In the face of that ominous possibility, Czapski and his colleagues came up with the idea of delivering nightly lectures, with each officer agreeing to speak “about what he remembered best.” Father Kamil Kantak, a former Polish newspaper editor, lectured on the history of human migration; Lieutenant Ostrowski, an avid mountaineer, recounted his expeditions in South America. Professor Siennicki, of the Polytechnic School in Warsaw, talked about the history of architecture, and a Dr. Ehrlich discussed the history of the book.
After first volunteering to speak on French painting, Czapski ultimately chose to lecture in French on Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” a text to which he felt “deeply indebted” and which he “was not sure of seeing again.” Miraculously, like Czapski himself, an abridged transcript of some of the lectures survived the war. He had dictated their content to two lieutenants, and the handwritten manuscripts, which have since been lost, somehow escaped the Soviet censor and were typeset. Shortly after the war, Czapski supervised a Polish translation. The lectures were not published in the original French until 1987 and not in English until last fall, when New York Review Books released a translation by Karpeles.
Proust is, without doubt, an odd choice for the gulag, a fact of which Czapski was well aware: “I can still see my companions, worn out after having worked outdoors in temperatures dropping as low as minus 45 degrees, packed together underneath portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin, listening intently to lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at that time.” Despite the poverty of their conditions, the assembled company was highly educated, which allowed Czapski to wander from Proust’s translations of Ruskin to the influence of Latin on his syntax. With no access to physical books in the camp, the lectures are naturally preoccupied with the almost Proustian exercise of remembering Proust’s text. At points, Czapski recalls long scenes with exacting precision, but he also cautions his audience that he may be jumbling things up. He calls the famous madeleine a brioche but at other times summons up details like an effortless juggler.
The most surprising fact about the lectures, however, is how they conclude: with a meditation on death. This move spares Czapski the accusation that he was merely escaping into the sensory, bourgeois richness of Proust’s art. He is not afraid to confront the specter of his own death head-on, and to use literature to do so. He broaches the topic by evoking the death scene of the writer Bergotte, in a section of “Remembrance” that Proust was editing in the final weeks before he died. Bergotte, by this point in the novel an invalid and shut-in, steps out to see an exhibition that includes Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” which Czapski, borrowing from Proust, describes as embodying a “mysterious charm,” a “Chinese perfection and delicacy.” Having taken in that sight, Bergotte quickly suffers a fatal stroke and dies in the gallery, overwhelmed by his senses. Czapski notes that Bergotte’s last wish is to view the paintings “one more time … though he knows well enough that, given his health, it’s risky for him to go out to see the exhibition.” A good death becomes linked to the experience of good art.
Czapski extends this observation about Bergotte’s death to what may have been on Proust’s mind in his final days: “It’s not possible that he did not understand, given the state of his health, that the enormous and feverish effort required to keep on with his work would precipitate his end. But he had made up his mind, he would not take care of himself, death had become truly a matter of indifference to him.” I am not sure if we ever truly achieve indifference toward death, but Czapski suggests that we can weaken its sting. That conviction is reminiscent of the thrust of the computer scientist Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture,” a talk he gave at Carnegie Mellon a month after receiving a terminal diagnosis. Explaining why he decided to deliver a lecture that required extensive preparation instead of spending every one of his last moments with his children, Pausch later wrote: “If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.” Czapski, like Scheherazade, gave his nightly lectures in Gryazovets not knowing what the morning would bring.