Birthday. Memories of Czesław Miłosz

30 June 2024


 Teresa Walas

Whenever Czesław Miłosz happened to be in Kraków in June, we celebrated his birthday. That particular year, 1994, he was supposed to be in Sejny, so we made no plans of any kind. Imagine my surprise, then, when on the morning of the 30th I got a call from Carol asking where one can buy a cake and candles in Kraków. “Aren’t you in Sejny?” “No, we stayed in Kraków,” answered Carol. “Czesław is in a terrible mood. Come over to Bogusławskiego for five o’clock. The Turowiczs will be there, Jurek Illg, Olek Fiut and Balbus.” I gave Carol a couple of places to order a cake from and promised to bring candles. I met Staszek Balbus at the front gate; he was brandishing a bottle of booze, I was carrying a mug inscribed with “Czesław”. The others were already inside, but they looked uncertain, and nothing indicated that the party was fun. I’d delivered my birthday greetings, accepted with a curt nod, and we were given a glass each and joined the others. After a brief, awkward silence, Czesław suddenly turned to me and asked, “Teresa, pray tell me, why am I still alive?” It dawned on me that the others had already been through this. Still, there was nothing for it and I had to give an answer. “What do you mean, why?” I said. “So that you can keep writing poems, sharing your wisdom, be here with us…” Czesław shook his head, waggled his eyebrows and countered, “And do you know how much I’ve suffered in my life?” Of course we all knew, but the argument needed to be resolved. “But aren’t you free from suffering now? Don’t you remember when we were in a café with Olek Fiut recently, you said, ‘I’m so happy with you here’?” Czesław grunted uncertainly but he didn’t give up. “But I’ve been a bad man at times, I’ve done bad things.” This was harder, especially given that I was getting no support from the others. “None of us can say we are perfectly good,” I started weakly, then I decided to switch to an attack. “What are these bad things that you’ve done?” “Well, I gave better grades to the prettiest students.” I breathed a sigh of relief, but I continued seriously. “That’s not exactly honest, it’s true, but did you give worse grades than deserved to the less pretty students?” “Of course not!” he snorted indignantly. “So there was no harm, or wrongdoing. There was just unearned excess.” That made him give his loud, infectious laugh, and we all joined in. Our dark dispute revealed a silver lining, and we moved on to toasting his birthday. But we were all painfully aware that this inner darkness was always his companion…

Teresa Walas
Retired professor at the Department of Anthropology of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Author of books and academic papers on literary theory and the history of Polish literature of the 19th and 20th century and contemporary culture; literary critic. Between 2007 and 2014 she served as editor-in-chief of the magazine of the Faculty of Polish Studies. She co-edited the Cracovian literary and cultural periodical “Literary Decade” (later renamed “New Cracovian Decade”) for 30 years. Member of the board of the Wisława Szymborska Foundation.

Text published in 1/2024 issue of Kraków Culture quarterly.
OK We use cookies to facilitate the use of our services. If you do not want cookies to be saved on your hard drive, change the settings of your browser.