The Magazine

Uprooted Man

A chronicler of housing in search of a home.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By THOMAS SWICK
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My Two Polish Grandfathers

And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life

by Witold Rybczynski

Scribner's, 240 pp., $25

A profession will occasionally produce people who can explain its intricacies and profundities to the outside world with such clarity and grace (or suspense and drama) that they become more famous as writers than they were in their original careers.

Medicine is particularly rich in these literary spokesmen: Lewis Thomas, Richard Selzer, Oliver Sacks, Anthony Daniels, Abraham Verghese. Verghese's latest work is fiction, which is where law, perhaps fittingly, likes to look at itself, as evidenced by the novels of Louis Auchincloss, Scott Turow, and John Grisham. Joseph Wambaugh's books illuminate the world of law enforcement, while Ned Rorem's diaries are as well-known as his music. Even undertaking has its bard in Thomas Lynch.

Over the last two decades, with books like Home: A Short History of an Idea and City Life, Witold Rybczynski has firmly established himself as architecture's voice in the world of letters. Of the above two-timers, he most resembles Thomas, for his writing has the same lucid, rational, humanistic quality. He takes a subject that could be intimidating and makes it accessible. Design and urban planning are for him, as medicine was for Thomas, a means for studying, a window toward understanding, and an attempt at bettering the human condition.

The story Rybczynski tells in this slim memoir begins in upheaval
and ends in a quietly triumphant domesticity. He was born in 1943 in Edinburgh, the city his parents landed in after separately fleeing war-torn Poland. The father made a rather daring journey by car from Bucharest to Paris, was posted to a military camp in Brittany, and there was eventually reunited with his wife. They were again separated, when the camp was evacuated, but found each other in Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Spanish border. A fisherman rowed them out to a Dutch collier headed for England.

"It's difficult for me," Rybczynski writes, "to reconcile my childhood image of my parents--circumspect, cautious, to my immature eyes unadventurous--with these audacious individuals."

The ensuing chapter on the war, a well-covered subject, is lively because of the personal story: The father was stationed at the base in Italy whose mission was to send support to the Warsaw Uprising. And it is noteworthy (if sobering) because of the Polish perspective. After the war, exiled Poles found themselves in the paradoxical position of having fought on the victorious side and being unable to return to a free homeland.

The Rybczynskis stayed in Scotland for a few years and then moved to Canada, where the father, having gone on ahead, had found an engineering job. Their new town, St. Johns, Quebec, was really two towns: one French-speaking, the other English. The parents did not "impose their Polishness" on their two sons--no Polish lessons or Polish church school--but Polish was spoken at home, Polish customs were observed (three kisses on the cheeks for both the parents), and, naturally, family stories were handed down.

In this way the author learned about his grandfathers. One had been a successful banker in Warsaw; the other, after obtaining a doctorate in mathematics and physics, had settled for the life of a gimnazium teacher in a "sleepy country town" in Galicia. They represented opposing types: the solid self-made man and the mysterious man of unfulfilled promise. Rybczynski found himself more attracted to the latter.

"Home is always a refuge from the outside world," he writes, "but never more so than for the child of foreigners." Yet, as he notes, a bilingual province was an ideal place for a bicultural child. (Not really a surprise that he now has his feet in two professions.) He attended Loyola College High School in Montreal, getting an outstanding education from teachers who--intellectually and morally--lived up to the Jesuit ideal.

For all its linguistic richness, his was a fairly typical North American boyhood. There was the model train set in the basement, the author "constructing the scenery out of plaster of Paris applied over fly screening." He started playing drums as a teenager and was soon going to the local tobacconist's for issues of Down Beat. On a family trip to New York City in 1959 he made the pilgrimage to Birdland. Jazz was, for his parents, one of numerous New World mysteries. Rybczynski writes thoughtfully of the enormous gulf between his father's adolescence in prewar Poland and his own in postwar Canada, and the dearth of shared, or even comprehended, interests. Yet the two of them sometimes played music together--father on piano, son on drums.