Slight Exaggeration

by Adam Zagajewski
translated by Clare Cavanagh
reviewed by Leonard Kress
March 7, 2017

In Slight Exaggeration, Adam Zagajewski, the most prominent living Polish poet, reflects on literature, art, and history. Even so, this prose collection is difficult to categorize: it is not didactic, autobiographical, critical, or theoretical, though it does contain all these elements. Its structure is musical (hardly surprising since Brahms, Mozart, and Schubert appear frequently), and though its scope is broad and expansive, it is more like an elegiac tone poem or rhapsody than a symphony, lacking moments of sheer exaltation, depths of despair, and rollicking allegros.

Among its discrete sections, which range from a few sentences to several pages, Slight Exaggeration contains instances of memoir, book reviews, author appreciations, meditations on philosophy and history, monographs, aphorisms, and most important, perhaps, prose poems, as in this account of vacationing in Italy:

[Czeslaw Milosz] had gone swimming there, too, and always remembered the white marble cliffs that looked at first like snow-covered mountains—in midsummer! But it’s not snow, just marble, Carrara, a town famed among sculptors, at the foot of marble peaks. And the sea there is blue, warm, salty, with little waves … The coast is rocky here, as a Mediterranean seashore should be … Milosz died, thinking, working, writing poems almost to the very end—as though he had sailed far out to sea, toward Carrara, toward azure mists and white mountains.”

There are clear motifs in the book, too: the city of Lvov, home of Zagajewski’s parents (once part of Poland, ceded to the Soviet Union after the Second World War and now part of the Ukraine), the city of Gliwice, where many residents of Lvov were forced to relocate (a German city before the war, now thoroughly Polonized). Pre-war Lvov plays a huge part in this book and in the character of Zagajewski’s engineer-professor father, ever suspicious of the language of poetry and his son’s embrace of it. Gliwice, where Zagajewski was raised, with its nostalgia and sentimentality, serves as a kind of anti-Lvov. Strewn between these two poles are lesser motifs—the museums and cathedrals of Paris, his university professors in Krakow, his Houston home, the real story behind Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. But there is so much more to Slight Exaggeration.

Ultimately, the book is unified around Zagajewski’s poetic principles and his struggle to reject abstraction, nostalgia, and Romanticism, and his desire to engage with the world. Zagajewski’s world, however, is one that is thoroughly mediated through art. When he describes a visit to the site of Vermeer’s famous View of Delft, he notes the addition of concrete benches and the elderly people seated on them, replacing the original upright bourgeois women with snoods. Thus, Zagajewski’s poetic vision is often doubled—the seventeenth and twenty-first century simultaneously occupy the same space. His sense of doubling, however, clearly contrasts with the prevailing double nature of postmodern irony, which only alienates him from the transcendent realms he seeks:

I needed to escape my own irony, I sought light vehicles in poetry that might lift me for a moment, I sought inspiration, elation, I had plenty of earth and gravel. I looked for rapture, even though if anyone had asked what that was, and why I preferred even amorphous rapture to sardonic wit, I would have no answer. Mozart’s melancholy cheered me, like the melancholy of Schubert. At times, I preferred a single line of [Eugene] Montale to the aphorisms of Cioran.

Although Slight Exaggeration was published in Poland in 2011, the English translation is only appearing this year. When I first dipped into its pages, I couldn’t help but note how its initial publication predated the consequential changes in the West over the past six years—the migrant crisis, Brexit, the alarming right-wing nationalism in Europe and especially Poland, Trump. But as I entered more deeply into the text, I realized that this book already takes into account the most extreme instances of ethnic hatred, dislocation, and pettiness (the Holocaust and Stalinism) and casts that world aside, replacing it with the possibilities of art, music, and literature—a deeper and profound realm in which to dwell—and one which allows us to live in the world. Zagajewski writes:

I began to recognize, to suspect, some kind of doubleness in the world’s nature: It’s not just the perfectly obvious, empirical layer, the opulent, imperial layer that dominates life’s chief currents, that makes up all the basic components of a relatively stable life, including trains and trams … something else lies concealed beneath it, something unnamed, without which quotidian ordinariness would wither, shrivel like a scrap of paper cast into a fire.