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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Mountains of Parnassus

Czesław Miłosz

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To purchase The Mountains of Parnassus

Title: The Mountains of Parnassus
Author: Czesław Miłosz
Genre: Novel
Written: (1971) (Eng. 2017)
Length: 167 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: The Mountains of Parnassus - US
The Mountains of Parnassus - UK
The Mountains of Parnassus - Canada
  • Polish title: Góry Parnasu
  • First published posthumously in 2012
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Stanley Bill

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Our Assessment:

B : odds and ends, almost -- but impressive pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Gazeta Wyborcza . 5/3/2013 Wojciech Orliński
Polityka . 12/3/2013 Rafał Pikuła
The Spectator . 8/4/2017 Andrew McKie
World Literature Today . 1-2/2017 Piotr Florczy

  From the Reviews:
  • "Miłosz tymczasem zabrał się do swojego eksperymentu z fantastyką od złej strony. (...) Gdyby Miłosz dokończył Góry Parnasu, wyszłaby mu powieść wyprzedzająca światowe science fiction o ćwierć stulecia." - Wojciech Orliński, Gazeta Wyborcza

  • "Góry Parnasu to chaotyczna antyutopia, pozbawiona płynnej narracji, ale celnie opisująca przyszłość." - Rafał Pikuła, Polityka

  • "True, despite the cover bearing the words ‘a novel’, there is no definition elastic enough to qualify it as that. There are half a dozen vignettes: sketchy attempts at world-building, incomplete descriptions of techniques of governance, complaints about technology and theological meditations. Despite Milosz’s antipathy towards postmodernism, the effect is reminiscent of Italo Calvino or Alasdair Gray in their ironically lapidary moods. (...) Unaccomplished, that is, as a novel; the writing, though uneven, is in parts as accomplished as Milosz’s admirers would expect." - Andrew McKie, The Spectator

  • "(A) diminutive curio. One might argue that the greatest thing we find between its covers is Stanley Bill’s magisterial introduction. Not only does it illuminate the background of the novel’s inception and eventual abandonment by the poet, it also situates it in the larger context of Miłosz’s life and work. (...) If we read The Mountains of Parnassus as an allegory, then, we begin to appreciate how truly whole and unwavering Miłosz’s beliefs and ideas remained throughout the years; writing a work of science fiction seems frivolous, even silly to us now, but as an attempt to fulfill, formally speaking, the vision of a poet who "always aspired to a more spacious form," it works, too." - Piotr Florczy, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his 'Introductory Remarks' to The Mountains of Parnassus author Miłosz describes this collection of pieces as: "a science fiction novel that will never be written". The publishers of the English translation squeeze the description 'A Novel' onto the cover (in small print, between 'The Mountains' and 'of Parnassus', as if crushed between them), but that claim is a stretch; the back-cover blurb describing this volume as: "science fiction-like musings" is considerably closer to the mark.
       Apparently completed -- in this very incomplete way -- in 1971, Miłosz did send it to his publisher, but made no further efforts to in any way complete it, or to get it published when it was turned down; even in the original Polish it only appeared posthumously, in 2012.
       Translator Stanley Bill is right when he observes that: "The work is incomplete as a story -- in fact, the story never really begins", and it is an odd sort of aborted attempt at a larger fiction. But what there is is certainly of interest, beginning with Miłosz's 'Introductory Remarks', where he expresses his frustration with the: "thankless literary genre" the novel has become. Though best-known as a poet, Miłosz's creative writing wasn't limited to verse, and it's fascinating to see him struggle here with this form that he wants to turn to but finds inadequate for his purposes; "everything has gone awry in the discipline" he notes, and he can't find the way to right it. (In part, his frustrations can surely also be ascribed to the place and time he was writing in, the crisis of the novel perhaps at its height, while 'escapist' (formally, as well) science fiction was tending towards the same faults as literary fiction (i.e. away from its naturalist, escapist roots), as Miłosz suggests happened, in a nearby example, with the work of Stanisław Lem.) Miłosz gamely gave it a go, however, even if the resulting collection of chapters isn't really recognizable as a novel; the five pieces along with the Appendix-pieces aren't really a story-sequence, either -- though in a way they are like building blocks, hinting at a structure he was struggling with, with many more spaces left unfilled than connected.
       Even the chapter-titles suggest the loose structure of the 'novel': 'Describing Parnassus', 'Karel's Adventures', 'On Methods of Governing', 'The Cardinal's Testament', 'An Astronaut's Tale', as well as the two parts of 'Ephraim's Liturgy' of the Appendix. Testament, tale, liturgy ... Miłosz struggles with form. Yet the pieces themselves are finely and carefully wrought, glimpses -- from a variety of perspectives -- of this futuristic world he wants to present, addressing a variety of issues of concern to him.
       The universe he presents is controlled by a dominant and (almost) all-powerful 'Union' and among the episodes are ones of distant world-building. The passage of time and the finding of purpose are significant themes, as characters struggle with both . This is a society that has lost its soul -- as, for example, religious faith has been superseded, as Miłosz imagines the shriveling of the Church in 'The Cardinal's Testament' -- and most of the chapters center in no small part around a sense of unfulfillment.
       There are connections between the pieces -- specifically with characters who struggle with their dissatisfaction of the world(s) and system they live in --, yet they also float rather free of each other, almost as if each were a new stab at gaining entrance to the larger vision Miłosz wants to present. It makes for an odd and somewhat discombobulated read, not really successful as whole and yet still impressing, piece by piece.
       The Mountains of Parnassus is not a science fiction novel, but it is a worthwhile work of speculative fiction, a very good writer unable to make a coherent work of art out of the issues he wants to address but still offering intriguing literary spins on and approaches to them, with some brilliant flashes. A short literary oddity, The Mountains of Parnassus can rightly be called an interesting failure; even as such, it remains worth seeking out.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 December 2016

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The Mountains of Parnassus: Reviews: Czesław Miłosz: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.

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