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Eric Karpeles Discusses the Life and Art of Józef Czapski

Writer, translator, and painter Eric Karpeles discusses the life and art of Józef Czapski in conversation with Jan Pytalski.

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About Almost Nothing

A compelling biography of the Polish painter and writer Józef Czapski that takes readers to Paris in the Roaring Twenties, to the front lines during WWII, and into the late 20th-century art world.

Józef Czapski (1896-1993) lived many lives--as a soldier, public gure, historical witness, memoirist, essayist, and painter. His ninety-six years nearly span the twentieth century in its entirety. He was a student in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution and a painter in Paris in the Roaring Twenties. As a Polish reserve officer fighting against the invading Nazis in the opening weeks of the Second World War, he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and survived the Katyn Massacre. He never returned to Poland, working tirelessly in Paris to keep awareness of the plight of his homeland alive, overrun by totalitarian powers. Czapski was a towering public figure, but painting gave meaning to his life.

"Józef Czapski was a beautiful human being, courageous, noble but also hard-working; occasionally a soldier, journalist, diarist, always writing, drawing, always with a sketchbook in hand, always ready to help friends and strangers. In his person, high intelligence and remarkable artistic talent met with an active, almost naive goodness—a rather rare combination. “Almost Nothing” reads at times like a political novel—when this delicate painter speaks to Stalin’s high-ranking henchmen—or like un roman de l’artiste when he talks with Anna Akhmatova in Tashkent. Eric Karpeles’ generous, fantastically researched book renders justice to this exceptional figure and to the painful, monstrously brutal historical background against which Czapski’s life has to be measured." -- Adam Zagajewski


About Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp

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The first translation of painter and writer Józef Czapski’s inspiring lectures on Proust, first delivered in a prison camp in the Soviet Union during World War II.

During the Second World War, as a prisoner of war in a Soviet camp, and with nothing but memory to go on, the Polish artist and soldier Józef Czapski brought Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to life for an audience of prison inmates. In a series of lectures, Czapski described the arc and import of Proust’s masterpiece, sketched major and minor characters in striking detail, and movingly evoked the work’s originality, depth, and beauty. Eric Karpeles has translated this brilliant and ­altogether unparalleled feat of the critical imagination into English for the first time, and in a thoughtful introduction he brings out how, in reckoning with Proust’s great meditation on memory, Czapski helped his fellow officers to remember that there was a world apart from the world of the camp. Proust had staked the art of the novelist against the losses of a lifetime and the imminence of death. Recalling that triumphant wager, unfolding, like Sheherazade, the intricacies of Proust’s world night after night, Czapski showed to men at the end of their tether that the past remained present and there was a future in which to hope.

Eric Karpeles, also a painter, reveals Czapski’s full complexity, pulling together all the threads of this remarkable life.

Eric Karpeles is a painter, writer, and translator. His comprehensive guide, Paintings in Proust, considers the intersection of literary and visual aesthetics in the work of the great French novelist. He has written about the paintings of the poet Elizabeth Bishop and about the end of life as seen through the works of Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler, and Mark Rothko. The painter of The Sanctuary and of the Mary and Laurance Rockefeller Chapel, he is the also the translator of Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp and Lorenza Foschini’s Proust’s Overcoat. He lives in Northern California.

Jan Pytalski is a recent transplant to the United States from Poland. Currently he is a Washington, DC correspondent for the West Virginia-based "100 Days in Appalachia" news organization and a stringer for Reuters, covering the White House. He is also a translator with over a decade of experience translating fiction and literary criticism.

Earlier Event: November 11
Sarah St. Vincent: Ways to Hide in Winter
Later Event: November 19
George Lakey: How We Win