Louis Begley

Louis Begley

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 4 1997 3:30 AM

Louis Begley

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       I came back from Warsaw yesterday, having spent just 36 hours there. It could have been an even more absurd visit: The plan had been to arrive on Friday afternoon and leave after lunch on Saturday. All this was done for the sake of meeting a couple of political figures, one of whom is doubtless of ephemeral importance. Something--a remnant of good sense--rebelled inside me, and I took instead the first plane to New York on Sunday. Trivial arrangements, all of them so vertiginously easy and comfortable when I think back to my first visit to Warsaw by airplane. That was a flight from Cracow in the early fall of '46, taken I believe some weeks before we ran away, quite illegally, from Poland to Paris, en route, although we didn't know it, to New York, and a brand-new life. The airplane was some sort of small military conveyance, with metal benches and no portholes; it vibrated and bucked wildly. I don't remember whether I ever knew how my father had inveigled three places on it. By the time we landed, I was airsick, and memories of nausea that wouldn't recede mix with those of a city that had not yet begun to be cleared of rubble, whose shattered buildings seemed to smolder just as they had when I had last seen them, two years earlier, in September '44, almost at the end of the Warsaw uprising, marching under guard toward the central railroad station and, one supposed, more or less rapid extinction. The object of the '46 visit was administrative, not political. My parents were making a last, unsuccessful effort to obtain permission to emigrate. We camped for an entire day perhaps in the makeshift quarters of a ministry, the corridor of which, thick with brown dust and the smell of sweat I recognized unerringly, some 25 years later, as I was ushered in to see a high civil servant in his office in Algiers.

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.