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Ricochetti have asked me to share more of my encounters with the famous (via my career on public television and as a magazine editor). A while back (in my reminiscence of a catastrophic interview with Terry Jones of Monty Python and author Douglas Adams), I mentioned that I thought most of the tapes had been erased. I told Susan Quinn the same thing about my interview with the philosopher/psychologist Viktor Frankl.
As it turns out, all of the tapes of the eight seasons of “Malone” survive. They were collected and restored by KQED in San Francisco, and they now reside in a joint archive run by PBS and the Library of Congress here.
Yesterday’s item by Mark Eckel mentioning Czeslaw Milosz reminded me of my encounter with the man:
It was not the best time or place to interview an 80-year-old man – a cold, dark and wet night in early December. But I wasn’t going to miss a chance to meet one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, a Nobel laureate, and, for his work helping Jews escape the Nazis, recently named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the government of Israel.
The setting was an odd one: Berkeley’s venerable Shattuck Hotel, which was in the midst of being shuttered for a decade until investors could be found for a restoration. We were told to set up in the empty, cold, and lonely restaurant in the midst of tables covered with piled chairs. It was less foreboding than sad, and the spotlights, once they were set up and turned on, marginally warmed the cavernous, echoing room.
I’m not sure what I anticipated from Milosz. But when he realized that he was nothing like I expected – and yet everything like it. He arrived alone – my notes told me that he had recently lost his wife (he wouldn’t marry again for a few more years) – and apparently didn’t yet need assistance moving about. I assumed he had come from a class he was teaching at Cal, which was just a few blocks away.
In appearance, he was formidable – not the tough-looking figure of his younger years, the one on the Lithuanian postage stamp. But, rather, in his worker’s cap, shapeless woolen jacket (glittering with rain drops) and baggy pants, he looked more like an old Polish dock worker – which he might have become were it not for WWII and the fact that he was a genius. His voice was gruff, his accent thick.
But what struck most was his face. I was surprised to see, close-up, how much he looked like Andy Rooney. Only Milosz’s brows were black and even bushier. And his face was formidable in its toughness. This was a man who had seen it all: the best and most certainly the worst of humanity. He had suffered through the invasion of Poland by both the Nazis and the Soviets, fought in the underground and been captured, survived the bombardment of Warsaw’s Jewish quarter, helped Jews escape, and then had made his own escape from Stalin’s grip. His Nobel Prize award properly said that Milosz “voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.”
And yet, as tough as he was, there also was a gentleness in his manner. He had survived, raised a family, enjoyed a long marriage, and now was being honored by the world. But more important, I think, he had turned those experiences, many of them horrible, into art – into great poetry and classic memoirs. It had all been given a purpose.
Television interview shows are short – in my case, just a half-hour – so we didn’t have time to dwell much on any topic. And yet, there was time for one epiphany. I was asking Milosz about life as a child in the Lithuanian town of Seteniai, then part of Poland. I asked how much he remembered of it.
Suddenly, the great poet’s face softened, and under those beetle brows, his eyes went far away. “I remember everything,” he told me in his thick accent. “In my mind,” I remember him saying, “I recall every street, every building, every doorway. I can walk down those streets in my mind and it’s all there. I can visit any time.”
Then his eyes focused again. “Of course,” he said, “All of it has changed. But, whenever I want, I can still visit what was.”
Looking back, I realize that on that bitter evening in a deserted hotel, Milosz had offered me a glimpse of the burden, and the joy, of being a great artist. His perfect memory gave him the engine that powered his work, but it also meant that he carried the burden of precisely remembering a beautiful world that had been brutally raped and destroyed by the greatest of evils.
When we finished, Milosz gave me a crisp shake with his big, meaty hands, pulled up the collar on his jacket, tugged down the brim of his cap, and headed off alone into the cold and dark winter night.Published in