My Two Polish
Scribner: 228 pp., $25
Overrun by exhibitionists, the memoir has turned spuriously confessional. Yet if there's one life story that could stand a bit more self-revelation, it's that of Witold Rybczynski. Is it possible to imagine a more reluctant narrator than the celebrated urban planner, who wrote an award-winning biography of Frederick Law Olmsted and the bestselling "Home: A Short History of an Idea"? In "My Two Polish Grandfathers and Other Essays on the Imaginative Life," he offers a series of ruminations that seek to connect the man and architect he became with his peripatetic childhood as the son of refugee Polish parents trying to put down roots on both sides of the Atlantic. It reads as if an overeager publisher put a gun to his head.
You can practically feel Rybczynski holding his nose as he rummages through family history for clues to his reticence. In the slim title essay, he finds faint echoes in the maternal grandfather he never knew, a banker who appears in a photo as "compact and controlled, not aloof, exactly, but with something held in reserve."
His other grandfather, a Galician physicist, was reduced by the ravages of World War II to teaching "the second law of thermodynamics to country lads," from whom he, too, kept a safe emotional distance. Rybczynski identifies with this grandfather's intellect and is intrigued by tales of his unorthodox domestic arrangements. Yet he also writes with skepticism of his parents' "fairy tales" about these two men.
It has been both a blessing and a curse for Rybczynski, who is 65, to live in less interesting times than his forebears. The early chapters of "My Two Polish Grandfathers" deal with the repeated self-reinvention forced on his parents, who made separate hair-raising escapes from Nazi-occupied Warsaw, met up in Paris before parting again and finally reunited in Scotland, where he was born not long before the family pulled up stakes for Canada.
"It is difficult," Rybczynski writes, "for me to reconcile my childhood image of my parents -- circumspect, cautious, to my immature eyes unadventurous -- with these audacious individuals, criss-crossing Europe, setting out into the unknown at a moment's notice, and persevering in the face of one calamity after another. At my father's age I was leading the settled existence of an assistant professor, braving nothing more hazardous than departmental faculty meetings."
Yet Rybczynski's muted passions seem less aroused by his parents' struggles than by his country's humiliation at the hands of the Nazis and the Soviets. His account is shockingly selective in its neglect of Poland's shameful betrayal of its Jewish citizens. "What happened to Warsaw . . . ranks as the worst urban disaster of the Second World War," he claims rather controversially, emphasizing the Polish underground while relegating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to a single sentence and noting that Menachem Begin, "like a number of Polish Jews," deserted a Polish battalion of the British Eighth Army in Palestine to fight the British with his fellow Zionists.
At every turn, Rybczynski displays his distaste for the imaginative interpretation required by memoir. "But I may be reading too much into all of this," he ventures after speculating timidly on the reasons for his father's early withdrawal from a promising musical career. Indeed, for a man of ideas, he seems bereft of all but the most banal insights. "Home is always a refuge from the outside world," he writes. You have to read with minute attention to discover that he was raised Catholic, or that he was the son of an ambitious mother.
Rybczynski plods through his childhood in St. John's and Montreal, where, as an outsider he fits into a linguistically divided culture, develops a fondness for jazz and enters architecture school at McGill in 1968, not long after Moshe Safdie designed his groundbreaking Habitat housing complex and Buckminster Fuller showed off his geodesic dome at the World's Fair. He's more charming when it comes to his youthful travels and his spartan sojourn on an island off the coast of Spain -- it's cheering to learn that he had enough spunk to follow a nubile blond onto a ferry to the island, where he never saw her again -- but this part of his life differs hardly at all from the standard hippie remembrances of one-night stands and first experiences with LSD.
The self-deprecation with which he skips over numerous failed romances is first endearing, then frustratingly terse, especially when he turns up married without a word on how he got that way. His wife sounds great, if only because she went along with his boat design for their permanent home, and then helped him build it.
"My Two Polish Grandfathers" perks up toward the end, when Rybczynski gets deeper into the experimental architecture he learned to love and practice under the influence of Colombian architect Alvaro Ortega -- minimum-cost housing, a children's theater project, a shelter on a Cree reservation. "Compared with concrete, a nasty, inert material, wood is -- or at least has been -- alive," he writes.
A few more sentences like that, and his memoir, too, might have come alive.
Taylor is a film critic and freelance writer in Los Angeles.