Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp | Mechanics' Institute

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Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp
Translator Eric Karpeles in conversation with Professor Mark Calkins

Wednesday, March 6, 2019 - 6:30pm

Translator Eric Karpeles in conversation with Professor Mark Calkins

In the summer of 1926 the talented Polish painter and writer Józef Czapski came down with typhoid. He spent the summer in London at his uncle’s house, “lying on a chaise lounge, baking in the sun.” It was there that he first read Proust. In 1939 during World War II, while serving as Polish army officer, he was deported to a Soviet prison camp-- one of few to survive the Katyn massacre perpetrated by Stalin.There he would find himself giving secret lectures on Proust in French, to a rapt audience of fellow prisoners. Transcending confinement and a frigid winter, his talks were a valiant act of defiance, survival and a reclaiming of lost time. This book contains Czapski’s lectures on Proust translated into English for the first time.



Józef Czapski (1896–1993) was born into an aristocratic family and grew up in Poland. As a student in Saint Petersburg, he was present during the February Revolution of 1917. Briefly a cavalry officer in World War I, decorated for bravery in the Polish-Soviet War, Czapski went on to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and then moved to Paris to paint. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Czapski sought active duty as a reserve officer. Captured by the Germans, he was handed over to the Soviets as a prisoner of war, though for reasons that remain mysterious he was not among the twenty-two thousand Polish officers who were summarily executed by the Soviet secret police. Unwilling to live in postwar communist Poland, Czapski set up a studio outside of Paris. His essays appeared in Kultura,the leading intellectual journal of the Polish emigration that he helped establish; his painting underwent a great final flowering in the 1980s. Czapski died, nearly blind, at ninety-six.


Eric Karpeles (translator) 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 author of Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski (Pub date: November 6, 2018; New York Review Books)Lorenza Foschini’s Proust’s Overcoat. He lives in Northern California.


Mark Calkins, PH.D. (moderator)is on the Lecturer Faculty in the Department of Comparative and World Literature, College of Liberal and Creative Arts, San Francisco State University. He has been the moderator of Mechanics' Institute's dedicated Proust Group for over ten years.


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