I feel I must begin with an expiation: an act of will that frequently precedes a voice of reason. I initially agreed to take part in the symposium, because it’s Prus, because it’s The Doll, because it’s the canon, and because of Jerzy Kamas – it’s a piece of cake, we all know the drill. It was only later, as I began to sample the details of the meeting, that the long face and the toothaches appeared. The questions asked by the organisers laid bare my cavalier ignorance and my overtly nonchalant attitude to what is, after all, a work by one of today’s fiction’s founding fathers. What is the greatest Polish novel’s significance for today’s fiction writers’ technique? Do any connections exist between The Doll’s world and today’s reality? Those are total, all-out questions! I realised that my attitude towards Poland’s greatest novel was not only nonchalant but also a little nebulous, although I want to believe that this does not result from not having the foggiest idea.
It will not be too risky for me to say that The Doll is not the greatest source of inspiration for today’s writers of young and middle generations. On the other hand, maybe the novel does function as our unconscious complex, a certain type of blackmail, a spectre of a sort, which – especially in the 1990s – haunted Polish literature. So if there is admiration to speak of, it would be tautological, as if taken out from the absurd scene about the greatness of great Polish poets from Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke. But then I had the most frightening thought: I imagined being the only person with such conflicting thoughts. I imagined that all the other invited writers actually grew up living and breathing The Doll – that Prus is Magdalena Tulli’s customary bed-time reading; that Krzysztof Varga’s Chłopaki nie płaczą (Boys Don’t Cry) was really written with Wokulski in mind; that Dorota Masłowska did Prus a favour in (Snow) White and (Russian) Red and compensated for the lack of Russians in The Doll; that Inga Iwasiów’s nuanced portrayal of women in Ku słońcu (Towards the sun) is a response to the women’s world depicted by Prus, frankly too rough a sketch against an achingly rigid Łęcka/Stawska/Wąsowska canvas. But I will stand by my honesty. Polish writers, have, after all, not been fortunate enough when it comes to honesty – especially the deceased ones.
In order to arrive at The Doll and its potential distinctiveness, one must first make it through the process of reading Polish literature at school. After all, it is the process of reading which really creates the novel. This reading process has been, however, perpetually and repeatedly slaughtered, yoked to the rituals of education, historical circumstance, and national necessity. Once slaughtered, the process would then not be willingly attempted again. Fortunately, this paradigm is changing: we now have Tomkowski and his Neurotyczni Bohaterowie Prusa (Prus’ Neurotic Characters), there’s Tokarczuk’s Lalka i Perła (The Doll and the Pearl), Rutkowski’s Wokulski w Paryżu (Wokulski in Paris) or the recently published Leksykon Lalki (The Doll Lexicon). Thus, there emerges an opportunity to “read” the novel again, a chance for The Doll to become – outside of the usurped interpretation taught in schools – something more than a kind of a cuckoo’s egg, laid for us by the 19th century, which we don’t know how to handle.
If I stress the process of reading here, that is because the statistics of my juvenile literary inspirations and writerly initiations is merciless: I read The Doll twice (long ago, and once – because it was on the reading list), Crime and Punishment – six times, War and Peace – three times, Dead Souls – I’ve lost count. I approached the Polish realist novel – Prus, but also Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Eliza Orzeszkowa – via Russian literature. If you’re tempted to say at this point: “That’s that then, that explains it all,” I also want to say that I do not entirely trust Gombrowicz, as he notes in his Diary the enormous chasm between the quality of Polish and world literature. This favourite Narcissus of mine – apart from Jan Chryzostom Pasek and Czesław Miłosz – after all, did not see anyone able to compete with the outside world (so with himself, really) in the whole of Polish literature.
When it comes to being inspired by The Doll, I did not read it against the grain, in reaction to the mandatory canon. I was an unconscious pupil-slave, witnessing Prus’s ritual readings and interpretations. But I do not want these words to come across as one tiny figure’s grandstanding in the face of one of Polish novel’s greats. The Doll does have its share of intriguing, brilliant moments, there is a lot there to have an argument about, but I believe that Prus’s awareness of the convention, the style, the rules of innuendo was what stopped him from applying even more reckless bravado. On the other hand, it may be the case that those who want to reflect “the spirit of the age” end up being the victims of said age, too.
What is it, then, that intrigues me about Prus?
First, the world of the idealists. Professor Geist’s world, and Julian Ochocki’s, even Stanisław Wokulski’s, and the possibility of their existence. What febrile minds, possessed by a belief that a real change in the world is possible! Today, meanwhile, it is a risky endeavour to introduce an idealist into a novel without a knowing wink in the reader’s direction, without a postmodern somersault, a joke of sorts. It takes courage, or at least a skill of camouflage and mask-wearing, not to come across as naïve. Without making too general a statement, it seems that modern narrators and their characters are equipped with ironic super-consciousnesses. It is, in a way, understandable, in a culture that – as Sloterdijk postulates – becomes a cynical one. Prus may have been able to see the demise of positivism, but his sketches depict characters which are possible in a 19th century idealist reality. In my 21st century, I am surrounded by frustrated, cynical, and defeatist figures. And “outside the window” – as the three Marcins would shout to Julian Kornhauser in Macie swoich poetów, an anthology published by the literary magazine Brulion – “not one fucking idea.” This categorical and blunt statement can be a follow-up to Thurow’s description of a victory of egoistic pragmatism, and of a lack of a grand idea, in whose name we could be capable of collective sacrifices. I think it best to leave unanswered the question whether a grand novel is possible without a grand idea…
Second, Prus intrigues me with his depiction of Izabela Łęcka as a crystal-clear projection of a madman’s mind. On witnessing the conflict between the real world and Wokulski’ confabulations, one might conclude that “poor Stanisław” encountered pure “non-existence” which persuaded him to repeatedly make a fool out of himself. One might assume that he fell in love with a mannequin, seen in a shop window somewhere. And another detail, which the mores of the age would obscure: it’s a 46-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman. The Łęcka of today would probably be getting a bit too old for her shopping mall prowls. Although, why not? Maybe the mall lifestyle is today’s dumbed-down counterpart of a young aristocrat from a materially empty house in Prus’s age? A more general remark: the depictions of women in Prus’s works become unbearably repetitive, and this is where my doubts about The Doll are strongest. It’s all mother hens sitting on bourgeois perches, or shrews, or dolls. Give us something more nuanced, even if it’s got to be taken from Flaubert… Against this backdrop – the gents are the only ones to really and truly feel, the only ones with metaphysically and neurotically sore souls. Prus’s cards are marked here; Wokulski is to be sympathised with, Łęcka – to be despised. When I mentioned the reading process, this is also what I meant – somebody ought to ask of Łęcka now, after years of biased readings.
Another intriguing aspect: Powiśle, of course – this margin of reality, which suddenly becomes its Dantean centre, depicts the chasm between the ideas and the praxis, between the discourse and real life. It’s the misery of the world, without illusions, costumes, stage design, without frock coats or top hats, without gas lamps, tenement houses or barrel organs. Neo from The Matrix could well have seen Powiśle after taking the red pill. This is where The Doll stops being just a retro postcard, a curio worthy of Varsavianists’ attentions. This is human flesh, these are the scraps of ideas. I should take back what I said earlier: after 1989, perhaps Stasiuk’s Galician Tales, and then books by Odija, Witkowski, Kuczok, Białkowski, Shuty, Bieńkowski, mine, maybe – their origin is Powiśle, and today’s lesions on reality may testify to the literary nihil novi sub sole.
Fourth, I appreciate The Doll in those moments when the realist Prus stops being realist. Or rather, when his realism seems sarcastic, his naturalism – full of allusions or quote marks, when the fabric of the novel welcomes threads of hallucination, of visions, of phantasmagoria, when its language becomes stubborn and refuses to follow reality, when the dream mocks it. That is when Prus lets readers see the seams, the cracks, that’s when meanings are disturbed and prejudices shattered. Prus shows all this, and remains wonderful, unsettling, contemporary, mine. He does not ask “how to describe the world?,” but instead he asks, “which of the worlds?” This is how The Doll transgresses its age, betrays it and rushes out ahead.
Contemporary fiction shares the same frustrations. It’s safe to say that Prus the realist experienced a multiplication of worlds. The belief in one world, one story, one realistically coherent narrative became a shaky one. Today’s writers take for granted and necessarily exist among multiple plots, among parallel and equally valid narrated worlds. One can either go mad, or squint and return to the primeval state of the naïve storyteller. It’s probably too much to claim that Prus laid the foundations of the postmodern, but this is where my intuition guides me.
There is one more important aspect, maybe the most relevant for me: within the confines of the realist novel, a representative rebellion was taking place. Language was becoming a separate, non-transparent entity. It could no longer hide behind the veil of this or the other character’s psychological traits. Something irreversible happened. The “independence” of language, its autonomy, renders the stipulations found in The Doll or The Promised Land impossible to fulfil – unless language were to be brought back to the age of a slavish medium, deemed capable and expected to adhere to what it describes. I doubt whether such a return is possible. The literary tradition that created The Doll therefore became, paradoxically, what makes The Doll impossible today. Although I do wish I was wrong here.
Trans. Marta Dziurosz