Hills of Parnassus, The

Czesław Miłosz
Hills of Parnassus, The
  • Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej
    Warszawa 2012
    128 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-63855-01-7
    Translation rights: The Wylie Agency

The Hills of Parnassus is Czesław Miłosz’s third and final attempt at tackling fiction (following the novels The Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley in the 1950s). He probably started it in 1967, worked intensively on it in 1970 and 1971, and finally, in the same year, abandoned it. In 1972 he offered some extracts from the unfinished book to the Paris-based periodical Kultura, but editor-in-chief Jerzy Giedroyć felt sceptical about it and refused to publish them. Covering several dozen pages of type – five chapters taken from a longer, hand-written version, plus some Introductory Remarks by the author – it has now been published for the first time.

There are at least three reasons why this book is significant. Firstly, as the subtitle tells us, here we have a work of science fiction, and this, in itself, is enough of an incentive to take a close look at it since it is highly intriguing to think of Miłosz “seeking a more comprehensive form” in this way. The second reason – not unrelated to the first – is that in his work as a novelist and commentator on his own fiction Miłosz adds many interesting things to what we already know about him. Thirdly and finally, even if they only represent a record of his ambitions and – as he himself admitted – his artistic failure, several dozen previously unknown pages by a Nobel prize-winning author are worth close reading.

As we know, Czesław Miłosz did not have a particularly high opinion of fiction, especially late-twentieth-century modern fiction. In his view it had “come unstuck from the world of things and human relations”, and, as he wrote in the Introductory Remarks that preface The Hills of Parnassus, “the modern novel, trained on streams of consciousness, internal monologues etc., and afflicted by structural theories, has wandered off so far that it bears little resemblance to what was once understood as the novel”. In his view, new fiction had lost what had, in a way, brought it to life and raised it to the heights: the ability to move the hearts and consciences of the wide reading public, the capacity to express truths and to initiate debates that were comprehensible to many people. But in science fiction Miłosz perceived a genre in which the virtues of the former, “old-fashioned” fiction were still alive, and which was still capable, more than elite poetry, of traditional communication with the general public – at any rate in its “classic” version. For example, Miłosz valued Lem’s Solaris, just as he criticised Lem’s later experiments with the genre and his search for – what irony! – a more comprehensive form for science fiction.

Miłosz tried his hand at sci-fi in order to express his concern at the direction mankind’s cultural development was taking. He set about envisioning the world at the close of the twenty-first century, when technical progress would result in compulsive, pointless consumption and the degeneration of personal bonds among the masses, who are ruled by an elite caste of technocrats. In this world, which Reason has deprived of Meaning and brought to the limits, nevertheless a sort of precursor to a quasi-religious revival appears, represented by a handful of misfits led by a man called Ephraim, who are looking for a way out of the universal indifference and impotence.

We do not know how it ends. Miłosz only provided preliminary, sometimes quite vivid images of his world, and an initial, sometimes fully absorbing presentation of some of his protagonists, but he failed to get any action going at all (what else could have galvanized the reader’s emotions?), and that was probably why he gave up writing the book. He explains his discouragement in more detail in the Introductory Remarks, which have to be read to judge for oneself to what extent he accounts for his failure in an old-fashioned way, and to what extent in an extremely modern way. Meanwhile, in her illuminating afterword, Agnieszka Kosińska discusses all the book’s adventures, contexts, affiliations and surprising sequels. Lest anybody should think that The Hills of Parnassus stands alone as fiction, the pieces of the novel are accompanied by a related text called Ephraim’s Liturgy, which was published in Kultura in 1968. Equipped with “a commentary explaining who Ephraim was”, these ritual incantations mixed with evangelical parables show Miłosz in his real element.

The Hills of Parnassus is truly fascinating reading.

Marcin Sendecki
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones