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‘My Two Polish Grandfathers’ by Witold Rybczynski

In a fluid collection of essays on what he calls “the imaginative life,” Rybczynski looks back on his parents‚ narrow escapes and circuitous wanderings about war-torn Europe.


 

Witold Rybczynski is a noted architectural expert, a humane and graceful writer, a Pole by ethnicity, a Scot by birth, a Canadian by upbringing, and an American by residence. And, unsurprisingly, a fatalist by nature, as he writes in his fluid collection of essays on what he calls “the imaginative life,” My Two Polish Grandfathers (Simon & Schuster). Looking back on his parents‚ narrow escapes and circuitous wanderings about war-torn Europe, Rybczynski, born in Edinburgh in 1943, calculates that he was as likely to have come into the world in a Breton village or in Bilbao as Scotland, even if he should have been born in Warsaw. More likely than any of those places, of course, was not to have been born at all. But make it he did, to begin a life whose key, borderless elements weave through the biographical and autobiographical sketches in his book: music, art, architecture and other transportable obsessions. For all the travels, and the arresting images caught by an outsider’s eye, though, the most beguiling of the essays in this lovely book is “The Boathouse,” about Rybczynski’s attempt to put down roots, at least of an architectural sort. “Sooner or later,” he writes, “an architect should build a house for himself. I did, although in a rather roundabout fashion.” Which is one way to describe a boathouse cum barn cum home, and its builder’s final satisfaction, once he knew his own mind: “Not a Palladian villa in Galicia, but it would do.”


 

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