The first translation from the original French lectures on Proust by the Polish painter and writer Józef Czapski, who astonishingly delivered them in a Soviet prison camp during World War II without a single page of text available for reference.
To read Lost Time today is to appreciate not one, but two acts of recovery: first, there is Czapski’s bringing Proust’s world to life with his astonishing powers of recall, then there is the text’s tortuous path to publication in English. These circumstances contribute to an enthralling, even thrilling reading experience ... one of the pleasures of Lost Time is seeing Czapski work up to his subject, discovering what he wants to say as he says it.
As no copy of the book existed in the camp, Czapski composed his lectures in the form of schematic drawings, replete with references to artistic and philosophical movements, historical personages, biblical allusions, and literary criticism. Several examples, in both the original Polish and English translation, are included in the book, and to view them is to behold, in microcosm, a distillation of European Humanist culture, created at the very moment when it faced a very real threat of obliteration ... Herein lies the books significance. Set in the midst of one of the darkest moments of human history, between the horrors of Nazism and Stalinist Communism, it not only portrays an attempt to find meaning and comfort through literature, but it in fact enacts that attempt. The talks were given as a relic from a world destroyed, and Czapski was its emissary ... Czapski quotes Proust, whose character, the painter Bergotte, asks as he contemplates a landscape of houses on a beach. Appearing here, in this extraordinary book, it poses a question on the value of art, which resonates far beyond the prison walls where it was once spoken to men who had lost everything.
They are, for many reasons, an astonishing read. Most viscerally and immediately, they deliver the pleasure of witnessing Czapski, standing in a bare barrack without a single printed volume at his disposal, delivering erudite talks that not only recall entire sections of Proust’s novel by heart but also provide valuable insights into what makes the 4,215-page work a territory so many of us continue to visit so frequently and with so much reverence.