Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands: City of Lions

The very existence of this book is a stout marker of the robust good health of the publishing industry, and even, in its own way, small evidence that 2016 hasn’t been all bad. It also shows that, four years after its takeover and relaunch, Pushkin Press has retained an essential part of its character even while expanding into crime, children’s books and contemporary English language titles. In other words, where else might we see a beautifully-produced, mass-distributed book containing two essays written 70 years apart about a city I’d never heard of before now?

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City of Lions is about Lviv, now in Western Ukraine but formerly part of Poland, when it was known as Lwów. Which explains why the first essay, written by Pole Józef Wittlin in 1946, is titled ‘My Lwów’, whereas Philippe Sands’ 2016 essay is ‘My Lviv’.

Wittlin’s ‘My Lwów’ (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, 2016) is particularly curious as it is an historical piece which itself looks back: writing in his adopted home of New York in 1946, Wittlin reflects that he left Lwów in 1922 – when he arrived there initially in 1906, it had yet another name: Lemberg. He brings together both the city’s complex political history and its then-contemporary relevance when he reflects that

“my Lwów” was mainly the Lwów of the Austrian partition era, the capital of the “Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria and the Grand Duchy of Kraków with the Duchies of Auschwitz and Zator”. What? That’s right—Auschwitz. (Nowadays, everything goes black before my eyes at the mention of that name.)

As a personal memory, Wittlin’s account is necessarily partial and idiosyncratic. (“Get in line, you wayward memories!”) He writes of the people (“an extraordinary mixture of nobility and roguery, wisdom and imbecility, poetry and vulgarity”), the topography (“Alright, so Lwów hasn’t got a decent river, or a legend. What would it need a river for?”) and the smells (“Every time I returned to Lwów from ‘the world outside’, I always found its aromas in just the same places as before. So they’re probably still there today too…”). Amid numerous translator’s endnotes to give context to the names and places from another life, we learn about the likes of the quasi-aristocrat Ostap Ortwin, a lordly, voluble character who had a doppelgänger otherwise quite unlike him.

Whenever the two lookalikes passed each other in the street, they doffed their ridiculous black hats with wide brims. Thus for many years they bowed to each other, although they were not acquainted at all. They were merely acknowledging their similarity and their awareness of being twins.

Then, a hairpin turn as Wittlin tells us that “in 1942 it turned out that Ortwin was not inviolable. The Germans drove the great, recalcitrant soul out of that ‘lordly’ figure.”

But the antic spirit succeeds, and one of Wittlin’s early points is the “abhorrence of solemnity” and “dislike of all manner of pomp” which he attributes to his Lwów. In the interesting introduction to City of Lions, Eva Hoffman quotes Milan Kundera who considers this quality to apply more widely. Central Europe, he wrote, “has its own vision of the world, a vision based on a deep distrust of history. History, that goddess of Hegel and Marx, that incarnation of reason … that is the history of conquerors. The people of Central Europe … represent the wrong side of this history. They are its victims and outsiders. It is this disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the ‘nonserious spirit’ that mocks grandeur and glory.” This angle can be seen in many of the Central European fiction I’ve written about here: Karel Capek’s War with the Newts; Jiří Weil’s Life with a Star; Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles; Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude and Closely Observed Trains. The antic approach is not what you might expect of a part of the world that had a grim 20th century, but it fits too with what Philip Roth found when he visited Central Europe in the 70s and reintroduced the above authors and more to English-language readers. He spoke too of how the “screwball strain” in their writing enabled him to move away from “American realism” – and gave us some of his best books, in the Zuckerman trilogy and The Counterlife.

There is in fact an element of this in ‘My Lwów’ itself, less in eccentricity than in structural looseness or chaos, which reflects that this is above all a book of memory. Philippe Sands’ ‘My Lviv’ is altogether more orderly. He arrived in Lviv in 2010, when it was established as part of Ukraine, “a country being pulled east by Russia and west by the European Union, at risk of tearing in the middle.” It is, he reminds us, “a city on the edge of many places, a space of constant insecurity.” Sands revisits some of Wittlin’s people, including Ortwin, but introduces us to others such as Hersch Lauterpacht, who devised the concept of “crimes against humanity”, and Rafael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide”. (“New conceptions require new terms”, Lemkin stated.) Sands argues that, Lviv having produced both men, “the origins of human rights may be traced to this city”. This informs much of what follows, from his choice of illustrative images to his concentration on who to speak to, which is inevitably directed toward the Second World War and the Holocaust. All this makes for a sober and solid balance to Wittlin’s more skittish approach, and completes the book perfectly. One man Sands meets, whose father was a Governor in Nazi-occupied Poland, puts it as starkly as can be. “I am against the death penalty,” he says, “but not in the case of my father.”

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