth century with the formation of a modern national literary consciousness, and ends in the late twentieth century with the idea of the national coming increasingly into question; especially with regards both the inadvertent as well as the inherited meaning of what being French actually means, beyond the geographical border(s) of mainland France itself.

As such, A History of Modern French Literature is as compelling, engaging and uncompromising as that of a lot of the actual subject matter itself.

David Marx

 

The Rub Of Time

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The Rub Of Time
By Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape – £20.00

”We should bear in mind, I think, that the phrase ‘power corrupts’ isn’t just a metaphor.”

(‘Politics -1’)

”The imagination has its ‘eternal naivete’ – and that is something the writer cannot afford to lose.”

(‘Twin Peaks – 2’)

”It is Jane Austen’s world, in a sense; but the invigorating intelligence is gone, to be supplanted by a simper of ingratiation. Here, the upper crust is playing cute. Dilemmas and entanglements are not admitted to Four Weddings. Nothing weighs anything at all.”

(‘Jane Austen and the Dream Factory’)

As with so much of the provocative and tantalisingly tempestuous writing throughout Martin Amis’s The Rub Of Time, its 340 pages (excluding Author’s Notes and Acknowledgements and Index), invariably bequeath the reader with an ever widening gambit of both occasionally perplexing and philosophical preponderance.

To be sure, he leaves one gasping for literary breath, which to my mind, can only ever be good thing.

But in order to fully comprehend all of where he’s coming from, might I suggest reading The Rub Of Time in stages. Reason being, the more one reads, the more ones’ own (occasionally) complicated compass will inevitably need to re-adjust; if not re-align itself with ones’ own pre-ordained knowledge. That said, when Martin Amis hits his mark – which he so gloriously does again and again and again amid this book’s fourteen chapters – he truly hits the mark in such a way that is nigh beyond compare.

His writing on the death of Princess Diana, perhaps being the most pristine example herein: ”Above all else will be remembered as a phenomenon of pure stardom. Her death was a terrible symbol of that condition. She takes her place among the broken glass and crushed metal, in the iconography of the car crash, alongside James Dean, Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield, and Princess Grace. These other victims died unpursued. They weren’t fleeing the pointed end of their own renown: men on motorcycles with computerized cameras and satellite-linked mobile phones. The paparazzi are the high-tech dogs of fame. But it must be admitted that we sent them into the tunnel, to nourish our own mysterious needs” (‘The House Of Windsor’).

How excorciatingly sad; but hey, true.
And I for one, am so very grateful that someone has finally come out and admitted as much.

Moreover, there are numerous examples of such pin-point, social accuracy throughout this book; surely the most strident and highly entertaining being that towards the end of chapter twelve’s ‘Literature – 3,’ where the author so beguilingly writes: ”About eighteen months ago (in the summer of 1996) I went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral) at a North London cineplex. Very soon I was filled with a yearning to be doing something else (for example, standing at a bus stop in the rain); and under normal circumstances I would have walked out after ten or fifteen minutes. But these weren’t normal circumstances. Beside me sat Salman Rushdie. For various reasons – various security reasons – we had to stay. Thus the Ayatollah Khomeini had condemned me to sit through Four Weddings and a Funeral; and no Iranian torturer could have elicited a greater variety of winces and flinches, of pleadings and whimperings. So one was obliged to submit, and absorb a few social issues […].
‘Well,’ I said, when it was over, ‘that was bottomlessly horrible. Why is it so popular?’
‘Because,’said Salman,’ the world has bad taste. Didn’t you know that?’ (‘Jane Austen and the Dream Factory’).

The world, or the UK at least, does indeed have bad, if not excruciatingly bad taste.
One need look no further than the almost unwatchable and utterly irrational televised vomit that is Ant and Dec. In fact, I’d be highly curious to hear what Amis might have to say about those two hugely popular, custard filled egos; who really are about as entertaining as year old cement.

Perhaps less so – at least year old cement isn’t obsequiously annoying.

Alas, the world is condemned to be forever blighted by horrific taste; which is why The Rub Of Time (Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta,Trump And Other Pieces, 1994-2016), makes for such compelling, wonderfully intelligent and what’s more, contagiously amusing writing as that cited above.

Anxiously awaiting the next instalment.

David Marx

Devotion

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Devotion
By Patti Smith
Yale University Press – £12.99

I lay there replaying a slow pan of the banished human chain winding through a relentless flurry of white petals. Chrysanthemums. Yes! Branches of them and the wretched train of life blurring past. Yet returning to the same bit of film I had viewed earlier, I find no such scene.

          (How the Mind Works)

She lived only for skating, she told herself; there was no room for anything else. Not love, school, or scraping the walls of memory. Negotiating a bouquet of confusion, the lace on her skate broke in her hand. She quickly knotted it, then unfastened the skirt of her new coat and stepped onto the ice.
– I am Eugenia, she said, to no one in particular.

          (Devotion)

Amid the current tirade of so much terrible, terrible writing – seems just one appearance on the deplorable I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here entitles one to a publishing deal so’s to (try) and write of feeble, over-blown self-importance – it is something of a moral, as well as literary catharsis, to be reminded that writing of this calibre still exists.

Is still being reached for.
Is still being pondered over.

Damn it, is still being written; it kinda takes your breath away.
And then some.

There again, we are talking about Patti Smith, authoress of astounding visionary prowess; who, has often stood alone (down the years). Alone amid the sheer sparkling resonance of having raised the literary bar to such an unequivocal extent, it’s hard to think of a current writer who comes anywhere near close (the terrific Canadian poet, Bruce McRae perhaps).

Close that is, on such a regularly unforeseen basis:

Only the relics of consumption
wrapped in the silk of existence

          (Ashford)

Devotion, the title story, has to be one of the most soaringly beautiful short stories I have ever read. It encapsulates and embraces the imagination like nothing else this side of W. H. Auden. It is so tender, yet simultaneously dark in equal measure, it nigh defies description.

To be sure, any form of description and evaluation would not do it justice.
It cries out to be read.

As part of the ‘Why I Write’ series, Smith writes in concordance with both her heart and a surrender to the knowledge of her vast and most honest experience; a quality she makes devastatingly clear in ‘A Dream Is Not a Dream’ where she writes:
”What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness.
What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and what would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists.
Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air. A familiar riddle posed since youth, girded with words, a beat outside.
Why do we write? A chorus erupts.
Because we cannot simply live.”

Indeed, we cannot simply live.
And this all too powerful, and overtly reflective book is a stark reminder of such: ”[…]. And Christ? Perhaps he did not dream, yet knew all there was to dream, every combination, until the end of time.”

David Marx

Milosz – A Biography

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Milosz – A Biography
By Andrzej Franaszek
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £25.95

There is too much talk about what poetry ought to be and too little about what poetry ought to be and too little about what it is. It is primarily a contradiction to nihilism. Like an apple in a Dutch painting […] because it refers to something that is particular. An author of rhyming introductory articles can be a fairly good poet for a while, because he uses his observations as resources, but he has to shout much louder… because this is the price for moving away into a desert of ideas. One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.

          Czeslaw Milosz (‘Poetry and Diadectics – 1951’)

What equipped him for his truth-telling role was the incomparable quality of his intellect and poetic skills, which enabled him to endure and, much later, process imaginatively experiences and sufferings which might well have destroyed a less driven individual.

          Seamus Heaney (Introduction)

In order not to kill himself, he sought any argument that could dissuade him from such an act, although the most important and hardest to pinpoint was something deep within him. Faith and piety? To be more precise, it was the belief that the world was not based on a void, that there was a higher authority which did not allow anything to occur by chance.

          Andrzej Franaszek
           (‘A Story of One Particular Suicide Case’)

What is it that drives a person to such incomparable lengths as to endure, and as a result, be capable of delivering occasional work that is (almost) beyond description? Beyond depiction? As Seamus Haney clearly states, perhaps its a mixture of acute gift and suffering.

But gift and suffering alone, do not necessarily make for terrific, enlightening and what’s more, in-depth writing. One need only ask Vladimir Nabakov, Ted Hughes or indeed W. H. Auden. All three of whom somehow, inadvertently subscribed to the ideological thinking of ”One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.”

It is just such open-wound-like, regal realisation on the part of Andrzej Franaszek, that accounts for this book being such a spell-binding and all round invigorating read. As Adam Zagajewski has since written: ”Franaszek is well suited to his subject.” To be sure, Milosz – A Biography might well be considered as being many things to many people; one being that it could nigh well be deemed a cleansing of the intellect…

Just one of the (many) reasons being – apart from the huge body of extraordinary work it traverses – is that Milosz, surely one of the most unquestionably important poets of the last century, simply bypassed all folly, all insincerity, all hypocrisy.

And if such weren’t enough to fully engage with both Milosz and Milosz – A Biography, then I really don’t know what is.

Once again, returning to Zagajewski: ”Franaszek’s outstanding biography of Czeslaw Milosz narrates one of the great lives of the twentieth century and does not shy away from recounting the more private side of the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats. Milosz was an artist who was also a political thinker, who stood in the centre of the ideological debates of his time, who was an incredibly industrious writer and on top of all this had a sublime gift for poetry:

My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations.
But all this is a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow
Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect
That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?
Now he sees his homeland. At the time of the second mowing.
Roads winding uphill and down. Pine groves. Lakes.
An overcast sky with one slanting ray.
And everywhere men with scythes, in shirts of unbleached linen

(‘Diary of a Naturalist’)

When Zagajewski writes about the author not shying away from ”the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats;” as much is rather evident within the fine selection of black and white photographs contained herein – where many a picture does indeed paint many a thousand words.

Each of these 470 pages (excluding Maps, Chronology, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration Credits and Index) lends the reader with a most refined window into one of the most understated, misunderstood, greatest of (Polish) poets to have ever graced the blank, yet seemingly troubled, page.

Edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker, I can honestly say that Milosz – A Biography opens many, many an invigorating and (already preordained) invigorated window.

David Marx