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The Issa Valley: A Novel by Czesław Miłosz
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The Issa Valley: A Novel (1955)

by Czesław Miłosz

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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What a poetic novel this is, perhaps not surprisingly so since Milosz is a poet, and a Nobel Prize-winning one at that. At least partly autobiographical, the novel is at once a coming-of-age story, a paean to nature, a study of character, a history of Lithuania, and a portrait of a rural, largely pre-industrial world that was soon to be utterly destroyed. Milosz was born in Lithuania (then part of the Russian empire) in 1911, but his family had for several generations spoken Polish, and while he was fluent in both languages (as well as several others), he considered himself a Polish poet and wrote in Polish.

In the novel, young Thomas has been sent to live with his maternal grandparents in the Issa Valley, a remote area in Lithuania that is filled with lakes and forests, as his father is fighting with some army (either the Russians or the Poles, who are fighting each other) and his mother is stranded over the border; his paternal grandmother is also living there. He is probably about 9 or 10 when the novel begins, but his age isn't specified until much later. The family was previously better off than it is now, but they own a "manor" house and quite a bit of land, including forests. Later on, this puts them slightly at odds with some of the local population who, inspired no doubt by what little bits of information they have heard about the Russian revolution, are itching for land distribution.

It is probably a lonely time for Thomas, and he first finds comfort in his grandfather's library, discovering books that had been gathering dust on the shelves for decades. Later he becomes completely enamored by nature, learning first about plants and then about birds, loving both his observations of them in their habitats and their names and the whole Linnean naming system. Eventually he meets a neighboring landowner who initiates Thomas into hunting. At first, Thomas is very proud to be included with the grown men, and is fascinated by how hunters creep through the woods, call to birds, and set their dogs to work. Everything about the way Milosz describes the forests and the animals is utterly lyrical. Ultimately, Thomas finds it difficult to kill the birds and other animals they are hunting.

But this novel is about much more than Thomas, and the voice of the novel is not Thomas's but someone who is able to see all of the society of the little town of Gine and its surroundings. The reader sees many of the inhabitants of the area, including the priest who is having an affair with his housekeeper (who comes back to haunt the town), a tormented forester, a bitter and cruel but persuasive poor boy, the local priests, and many others, and gains some knowledge of their histories and characters. Thomas's family is also explored: his maternal grandfather tells him about Lithuanian history, his paternal grandmother meditates on her own life story and her husband and sons, and his mother's sister, his aunt Helen, enjoys some extramarital adventures. The portrait Milosz paints of Thomas's paternal grandmother is particularly rich, and the scene where she is dying is one of the most beautiful and insightful I have read. At the same time, the novel is rich with the spirits, both good and evil, that people still believe guide the residents of the Issa Valley. All in all, this novel is poetry in prose, with much left unsaid.

I was eager to read Milosz after I read My Century, in which Milosz interviews Aleksander Wat, a Polish poet of an earlier generation, and another LTer recommended this novel. I'm glad she did, I'm glad I read it, and I will look for more of Milosz's work.
4 vote rebeccanyc | Apr 6, 2013 |
Read this years ago, soon after Milosz was given the Nobel. I remember walking along the corridor at University and passing by the door of his office at the Faculty. ( )
  KalliopeMuse | Apr 2, 2013 |
A great book about adolescence and growing up. ( )
  malavisch | May 16, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Czesław Miłoszprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Iribarne, LouisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rasch, GerardAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rasch, GerardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodón Klemensiewich, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Szmidt, DorotaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I should begin with the Land of Lakes, the place where Thomas lived. This part of Europe was long covered with glaciers, and the landscape has much of the severity of the north.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374516952, Paperback)

Thomas, the child-protagonist of The Issa Valley, is subject to both the contradictions of nature in this severe northern setting and sometimes enchanting, sometimes brutal timbre of village life. There are the deep pine and spruce forests, the grouse and the deer, and the hunter's gun. There is Magdalena, the beautiful mistress of the village priest, whose suicide unleashes her ghost to haunt the parish. There are also the loving grandparents with whom Thomas lives, who provide a balance of the not-quite-Dostoevskian devils that visit the villagers. In the end, Thomas is severed from his childhood and the Issa River, and leaves prepared for adventures beyond his valley. Poetic and richly imagined, The Issa Valley is a masterful work of fiction from one of our greatest living poets.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:22 -0400)

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