One of the stock questions journalists and readers have always asked writers concerns the literary sources of inspiration. It usually goes like this: who is/was your literary role model? If the author who answers is a representative of a “fixed” genre, such as crime fiction, those who ask usually expect an outpouring of names representing the genre. I would usually disappoint my interlocutors. Instead of a long list of entertainment or show-biz writers, they only get one such name from me – Raymond Chandler – and in the same sentence, three high-brow works and writers would follow: The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann by Andrzej Szczypiorski, and The Doll by Bolesław Prus. One journalist bridled at the last name, and asked me (off the record) whether I wasn’t afraid of dragging Prus from the pedestal into the crime-fiction swamp by such public declarations about being inspired by him. I left that question unanswered, but I did ask the journalist to rephrase the original question more precisely: what does a literary source of inspiration mean? After a long pause, I received a definition: it’s (1) an author whose works I read many times and (2) an author whose phrases or images I recall while I write. Using both of these criteria helped me understand that it’s The Doll which serves as my literary model, leaving behind both The Tin Drum and The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann, because I read these two novels a few times, compared to more than a dozen readings of The Doll (see 1), and besides – I remembered many of Prus’s phrases or excerpts, whereas I could hardly recall single sentences from Grass or Szczypiorski (see 2).
I answered the journalist, saying that the issue of a crime writer dragging The Doll from the pedestal by public reference is best left to the literary critics and researchers of intertextual influence. I finished the interview and then began to wonder whether there was a more objective take on the influence of this great novel on my oeuvre. I did not remember consciously imitating Prus, so I asked myself: perhaps I did so unconsciously? Perhaps as a result of rereading the brilliant work so many times in my intense years of youth, today, as a mature man and writer, I still think in Prus’s phrases or still depict a scene the way he would? In order to confirm or deny these theses, I read The Doll again.
It transpired that there are at least two directions within the novel which I have consciously found myself following. The first is the motif of travelling across urban space. One may move about the city without a thought, simply describing the squares, streets, buildings one encounters. However, the topography may also be internalised, implicated in the plot, given an active role – of a witness, or an interpreter. Let us examine an excerpt from The Doll:
Ignacy […] forgot his duties as manager and senior clerk, and began following the droshky.
The wretched nag ambled along so slowly that Ignacy was able to keep the vehicle in sight along the entire boulevard to the Zygmunt Column. At this point the driver turned left and Rzecki thought: ‘Obviously the old girl is going to Miodowa Street. It would come cheaper if she rode a broom-stick…’
Rzecki, too, got to Miodowa by passing the front of Retzler’s café (which reminded him of his recent spree) and through Senatorska Street. Here, passing Nowicki’s tea warehouse, he stepped in for a moment to say good-day to the proprietor, then hastily fled, muttering: ‘What will he think to see me in the street at this hour? Of course he’ll think I’m the most wretched of managers, who wanders around the town instead of staying in the shop. What a fate!’
The urban space reflects Rzecki’s frame of mind. Its description is far from a passive, tour-guide style. Many times, as I described the topographic intricacies of historical Wrocław or Lviv, I caught myself describing these cities in a superficial, instrumental way: here’s a square, here’s a street, here’s an urban scene – such and such, never mind, as long as it’s realistic and suitable for the historical age. These were the uneasy moments. I felt that my description was shallow, only skimmed the surface, and hence boring. Sometimes I didn’t mind too much. This resulted in readers who yawned and critics who criticised. Professor Wojciech Burszta, in his renowned text called “Bronię Kryminału” (In Defence of the Crime Novel, Polityka: Niezbędnik inteligenta, 19 March 2005, pp. 34–8) wrote: “Too many details, too many street names! Mr Krajewski, we already believe you – you do know your Wrocław topography.” Sometimes, however, I managed to make the topography a part of my plot. I am certain that a huge part of the credit for this goes to The Doll’s fantastic passages, like the one quoted above.
There is one more reason why I am grateful for the influence of Prus’s work: the repetitions, and the strong conclusions rounding off individual scenes. Here is an apt example:
Meanwhile, the director ordered the horse to be brought into the passage. It was a beautiful animal with slim legs, small head and eyes which looked both clever and wistful. As she came out, the mare turned her head to Wokulski, sniffing at him, and snorting, as if she recognised her master.
‘She knows you already,’ said the director, ‘give her a lump of sugar… A beautiful mare!’ With this, he brought a piece of some grubby substance, smelling rather of tobacco, out of his pocket. Wokulski gave it to the mare, who ate it without more ado.
‘I’ll wager fifty roubles she will win,’ the director cried, ‘are you game?’
‘Of course,’ Wokulski replied.
‘She is bound to win. I’ll give her a first-rate jockey, and have him ride according to my instructions. Had she remained the property of Baron Krzeszowski—devil take me, but she’d have come in last, mark my words. But then, I would not have kept her in the stables, even.’
‘The director is still upset,’ Maruszewicz interrupted with a sweet smile.
‘Upset!’ the director cried, flushing with rage, ‘let Mr Wokulski judge whether I could keep on good terms with anyone who tells people I sold a horse in Lublin which had cholera! (…) And if the Count had not smoothed the matter over, then Baron Krzeszowski would have a bullet in his rump today…Me sell a horse with cholera! Even if I have to pay a hundred roubles out of my own pocket, that mare will win…Even if she is going to die…the Baron will see for himself… A horse with cholera, indeed! Ha ha ha!’ and the director burst into a fiendish laugh.
After looking at the mare, the gentlemen went into the office, where Wokulski settled the account, vowing privately never to refer to any horse as having cholera.
One of crime writers’ most important commandments is to keep their text together. Everything that breaks up the cohesion (such as an overly long psychological description, philosophical tangent etc.) risks boring the reader. The whole novel needs narrative cohesion, and so does each individual scene. How can this be achieved? My answer is to keep coming back to repetition, epanalepsis, frame structure, and strong concluding fragments. I see all of these in The Doll (see the passage above). How do I know it’s in Prus’s footsteps I am following here, and not Chandler’s – an author who also uses all these cohesive devices, and whose works I have read almost as frequently as The Doll? Well, I started reading The Doll (alongside The Pharaoh) when I was twelve, and kept re-reading it once or twice a year until I was twenty. This saturated my imagination. It was my literary formative experience. This makes me write with Prus, it makes me use his composition devices, and – to paraphrase Herbert’s poem “A Knocker” – schools of Prus’s images stream down from my forehead (trans. Alissa Valles).
Trans. Marta Dziurosz