Louis Begley

Louis Begley

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 8 1997 3:30 AM

Louis Begley

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       Because I went to Poland for the weekend, I missed my grandchildren's Sunday visit. Fortunately, photographs were taken, and have been the subject of extensive comment. There is the picture of my 7-year-old granddaughter, a velvet turban on her head, her lips full, her eyes very mischievous, wrapped in a mink stole no one has worn since Mamie Eisenhower retired. She is a dangerous little vamp. My grandson, unnaturally thin, tall, and handsome like his father, is hardly ever to be seen without his Baltimore Orioles cap. Someone made him remove it. One can therefore admire his crew cut, which is the color of dark copper. He has even managed a sly sort of smile directed at the camera. It must have been a very jolly party. My children and grandchildren seem more spontaneous when I am not there. Sometimes I think it might be better if I became invisible--a well-meaning ghost recognized only by my wife and my close friend, Sasha the cat. But when the children are there, Sasha is very busy; one could not count on him to pay attention.
       Poland is full of ghosts, restless and unavenged; their hands reach out to the lucky survivors; the past refuses to make way for the present. The shape of the country is different: A large part of what had been Poland between the two world wars belongs to Ukraine. German territory has become Polish. The ethnic mix is different too. The population of more than 3 million Jews who lived in Poland before World War II has been reduced to 50-, 40-, or perhaps 30-thousand, depending on who is counting. In spite, or perhaps because of this, the German, Russian, and Jewish questions are still unanswered. Oddly, the speech of the educated class has not changed. It is redolent of 19th-century politeness, and the turns of phrase that go with the need to address most people in the third person are as quaint as ever. But, after midnight, on the state television channel, I saw The Story of O. The nouveaux riches have grown like mushrooms after a heavy rain. A large part of Lech Walesa's Solidarity--those brave striking workers from Gdansk and the political group that coalesced around them--is now a right-wing movement; there has come into being a small party of the extreme of the right with impeccable xenophobic and anti-Semitic credentials; Communists claim they have turned into entrepreneurs. The center is held by a party led by Leszek Balcerowicz, an economist who devised the plan that rescued Poland from the vortex of inflation. The soul of his party is the distinguished medievalist Bronislaw Gieremek, a former and perhaps eternal dissident one year older than I, who is now a member of the Polish Parliament. I dined with him the evening I arrived in Warsaw. We stayed at table until very late and, as we talked, it seemed to me that some of the ghosts crowding around me had been exorcised.
      
      

Louis Begley is the author of four novels: Wartime Lies, The Man Who Was Late, As Max Saw It, and About Schmidt. He practices law and lives in New York City.