My disorientation went beyond the geo-gravitational. One era of my life had ended, and the next had not yet begun. If I lived in a traditional society, I’d have been standing on the threshold of the hut listening as a priest beat drums and stirred strong potions, a state the anthropologists call liminality.
Just six weeks before, I’d been fired from my job of 25 years. It was a job I’d loved, that had drawn on my love of literature and my delight at convening people from across Los Angeles to engage with the issues of the day, to ask questions of innovative thinkers, to practice agreeing and disagreeing in a public forum. The events at Central Library, the hearth of the city, were free; homeless patrons sat next to lawyers and teachers and students to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about religion or Ta-Nehesi Coates discuss reparations. They came to hear local poets read Walt Whitman translated into Farsi and Spanish; to celebrate novelists like Colson Whitehead and his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad, to learn from naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams, primatologists like Frans de Waal. Hundreds of literary luminaries — Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, W. G. Sebald, Margaret Atwood, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula LeGuin — all presented their work on our stage over the years. At our last event, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter read from her grandfather’s just-published prison letters. One evening, during his sound check, Cornel West pulled me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that this space is sanctified?” I did.
Now I was untethered from the satisfactions of my job and as well, from the scaffold of responsibilities that had, for so many years, structured the rhythms of my life. I was past the tearful stage, but I was still heart-torn, grieving. Luckily, I had been granted a writing residency that fall at an arts colony on a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Susan — my soul sister-in-art — had been awarded a residency there as well. Perhaps some time away would open a way to re-focus, to pick up the thread of my own writing life.
As a way to jumpstart our adventure, Susan and I schemed a rendezvous, picking a town on the map that neither of us knew at all — Billings, Montana — simply because it had an airport and decent airfares from Los Angeles, for me, and from Portland, Oregon, for Susan.
Susan rented us a car and a two-bedroom Airbnb bungalow in Billings. We planned to cook simple meals together, drink good wine, catch up on stories about our lives, plan collaborative projects, and, at the end of the weekend, drive the 70 miles to the Crow Reservation to spend some daylight hours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then travel the final stretch to the Wyoming ranch and our official residency.
At the last moment, life tectonics shifted. A mutual friend — jazz musician David Ornette Cherry — suffered a medical emergency. He couldn’t breathe, barely managed to call 911 from his Portland studio before he suffered a cardiac arrest. David was “gone,” the paramedics said, for four whole minutes, and was now in an induced coma, on a ventilator in a Portland hospital, in the limbo of the ICU, where machines bleated heart rates and IV bags dripped nourishment into human veins, between life and death, this world, that world, with Susan by his bedside. He had no family nearby. He was going to need a lot of support to pull through.
I wholeheartedly supported Susan’s decision to stay behind, to forgo the residency if David didn’t recover soon. I realized as well that it was too last-minute and too costly to redirect my itinerary.
Which is why I woke up alone, in a strange bed in a strange house in Billings, Montana, where I dreaded spending the weekend alone.
My seatmate on the small plane to Billings, after a long Denver layover, was a tall, muscular man sporting a shaved head, a gray walrus mustache, multiple tattoos, and a large cross on a chain nestled into the neckline of his Harley-Davidson sweatshirt. He was flying home, he said, to ride dirt bikes with his grandsons up a particularly steep mountain road just outside Billings. The last time they’d tried it, he said, he’d broken his foot when his bike flipped over backward. He worked construction but was having trouble getting jobs. The problem was he didn’t speak Spanish. “Really?” I pressed him, skeptical. “Really…” he insisted, “all those immigrants — pouring over the border.”
We were just weeks away from the 2018 midterms, and I’d been knocking on doors for Swing Left to turn out the vote; I’d heard those fears about “marauding hordes” from Mexico, ready to steal Americans’ jobs and generally raise mayhem. The orange-maned president who’d called Mexican asylum-seekers “rapists” had preceded me to Billings by a week, hosting a raucous rally in support of the Republican challenger to the incumbent Montana Senator, Jon Tester. “America is winning again,” he bragged to the adoring crowd, “and America is being respected again […] and we are fighting every day for our great ranchers and loggers and farmers and we are […] crushing the terrorists.”
I changed the subject. Were there any places in Billings he would recommend I visit? Perhaps those Pictograph Caves on the outskirts of town that I’d read about? “Nothing to see there,” he told me, recommending instead a town nearby with several good bars. I wrote down the names in my notebook — Hooligan’s, the Red Door Lounge, the Divide Bar and Grill — though doubtful I’d make it to any of them. After landing, after he unfolded himself from the seat, we parted with a handshake and a nod.
I waited at the car-rental counter in the small Billings airport. Behind me in line, a guy wearing a big cowboy hat and pointed boots chatted loudly into his cell phone about hay, heifers, and artificial insemination. I was not in Los Angeles anymore.
It was nearly dusk when I parked in the driveway of a small bungalow in town. The place was nobody’s home, a permanent Airbnb — two unadorned bedrooms, a living room, a small kitchen, a glassed-in porch with a view of a raggedy backyard featuring a tumbledown wooden shed, a barbeque, some rusted chairs, and a chipped birdbath.
Saturday morning — after I was able to remember where I was, why I was there, and, to some extent, who I was — I dressed and set out to forage for provisions. I strolled back alleys of the humble neighborhood of wooden houses, admired huge maples, orange leaves aglow. I studied the porches of hoarders, stacks of rusted chairs and lanterns, piles of old tools I’d have liked to pick over myself. I noted with satisfaction the preponderance of lawn signs for Senator Jon Tester.
The temp was in the mid-30s and I was underdressed. In the window of a vintage clothing shop, a wool jacket, pale Naples yellow — a color I never wear — grabbed my attention. The shop owner obligingly climbed into the display to remove the jacket from the mannequin. The garment was in perfect condition, no moth holes, sourced from long repose in the cedar chest of some Billings matron. I felt good in that jacket. The price: a mere 20 bucks. (No, we were not in Los Angeles any more.) I wore the yellow jacket home on that icy dark gray day. It warmed and cheered me.
By 4:30, it was dark. For supper, I heated a can of Progresso Italian wedding soup. I added fresh garlic. It was surprisingly good. The young checker at Albertsons had been unusually kind: “Did you find everything you were looking for, ma’am?” Susan emailed an update: our friend was still in a coma. The doctors could not offer assurance he’d pull through. O David, to what distant place had you wandered? Please, David, come back.
When I awoke Sunday morning, I knew where I was but not what I’d do. No one expected me anywhere. In fact, besides Susan and my husband, nobody knew where I was. There would be no questions to answer from anybody about “what had happened.” I was on the lam in a DIY Billings Witness Protection program.
I glanced out the kitchen window — scattered snowflakes falling. With a strong cup of coffee at hand, I stretched out on the couch in the glassed porch off the kitchen, covered myself with the yellow wool coat. I pictured David Cherry in his ICU cubicle, where I hoped he was floating free, not suffering. Perhaps the nurses were piping in riffs by great jazz artists like Dexter Gordon or Coltrane or David’s father, Don Cherry — lighting up his neurons with memories of his own improvisations, his fingers on the keyboard or plucking the strings of his douss’n gouni.
I could at least give reading a try. I rummaged in my backpack for the one book I’d brought. Everything else I’d shipped ahead to the residency. The slim volume, just translated from the French by Eric Karpeles, was titled Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, and its author was Józef Czapski (pronounced CHOP-ski), a Polish writer, painter, intellectual, activist, and rare witness to both the cruelty of the Germans and the treachery of the Soviets in World War II.
I’d discovered two limited-edition volumes of Czapski’s sketchbooks in a Paris bookstore years earlier. Through weeks of travel, I’d carted those heavy tomes in my pack, unwilling to part with them or risk losing them in the mail. I loved Czapski’s vibrant drawings: a woman in a purple hat reading in a café; a patient dog, asleep in the sun; a weary rider on the Paris Metro; a view down a spiral stairwell in an old building; a gray-haired man at an exhibition, examining a painting; Czapski’s own long, thin face reflected in a mirror in a haunting self-portrait.
As a young artist in interwar Paris, Czapski — who’d rejected his aristocratic origins for the Bohemian life — had been acquainted with Gertrude Stein and Degas, and had associated with a group of daring young Polish painters. But after the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Czapski was mobilized in the Polish Army with the rank of captain. Two weeks later, after the signing of a secret treaty by the foreign ministers of the USSR and Germany — Molotov and Ribbentrop — the Red Army attacked Poland from the east. After the rout of Polish forces, Czapski was rounded up by the Germans with some 22,000 of his fellow officers and handed over to the Soviets, who shipped the men by freight car to prison camps in the USSR.
By June 1940, Czapski, with only 78 of his fellow officers, was transferred to an abandoned Russian Orthodox monastery-turned-prison in Gryazovets, some 400 kilometers east of Moscow. The men had no idea where the rest of their colleagues were — transported farther east to other camps? In reality, 20,000 of their comrades had already been shot, on Stalin’s orders, and buried 12-deep in mass graves in the Katyn Forest.
Among this imprisoned cohort, whom the Soviets considered irredeemably bourgeois and antirevolutionary, were scientists, doctors, historians, botanists, archeologists. At Gryazovets they were forced to shed those identities, even those of husband, brother, father — to become less-than-human slaves subject to brutal interrogations at the whims of their captors.
As a way to boost morale, the men collectively decided to offer lectures to each other on, as Czapski later wrote, “what [we] remembered best.” For his own lectures, Czapski chose a subject far removed from the surrounding horror and chaos of war. He would speak on what he considered a pinnacle achievement of art and insight — Marcel Proust’s masterwork, À la recherche du temps perdu — In Search of Lost Time.
Czapski grasped in Proust’s great work “a template for survival,” a key to open the padlocked gates of the prisoners’ inner lives, which their captors wished to poison, obliterate. To further focus the attention of his listeners, Czapski decided he would deliver the lectures to his Polish audience in French.
As he diagrammed his lectures in preparation — in the absence of any reference materials, of any books at all, in the desolation and deprivation of prison life — Czapski found his memory wildly activated. He could visualize details from paintings by Cézanne and Vermeer that he’d studied years earlier in Paris museums. Whole passages of Proust’s novel, the greatest work ever written about the power of memory, flooded into his mind. It was a miracle.
As I read Lost Time, I imagined the Polish officers sitting packed together in a freezing monastery refectory that stunk of dirty dishes and cabbage. “They came into that chamber at twilight,” Czapski later recalled, “dressed in fufaika (quilted cotton jackets worn by Soviet prisoners) and wet shoes.” They sat listening, in rapt attention, under portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, even though they were exhausted from having toiled outdoors all day in temperatures dropping as low as minus 45 degrees.
“I thought then with emotion about Proust, in his overheated, cork-lined room,” wrote Czapski.
He would certainly have been surprised, and maybe even moved, to learn that some Polish prisoners, following a whole day spent in the snow and freezing cold, would be listening with keen interest, twenty years after he died, to the story of the Duchesse de Guermantes, the death of Bergotte, and anything else I could bring myself to recall from this world of precious psychological revelation and literary beauty.
That the prisoners lived every day in the knowledge that they might be killed by their captors prompted Czapski’s decision to confront the issue of mortality head-on. He closed his lectures with a description of the death of the writer Bergotte, a character in Proust’s novel who, though ill, ventures out in freezing weather to an exhibition of Vermeer. While admiring the Dutch master’s painting of Delft, Bergotte notices “a little patch of yellow wall,” gilded by the rays of the sun, the kind of exquisite and ineffable detail he realizes is missing from his own work. In the midst of contemplating the painting, Bergotte suffers a heart attack and dies right there on a bench in the museum. Proust also spent many of his last hours at his desk, Czapski told his listeners, “as he deserved to be taken, while still hard at work.” One might consider being “indifferent to death,” Czapski suggested to these imprisoned men, to be a kind of freedom.
Józef Czapski survived two years of captivity in Soviet camps and survived the war — which included a march across Iraq and fierce combat in Italy as part of Anders’ Polish Second Corps, who stood down the Wehrmacht in the successful assault to secure the strategic monastery at Monte Cassino and open the Allies’ road to Rome. But before that battle and his exit from the Soviet Union, in 1942, Czapski carried out an astonishing and improbable mission entrusted to him by the Polish Home Army’s commander, General Anders, to “solve the mystery” of his disappeared fellow officers.
He carried with him to Moscow letters of introduction from General Anders to the most influential people in Stalin’s inner circle. After waiting for many days at the Hotel Metropole, he was finally summoned to a waiting room at the notorious Lubyanka building, the headquarters of the Soviet secret police, where he was met by a “well-fed official” in a gray lambskin hat and collar who “looked a bit like Chichikov from Gogol’s Dead Souls.” He was granted an audience with General Reichman, a thin man with an aristocratic face and manicured hands, who professed to know nothing about the fate of Czapski’s colleagues — though he very much did: the Polish officers had been murdered.
Even more astonishing, perhaps, when the war was finally over, Czapski was able to return to his life as a painter in Paris, the city he loved, where he lived almost to the ripe old age of 96. He entertained distinguished guests at his studio, as well as a generation of younger artists and writers, like the poet Adam Zagajewski, who writes in his beautiful essay on Czapski — the man he describes as “my friend and my master” — of the many afternoons filled with long soulful talks, Czapski propped against a pillow on his old sofa, “bent like a penknife with his Gothic knees aloft,” drinking many cups of coffee, “to which he added six lumps of sugar.”
Czapski read Proust for the first time as a young man at his uncle’s estate near London, as he was recovering both from a broken love affair and a bout of typhoid. Never before that time, he told his fellow prisoners, had he been able to read with such attention. In the six weeks since I’d lost my job, I’d not been able to concentrate on a single page, not even a paragraph.
That Sunday, however, in the little house in Billings, I was so immersed in the flow of Czapski’s thoughts about Proust and art and life and death that I was shocked to look up and notice that the entire backyard — the birdbath, the eaves of the shed, the barbeque, the picnic table, the clothesline — was all whited out, glowing in the early dusk of late October.
My reading, as well as the snow, had blanketed my sense of the hours, of time itself, creating deeper silence around the little house in the town where I knew no one; where no one expected me; where I savored this sanctuary of lost time and its antidote, time regained.
The next morning, Monday, dawned clear, sunny cold. I put on the pale yellow jacket the color of sunlight on a wall. I loaded the car, returned the key to the lockbox by the garden gate. Before I drove off, my phone vibrated — a text from Susan: after four full days, David had “returned,” was finally off the ventilator. He was back in this world. He was breathing on his own. He recognized Susan; he even knew her middle name — Grace.
Suggested further reading:
Keith Botsford, Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation, Sylph Editions, 2009.
Józef Czapski, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. (Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles), NYRB Classics, NYC, 2018.
Józef Czapski, Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia 1941–1942 (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), NYRB Classics, 2018.
Eric Karpeles, Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski, New York Review Books, 2018.
Adam Zagajewski, A Defense of Ardor (Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2004.
Louise Steinman is the author, most recently, of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (Beacon Press). She was the longtime curator of the ALOUD series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and codirects the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC.