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The most  unusual book in my reading universe this year has to be the 1890 Polish classic, The Doll (“Lalka”) by Boleslaw Prus, in a “New York Review of Books” re-release.  Unusual, not in itself.  It is a quite readable, realistic novel  of the late 19th century –think George Elliot, Honoré Balzac, Gustav Flaubert– set mostly in Warsaw of the 1860s and 70s, with a brief excursion to the Queen of Cities, Paris.  It is unusual only in the context of my reading of the past year, predominantly novels and memoirs about WW I. [Not that wars don’t inform the characters and society of The Doll.] I took it up when a charming house guest wanted to share something of her native land. And since friends are our first resource, in books as well as in life, I began. [Thanks Joanna!]

Thematically, Prus takes us into the European wide buckling of the long established social order.  The Industrial Revolution, near the centenary of its beginnings, was enabling more and more men to achieve great wealth, in the trades and industry.  The aristocracy, in many cases was losing wealth and land, both relatively and actually. The contempt for “the trades” was being sweetened by the possibilities of trading titles for new money, though not without some shame and doubts.

Books The DollStasi Wokulski is a once poor boy who has become very wealthy through a series of strokes of luck, shrewd gambles, a stable Warsaw business and a propulsively modern and entrepreneurial personality.  Izabela Lecki is the beautiful daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, in love with parties and attention from others, though not necessarily Wokulski’s. The predominant motion of the narrative is his obsessive fascination with her.  Though left in modest circumstances at the death of his wife, the widow of a successful haberdashery store  owner, he has caught a glimpse of Izabela and knows wealth is only possibility of marriage.  He sets off to a war in Bulgaria with all available cash and comes back enormously wealthy — trading in winter coats, perhaps in guns.

When the impoverished Lezcki is forced to sell his heirloom silver, Wokulski steps in and has it purchased, using an agent and setting up one of the nice tensions of the story: to be rescued by a ‘parvenu’ is to be shamed, and a woman cannot allow the attentions of a man who has shamed her.  So Wokulski must hide his good deed, and she must ensure the transaction is not tainted.

Prus uses a very clever “double narrator” technique to leaven the story.   The first is the typical third person omniscient who tells us about actions and thoughts of all the characters.  The second is Ignacy Rzecki, the trusted manager of Wokulski’s store,  through his journal. Although he is spoken of in the third person in other chapters, in the Journal chapters he writes of himself in the first person, imparting details of his own life and of Wokulski, who is not only his employer but a friend.  He writes of the workings of the store — with great lists of the goods of the day– of gossip he hears in the cafes, of international affairs –England went to war with Afghanistan last year and … Austrian had a great deal of trouble with Bosnia–  and his own past as a soldier in Hungary in 1849. In fact, probably taken from Prus’ own experience in the abortive 1863 uprising against Czarist Russia, there are some convincing battle scenes.  Such a double narrator allows Prus to give us, at times, two views of  the same event or person, sometimes contradictory, adding a layer of interest.

The other feature of Prus’ style is wry humor, particularly in accounts of the wobbling social structures of the years not far distant from those of his own writing.  When confusion abounds in Warsaw over whether Lecki has lost his fortune or not, or was simply concealing it for his own daughter,

Marriageable men and their relatives were agonizingly uncertain. Neither to risk anything nor to lose anything, they paid their tributes to Miss Izabela without involving themselves too much, and left cards at her home, praying they would not be invited there before the situation cleared.

Elsewhere, when Wokulski is the object of interest:

Dozens of suitors pass through our store.  Some mothers, aunts or fathers simply bring their eligible young ladies to us.  The mother, aunt or father will  buy something for a ruble and meanwhile the young lady walks about the store, sits down, shows off her figure, puts forward her right foot, then her left, displays her hands… All with the aim of trapping Stasi who, more often than not, isn’t even in the store — or if he is, doesn’t even look at the property, as much as if to say, ‘Mr. Rzecki is in charge of appraisals…'”

 Besides the vertical tension between aristocrats and middle class, another appears regularly through the novel, sometimes so clearly stated it is hard to read 135 years later — the tension between Jews and other trades people.  There  isn’t a chapter in the 38 (676 pages) that doesn’t have some dialog about Jews – noses, usury, untrustworthy…

“There’ll be a nasty to-do one day with those Jews.  They’re pressing in on  us, turning us out of jobs, buying us up  … We’ll never get the better of them by cheating, that’s for sure, but when it comes to bare fists, we’ll see who comes off best.”

It’s a fine, if long, mural of life in Poland, the social tensions between classes and ethnicities.  Prus’ own positivist outlook shows through in the admiration for Wokulski’s modern entrepreneurship, and the tale of his final fall, unable to free himself from the irrational — loving a woman he has also come to despise.

I imagine for you, as for me, Polish literature is not our long suit.  Besides Joseph Conrad, (yes, I know, a cheat) I’ve probably read three other Polish authors.  Now four.  So, for a step outside the canon of European realism, or into a culture even then trying to shape itself against the threat of Russia to the East and Germany to the West The Doll is a fine place to start.  Perhaps long in pages, especially in the age of instantaneity, but rich in character and detail. Good winter reading when the evenings are long and cold.

New York Review Classics is doing a wonderful job of making available forgotten and worthy books, The Doll among them.  The David Welsh translation is excellent, though I for one would not refer to any “Tom, Dick or Harry” in a novel set in Warsaw, 1870.  Otherwise, it reads with the right balance of familiarity and strangeness indispensable to all good translations.