The contemporary writer does not walk the streets of Warsaw pondering the genius of Bolesław Prus. She does not sit at her laptop, envying the writer’s insight into human nature and his knowledge of the goods sold at a grocer’s. The writer does not listen to grumbling about the lack of contemporary novels. Regardless of this discussion, she writes or does not write, although she also tries to adapt to the expectations and needs of critics, readers, of the market, of eternity. Who wants to write like the author of Emancipated Women? I have never met anyone who does.
Prus’ position is irrefutable, but at the same time he has stopped influencing the discussion about Polish writing a long time ago. He is too mighty to be accessible or liable to be dethroned. Both of these sentences are true. He does not act, and yet he acts. Being at the very centre of our reading experience, he indirectly provides writerly fuel. If The Doll was to be removed from the reading list, a strike would be necessary. Everything can be up for discussion – but not the necessity of The Doll. It remains to be a voice in our literature that tells us about experiencing the world in a language that we can understand, at a time when we need it. We betray Prus quite quickly, switch to other mentors, but without him there is no foundation. He fathered the description of the world and of the human in Polish as we know it today.
Thinking about this symposium, I remembered that I had read The Doll before. Of course I mean “read” in a professional sense – I had read it privately any number of times. In fact, it is time to come clean. I always avoid answering the question about a favourite, important, universal Book of a Lifetime. I quickly forget those fashionable reads of the moment, the ones that add to a writer’s intellectual prestige if invoked. I don’t know, I don’t remember, I blot them out because others are waiting. The canon is what it is. It attests to the sort of education one has had, and with time it fades and becomes more and more respectable. Still, the multiple readings of The Doll – at school and at university, in private and at work – remain a fact. I have no idea how to explain the phenomenon of my loyalty, but I have one hypothesis. Namely, it is one of those “grown-up” books which we were offered while we were still really children. It helped us cross the border between the “Children and young adults” section and the “Belles lettres” shelves at the library. I write these words before I read the book again – I remember it quite well, as for the first ten years of my academic career I taught a course about positivism.
From a school perspective, Prus’s novel speaks – as we remember – about the struggle between romanticism and positivism, between the aristocracy and the newly emerged bourgeois intelligentsia, between upbringing and love. It has a slight or definite class overtone, depending on when you were schooled. It is a masterpiece of realism. It shows appreciation for the city and the age of steam and electricity. It psychologises in a pre-Freudian manner. All those themes of the novel, and at least ten more, can be discussed at school, because they have not been particularly “hidden” under a layer of symbols, allusions, intertexts. What a relief after romanticism, what artistry after early positivism! The realist novel usually opens up to the reader, invites interaction, sets no boundaries – while at the same time it allows for the freedom of searching for meaning, of reading for oneself.
Even in the most school-focused reading it is impossible to erase the play of passion which makes Wokulski track Izabela like game chased into a dark forest. A forest of desires that she herself, of course, is entangled in when tempting her cousin, Kazimierz Starski, into erotic games. A forest so badly matched with the repulsive smell of cauliflower: a signal for the senses that Mrs Helena Stawska and her kindness are unable to satisfy the hunger for love tormenting the haberdashery merchant. Haberdashery merchant… you have to admit, it has a ring to it. By the way – an additional circumstance of no small importance – we learn that cauliflower would have been quite popular in Warsaw cooking in the second half of the 19th century if an impecunious widow could afford it. It would be interesting to confront this motif with culinary manuals from the era (by Lucyna Ćwierczakiewiczowa, of course), not only with the famous scene of a meal during which Wokulski provocatively sets about eating fish with a knife. Here is a topic for a modern exam-sitter, infected with the foodie mania of this decade: the motif of cauliflower and one hundred culinary applications thereof through the ages.
Let us go back to love. It is probable that in the adolescent reading of almost forty years ago, the description of the world as a market of matrimony was important. In my school days girls did not know that there is something ambiguous about it; they identified with the men easily, felt for the jilted, the cheated and those seeking for perfection, took their side – while at the same time dreaming of being loved and envying Miss Izabela Łęcka her position of a precious object. The Doll introduced this whole erotic subtext, but still it was legal, known from school, at the heart of the canon, right next to Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady). In short, that was the reason I read it, possibly incredulous of the fact that Ignacy Rzecki was evidently also in a state of permanent erotic excitement – too old, however, even for the tender hearts of teenage girls brought up on the romantics and a love for armed interventions. Grandfathers could not love. Generally speaking, as I see it now (not only because I have now read about the rule of the triangle that governs desires, not only in René Girard’s texts, but also in the Polish studies of realism), all the female and male characters did in fact constantly, in many ways, crave love and sex, but – according to Prus (and the schoolgirls from my year) – they did not all deserve them equally.
The Doll, read after The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (every girl had a copy) demonstrated some realistic possibilities of planning your life. While it would have been difficult to become the heir of a fortune made in the colonies, protected by older, but beautiful and noble men, a marriage to an influential – although not romantic – male, as long as it was not Gogolian in character, could indicate a more realistic direction. Between The Little Princess and the era of disillusionment after the first reading of Nabokov’s Lolita (followed by everything else), the discussions at school were fuelled by the dilemma: what is more important, to love or be loved? Choice or subordination?
Hence The Doll is one of my formative texts. At school in the Polish People’s Republic, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provided a context for it; in high school one was supposed to get to know the world’s masterpieces in order. Anna Karenina didn’t resonate much, because it was the twentieth century, after all. Marriage to old Karenin was unthinkable – unlike an affair with Vronsky, but death under a train as punishment for a moment of oblivion smacked too much of literature. In high school, Tolstoy the great moralist lost to Prus the reserved realist.
I did a critical, academic reading of The Doll once, for the purposes of a volume entitled Parafrazy i reinterpretacje. Wykłady z teorii i praktyki czytania (Paraphrases and Reinterpretations: Lectures in the Theory and Practice of Reading, Szczecin 2004). I referred then to a text by Kazimierz Bartoszyński, “Interpretacja – ‘nie kończące się zadanie’. Przykład Lalki Bolesława Prusa” (Interpretation: “A neverending task.” An example of Bolesław Prus’s The Doll). Starting out from Zygmunt Łempicki’s notion of a “container of energy,” Bartoszyński arrives at the metaphor of a “reservoir,” based on the views of Hans Georg Gadamer, which I, of course, considered debatable. I do not mean the argumentation, but the affirmative attitude towards hermeneutic notions – now even less convincing to me – and especially towards the belief that the logic of the reservoir must be supervised. If I was to translate that argument into ideas that feel closer to me, I could say: the function of The Doll and the interpretations of this function are a perfect example of how the literary canon is constructed and elevated. The interpretation never disappears; it cumulates, intensifies, churns, but there are no fundamental plot twists. One can always draw from a reservoir, add to it, release from it. There is only the question whether there is some censure, caesura, barrier regarding what can be added to it? Is this a “natural” container? We need the power of this process-related metaphor. A great artwork is great precisely because it possesses such a reservoir of readings, while a familiar, marginal, second-rate work dies without the influx of interpretations – or, to put it plainly, it dies without being read, without being taken out from the library shelves. Hence, the canon is less of a list of required reading compiled by education officials, and more of a live organism, a logical sequence, an eternally moving hermeneutic circle.
Describing the existence of a work (a masterwork) in such a way fits in well with the popular understanding of literature’s role. This is where questions about the Book of a Lifetime come from; this is what underlies even the market endeavours that fetishise sales. If things are churning so hard under the lid of the “reservoir of readings,” obviously one should take a peek inside. Before they sell it to us, they say that we are participating in an essential exchange, “adding to the cauldron.” Of course it is national too: every lesson about The Doll feeds the canon – sometimes against the intentions of the master chefs behind this dish.
In that reading back then – apart from Gadamer and Bartoszyński – I focused on feelings, objects, perversions and empathy. I wrote:
Wokulski interests me as an object and creator of cumulating anomalies, a man comparable to others preoccupied with little othernesses, dissenter in everyday matters, dogmatist about himself, possessed by her, created in himself as an image. A patchwork of contradictions, double negatives, compound conditional sentences, aporetic and euphoric moments. A comparison with others (like him) becomes, in turn, a comparison with me: a therapy of the self, if somewhat delayed, because I am outside, not inside the eye of the storm that is love. Wokulski “is not normal” – not only in the sense in which metaphors of melancholy, existential pain, sickness of the age, nervous tension describe a person in transitional periods. He is a melancholic and as such unable to experience fulfilment. He would rather reminisce than live. But he “is not normal” also in a different sense, unrelated to spirituality. His inner turmoil also reflects his social position.
Today it sounds pretentious: it was written in the era of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Did Wokulski not impose himself? Perhaps I was really interested in something else about the novel? Something that readers have found intriguing ever since its first publication, but that has been treated as a side issue to the current trends in interpretation?
Let us then return to the first reading. In Modernity and Self-Identity, Anthony Giddens argues convincingly that the appearance of the romantic novel is when the modern female subject is established. The female reader is able to recognise and name emotions, the “overhang” in the economy of life, an addition to the duties fulfilled under patriarchy. This proposition – enthusiastically repeated and variously formulated also by feminists – provides, in my opinion, an alibi to fans of popular literature, who see a revolution in the mere popularisation of the novel and in the fact that it provides unsophisticated but filling literary nourishment. What followed? We all know. Still, the birth of the woman-reader decompresses the reservoir of interpretation. The woman faces the masterpiece equipped with tools crafted in men’s workshops, machining the literary canon, with the experience of her own, extra-canonic reading and deeply-felt existential needs. She breaks into the text, frequently from Izabela’s side. Yet even when conducting sabotage within The Doll, she is a graduate of a patriarchal school, and the popular novel (let’s say today: culture) educates her to be more of a Izabela Łęcka, and less of a Helena Stawska. She reads as best she can.
In class, we conducted endless discussions about whether the red hands of Stanisław Wokulski, even if frostbitten in the fight against the Russian oppressor (thorough readers questioned this: they had been red before the supposed frostbite in Siberia, when he emerged from the cellar of his first principal; my classmates conducted a close reading of the novel without even knowing what “a close reading” is), should touch the white skin of Izabela Łęcka? Should the repurchase of heirloom silver be a credit to the suitor, or quite the opposite? Are the kisses and nasty conversation in English during the journey with Kazimierz Starski and Wokulski a betrayal? What if she desires Apollo? Has she no right to do so? We did not hear much about Freud. We were really damn attracted to the amorous discourse, we spoke on our own behalf about the “authorial intentions,” while at the same time – how we, especially the girls, would feel those hands on ourselves: “what does this tell us”? In high school, such a conversation takes place against the background of our first sexual experiences. The boys would start laughing. That the author would speak about the homeland seemed obvious, but about skin?
My female classmates were torn. Because – in the end – so what that the hands were red? What did our fathers, brothers, teachers, friends look like? Who was a movie star at the time? We were surrounded by men in baggy sweaters. It was either the statue of Apollo or a classmate with bitten nails. The choice was easy. Supposedly we had outgrown The Little Princess, but someone who rewarded us for the hours we spent on needlework and rubbing our jeans with a piece of pumice would have been welcomed just as passionately as Starski was on the train. Hmmm. Wokulski’s capital. The teacher directed our attention towards the issues of positivism, work, the new model of society. Nothing about Jews, nothing about the poor. Well, maybe two sentences about the poverty in Powiśle. Because Wokulski is good, never forgets anyone. The Jewish question, however, was not studied in my high school. Too few lessons, and the class was exceptionally talkative, although our course focused on the sciences. I discussed the Jewish topic with junior university students of Polish literature, perhaps in too much detail, instead of asking whether they would want to be purchased (if female)/purchase (if male)? The sexual, gender, class and race issues were to be mentioned and represented; this was the beginning of gender studies in Poland.
All this could be discussed using the word “narrative.” We swam on the surface of the reservoir, poking our heads towards our own impressions. Such is the influence of strong books: the most stringently formulated, human, patriotic, economic problems can be included into a series of fundamental questions about the “self.”
The girls had only one problem, as always. Who should they be? Prus – let’s learn narrative philosophy from him – stands squarely on Wokulski’s side. As Henryk Markiewicz wrote in the sixties, Prus achieves his results by dividing the novel’s space between the characters, by using various shades of speech; he doesn’t even have to spell out for us who is clever and who is not. Will we succumb to the novel? Or perhaps it, and the whole maelstrom of interpretation, has some weaker point, a potential little fissure, through which we will glimpse something that tips the scales? In high school we tipped towards Izabela who, in our opinion, had the right not to want the merchant. The students thought she had even more right not to want, and there was no lack of anti-Semites in the haberdashery business. Gender and race, Polish history as a version of post-colonialism – let’s bear in mind that there are no Russians in this city. Another portion of interpretation fell into the academic cauldron. But we also had the promise of such titles as Mój pozytywizm (My Positivism) by Jan Tomkowski. If it’s “mine,” can we return to the shiver caused by the touch of red hands on white skin?
But perhaps each independently gouged fissure appears where the fabric allows it? Perhaps it’s not about dilettantes bursting into the study of the scientist who examines the structures of the world through the novel? Perhaps it’s not only about changes, about the democratisation of reception, about (ab)using texts?
In accordance with the rule of the realist novel, The Doll contains all those possibilities, and we still draw on them. Love, marriage, contract. The question of being a woman in a heteropatriarchal system, and whether she has the right to break up. Wokulski’s desire as a purchase – because he knows no other way. Izabela’s refusal. This topic has not been processed yet, we find thousands of variants and copies of it in mass culture. The fact that Prus has placed those dilemmas against the background of his era doesn’t mean that they are no longer interesting today. I only hope that in classrooms the conversation does not end with the right to refusal; that it is accompanied by a reconstruction of the intricate work that Prus wrought.
I think that for writers ,Wokulski remains an example of a hero and that of the fact that literature needs a hero. One can learn from Prus how to construct a narrative wholly focused on a character. Naturally, I leave aside all – slightly outdated – recommendations in terms of narrative construction, let’s focus only on the notion of the “hero.” And “heroine,” with full awareness of Prus’s biased attitude to her. The Doll is also, of course, a lesson in how to write a diagnostic novel – in every meaning of the word. Furthermore, The Doll teaches us humility towards the art of observation and attention to detail.
If I have realism tempts me, it is the temptation of The Doll. If I feel astonishment about the timelessness of questions about the contracts of love and the power of sensuality, it is The Doll that causes it. The first grown-up, remembered, revisited and betrayed book.
Trans. Marta Dziurosz