Louis Begley

Louis Begley

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 6 1997 3:30 AM

Louis Begley

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       I did not return to Poland for almost a half-century after that illegal and dangerous flight, in 1946, from Communism, the carnage of the German occupation, and the sense of impossibility--of the future having come to an end--that weighed on us like a leaden mantle. A flight that was twice and three-times dangerous. Our papers were not in order: Had Poland not been in chaos, we should have been arrested at the border and returned to Cracow to face consequences the nature of which I cannot now imagine; we had no money; and we had no destination. The travel documents my parents had somehow obtained could take us as far as Paris, but they did not give us the right to settle there even if we had had the material means to do so. Such dilemmas are usually solved by a deus ex machina: the millionaire uncle from America. In the event, my mother's uncle, a seemingly benevolent but enigmatic figure, responded to her appeals for help by a telegram that, in retrospect, I consider a miracle of wit. It read "Keep coming!" We puzzled over the economy of expression and richness of assumptions lodged in this message, and followed it to the letter.
       In the next few years, I felt no desire for renewed contact with my Polish roots. My chief preoccupation was to become as American as possible. Then, when I had become sufficiently settled in my new identity to afford the occasional luxury of such longings, the specter of danger conveniently put an end to them. An American passport does not trump one's Polish nationality. In that time of the Iron Curtain, what guarantee was there that, if they let me in, they would let me out? Much later, my habits in the matter of travel had become fixed. France, Greece, and Italy, and perhaps Japan and China were on my itinerary, but Poland quite simply wasn't. That was the reason I put out, like a press bulletin, in answer to indiscreet inquiries. But, in reality, I was still afraid to return, probably more than ever. I could not bear the thought of being rejected yet another time. Therefore, I did not revisit my sad fatherland until there came a reason I could treat as objective, and independent of my will, although, in truth, it was uniquely personal: the invitation by the Polish publisher of my first work, Wartime Lies, to come to Warsaw for its launch.
       An unexpected benefit came of it. I had maintained obstinately, in the face of persistent questioning and incredulity, that my book was not an autobiography but a novel, a work of imagination that corresponded only in outline to what might be called a summary of my early life in Poland. In the fall of '95, walking along Nowy Swiat and Krakowskie Przedmiescie to the reconstructed old city, and, later, strolling in the Saxon Gardens, I obtained the certitude that I had been right: Wartime Lies was indeed a novel. I had lost all visual memory of Warsaw. The places I described in my book I had invented. Only my memory of the language and manners--understood in the largest sense--had remained intact.

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.