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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

My Century

Aleksander Wat

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase My Century

Title: My Century
Author: Aleksander Wat
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: (1977) (Eng. 1988)
Length: 398 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: My Century - US
My Century - UK
My Century - Canada
Mon siècle - France
Jenseits von Wahrheit und Lüge - Deutschland
  • The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual
  • Polish title: Mój wiek
  • Translated by Richard Lourie
  • With a Foreword by Czeslaw Milosz
  • Includes a Chronology and numerous pictures
  • Includes a selection from the memoirs of Paulina Wat

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting, but all over the place

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 17/10/2000 Karl Schlögel
The Nation A 22/3/2004 Benjamin Paloff
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 17/10/2000 Felix Philipp Ingold
The New Republic . 5/9/1988 Stanislaw Baranczak
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/12/1988 J.M.Cameron
The NY Times A 23/12/1988 John Gross
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 13/11/1988 Jan Gross
Partisan Review . Fall/1991 Jan Zielinski
TLS . 20/9/1991 George Hyde

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Die Besonderheit liegt in der Wahrnehmungsweise des Augenzeugen. Wat ist buchstäblich Anachronist, er lebt trotz seines zeitweiligen "Paktes mit der Geschichte" gegen die Zeit und gegen den mainstream. (...) Dieses Aus-der-Zeit-Sein läßßt Dinge sehen, für die die Menschen des mainstreamblind sind. Das gibt Wat eine ungeheure Freiheit sich selbst und anderen gegenüber. Deshalb sind seine Charakterisierungen, ob es sich nun um Russen,Ukrainer, Juden oder Polen handelt, vollständig frei von Ressentiments. Er wird zum teilnehmenden Beobachter, der niemals in die Gefahr gerät, die Distanz zuverlieren." - Karl Schlögel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(O)ne of the most remarkable literary memoirs of the last century. (...) In fact, as My Century illustrates exceedingly well, one would be hard-pressed to find a shrewder or more attentive witness to the events that shaped Central Europe's history in the twentieth century. (...) It is in the stunning fortitude of these reflections that readers will find this book's greatest value, and not in an undeviating survey of Wat's undeniably fascinating life. (...) It is mildly disappointing that no effort has been made to reconsider the earlier omissions or to make the text more user-friendly to first-time readers, for while Milosz's interruptions can be a nuisance, and while the flurry of exotic names and places may prove daunting for the uninitiated, My Century is a monument to powerful autobiographical writing." - Benjamin Paloff, The Nation

  • "(T)he life of a book doesn't lie in broad outlines but in concrete detail, and Aleksander Wat's My Century is a very remarkable book indeed. (...) (T)he whole book is an impressive act of witness. It deepens the reader's response to life and lays bare a major tract of history." - John Gross, The New York Times

  • "To be exact, the book is a series of Wat's monologues, which Mr. Milosz occasionally gently points in one direction or another. Aleksander Wat was a poet, and My Century is a work of art -- a rare thing for a book that is basically a sequence of reflections. And yet this text distinctly demands active reading. We are drawn into the conversation and thus made to join the creative process. (...) I would put it on a shelf in the vicinity of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, so compelling is its testimony and analysis. It is in a similar way irresistible: on completing the book, we cannot help but say to ourselves -- so this is how it was." - Jan Gross, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The translator's Introduction to Aleksander Wat's unusual autobiographical work begins with the admission that:

Editing this book was more exacting a task than translating it. My Century's original two volumes had to be reduced by something like half.
       Why such a brutal abridgement might be thought to be a necessity (or even considered justifiable) is, unfortunately, never explained. The drastic cuts, were, however apparently made, and so English-speaking readers are left with half the story. It's baffling, and disappointing.
       If we had reason to believe we should have faith in the careful editorial hand we might, just might, be willing to accept the loss -- but the early indications are not good. So, for example, we find in Czeslaw Milosz's Foreword some discussion about the apparent obscurity of some of the people that are discussed in the book:
One may well doubt (...) that the name of Friedrich Wolff, the author of the play Cyanide, famous before World War II, has any associations for the contemporary reader.
       The debatable point aside, the author in question is 'Friedrich Wolf'; alas, his name is misspelt here, a few pages later in Richard Lourie's Introduction ("Friedrich Wolff, a German playwright"), the extensive list of 'Names Mentioned in the Text', and the Index. At least there's some consistency -- though the edition in which we find all this is the paperback reprint, no one having taken the trouble to correct a fairly obvious error -- ; unfortunately, the Index only refers to Milosz's mention, ignoring Lourie's. More baffling, finally, is the fact that, while both Milosz and Lourie mention Wolf in their introductions -- leading one to believe he might have played a role of some interest in Wat's life -- we did not come across a mention of him in the text proper. Not a great start.

       As Milosz notes in his Foreword:
My Century differs from those books that usually bear the name "Recollections" or "Memoirs." Because this book belongs to a separate literary genre -- the tape-recorded conversation -- its value as a source of information is arguably greater.
       Arguably -- but inarguably this conversation form (especially when it is then further cut in half, as the English translation was) also poses some difficulties (which might explain why this genre has never really taken off ...). (Admittedly, it also adds a sense of drama and immediacy: confronted with the tape recording machine, Wat says that he feels Milosz is: "performing an act of exorcism on me".)
       My Century consists of the transcripts of conversations Milosz had with Wat starting in 1965, specifically for the purpose of creating such a 'memoir' (because of illness Wat was unable to write as he would have liked). It follows (more or less) Wat's life chronologically, centered on the time between the mid-20s and just after the end of World War II, but the more free-flowing conversation style does make for tangents and name-dropping that in a written memoir would surely have been presented more accessibly. Indeed, the book comes with an almost 16-page appendix of 'Names Mentioned in the Text', some 400 of them, with the briefest of descriptions to help readers place them; however, readers not familiar with Polish and Soviet intellectual life in the first half of the 20th century will likely find the parade of characters overwhelming.
       The main strands the book follows are: Wat the editor and writer (he founded the important periodical, The Literary Monthly), Wat the family man, and, above all else, Wat the prisoner. Indeed, most of the book describes his time incarcerated in a wide variety of jails, in Poland and the Soviet Union.
       He has any number of interesting encounters, and nicely describes some of his fellow inmates or the conditions (which varied from extremely overcrowded to surprisingly civilised). Books were also important during that time; surprisingly he often had access to them -- though, as he notes: "We had no communist literature the entire time, no Marxist literature at all." Here, more than anywhere else, Wat witnessed the moral corruption of the communist system, and he conveys that well.
       More interesting than the jail-time is his personal literary and philosophical evolution, though the focus isn't very strongly on that. Early on, Wat was convinced of the new system -- and accepted what that meant:
I truly though that there would be no literature in a happy communist society, just as there would be no philosophy. (...) I could see the ugliness of socialist realism, and I thought there could be no communist literature but social realism, meaning no literature. I chose what Shklovsky and the LEF group had chosen: not literature but facts, propaganda.
       Wat throws out many interesting opinions along the way, too -- arguing from a completely different perspective (though still embracing a similarly reactionary position) by the time of the interviews:
Enlightened young people in the Soviet Union know the miseries and monstrosities of communism incomparably better than Western Sovietologists do, but every word of authentic religion, idealistic thought, disinterested beauty in poetry or ethics falls on fertile ground there. And though I personally esteem Beckett, Gombrowicz, Genet, Sartre, all that literary strip-tease can only blight the young shoots sprouting there.
       His apparently consistent belief that only a certain sort of literature will do (and his certainty that he knows what's good for readers (and writers) -- despite his own wide-ranging consumption of all and sundry) unfortunately isn't something Milosz challenges him on, or explores in adequate detail.
       Despite this, Wat comes across as very sympathetic, in large part because of how he describes his time in prison. He doesn't rage, and conveys the many small but remarkable prison experiences nicely, taking the best out of a horrible time in his life. His descriptions of his time as a prisoner are dizzying too, as he is moved from one cell and city to the next (eventually winding up in Kazakhstan ...), generally without much of an idea what specifically he might have done wrong (but then there were few real 'criminals' in these jails in any case).
       My Century is an interesting document of how the intellectual was treated in Stalinist times, specifically the Polish experience, which was slightly different than and not quite as comprehensively horrible as the Soviet one (despite Wat also spending time in Soviet jails).
       Still, it's the occasional asides that offer some of the most intriguing thoughts and insights into Wat's mind:
Many of our intellectual civilization's problems, our intellectual problems, arise because people do not read aloud. An enormous percentage of literature would simply vanish if the authors had to read their works aloud, only aloud. They would be ashamed; the falsehood would be obvious. When people read only with their eyes all the falsehood can enter imperceptibly even the most critical eye. The mouth is for speaking truth or lies, whereas the eyes are really esthetic.
       The loose conversation -- with Wat even complaining that every night there are new bits he remembers and wants to return to -- make for an often bumpy read (and if the names and events aren't familiar it is likely often daunting). Pared down as the English edition is the book is certainly manageable, and there's enough that's worthwhile, but My Century really only offers a rough impression of a man with some interesting accomplishments, opinions, and experiences. At least it does leave one thirsting for more.

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My Century: Reviews: Aleksander Wat: Other books by Aleksander Wat under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Aleksander Wat (1900-1967) was a leading Polish writer.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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