Czeslaw Milosz: A California Life

Czeslaw Milosz: A California Life
Hardcover, 5.5 x 8, 256 pages.
ISBN: 9781597145497.

By Cynthia L. Haven

Czesław Miłosz, one of the greatest poets and thinkers of the past hundred years, is not generally considered a Californian. But the Nobel laureate spent four decades in Berkeley—more time than any other single place he lived—and he wrote many of his most enduring works there. This is the first book to look at his life through a California lens. Filled with original research and written with the grace and liveliness of a novel, it is both an essential volume for his most devoted readers and a perfect introduction for newcomers.

Miłosz was a premier witness to the sweep of the twentieth century, from the bombing of Warsaw in World War II to the student protests of the sixties and the early days of the high-tech boom. He maintained an open-minded but skeptical view of American life, a perspective shadowed by the terrors he experienced in Europe. In the light of recent political instability and environmental catastrophe, his poems and ideas carry extra weight, and they are ripe for a new generation of readers to discover them. This immersive portrait demonstrates what Miłosz learned from the Golden State, and what Californians can learn from him.


"The author approaches her subject from a position of faith, both in Miłosz's inherent greatness and in California's mythos as a land of eternal contradictions—of wilderness versus city, old versus new, authenticity versus charade. [...] Haven is a thorough researcher, however, and she speaks with everyone who can shed any light on Miłosz's California existence, from important American poets such as Robert Haas to former neighbors and acquaintances. She offers personal perspectives that one will not find elsewhere in the expanding universe of writings on Miłosz." Benjamin Paloff, Times Literary Supplement
"Cynthia Haven's book is delicious. She evokes so much so vividly and so intelligently; for me her pages were a restoration of a richer and less lonely time. And her intuition is right: Czeslaw Milosz and California are indeed a chapter in each other's history." Leon Wieseltier, literary critic
Czesław Miłosz: A California Life asks about the meaning of exile, about the possibilities of a new home, about the transformation of a poetic perspective, about alienation and the building of literary bridges. But in the end, the book asks one big, nearly impossible question: How did the great Polish exile Miłosz change his newfound home—and how did California, after so many years, transform Miłosz’s own metaphysics? For it is a metaphysical question, after all: How does a place change the poet, and what does a poet do to shift our perspective on the place? On this unending journey, Cynthia L. Haven is an illuminating guide, one who brings knowledge, precision, and grace. There is much to learn from this book about Miłosz and California, yes, but also about poetry and the world.” Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic
"Much has been written about the poet, and Haven finds new ways into his life​ ​[...​]​​ ​and her examinations of the influence of place on his poetry are insightful. Fans of Miłosz’s work should give this a look." Publishers Weekly
“My father came to Berkeley in 1960, a towering Polish poet who testified to the murderous apocalypse of World War II, the nightmare of Stalinism, and the glow of the human spirit. Far from a monotonous exile, he gradually discovered in California a home for forty years, a vital inspiration, and a new international audience, leading to the Nobel Prize in 1980. Cynthia Haven tells this complex story from a deep and moving California perspective. Entrancing.” Anthony Miłosz, executor of the Miłosz Estate
"Mining the largely untapped vein of Miłosz and California, Cynthia Haven has struck paydirt, a gold mine of perception and insight." Richard Lourie, author of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin
"Haven, exceptionally well-versed in Miłosz’s work, suggests his oeuvre consists of 'an ancient quarrel with the cruelty of the universe and the inevitability of suffering' [...] With Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, Haven succeeds in portraying a person grappling interminably with this challenge." Marius Sosnowski, Dispatches
"More daring and more rewarding than a straightforward biography of the self-exiled Polish poet, A California Life channels the tensions between Miłosz and his adoptive home and lets that friction energize the project. In other words, this is less about a poet and his life and more about how a brilliant artist and thinker steeped in Old World culture learned to exist in the amnesiac fog of California." Scott Beauchamp, Washington Examiner
"Czesław Miłosz: A California Life is as much as portrait of a place as it is of a person. [...] When she writes about California, it’s not merely to draw the connection between the land and Miłosz. Rather, Haven takes space to revel in the 'hypnotic monotony' of the weather and the 'alien, hyperreal' rocks along Highway 1. Her language is a place of energy, richness, and—fittingly—poetry." Peter Schlachte, Zyzzyva
"Haven draws on a compendium of knowledge of her subject, having mused on and written about Miłosz for more than 20 years. [...] Haven lets us into her thought processes, even when she is questioning them, and lovingly recreates conversations—in the relative present, at a café with Robert Hass [...] and in the recent past, at Miłosz’s Grizzly Peak home as the poet drinks bourbon and chats with friends into the wee hours." Cory Oldweiler, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Cynthia Haven’s Czesław Miłosz: A California Life will be a boon to readers who’ve only recently become aware of Miłosz and to those who have been reading him for forty years or more." John Wilson, The American Conservative
"Cynthia L. Haven [...] show[s] how Miłosz—thrilled at an early age to read about the wonders of the wide-open American landscape—situated himself so profoundly in his newfound country's culture." Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun
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About the Author

Cynthia L. Haven

Cynthia L. Haven

Cynthia L. Haven is a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar and author of 2018’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, the first-ever biography of the French theorist. She has published two previous books on Czesław Miłosz: An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz and Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, as well as a visiting writer and scholar at Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She has written for the Times Literary Supplement and has also contributed to the New York Times Book Review, the Nation, the Wall Street Journal, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


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