Jan Tomkowski: The First Writer of “The Doll”
Jan Tomkowski

In the vast universe of The Doll, we encounter the aristocracy and the bourgeois, the servants and the chambermaids, the students and the businessmen, the Poles, the Russians, and the French. There is enough space for a fallen woman and an aspiring scientist. A great inventor appears alongside an unfailingly wise barber, a reporter – next to a famous hypnotist. There are geniuses and conmen, philanthropists, idlers, and maidens looking for a husband. Are there artists? Molinari, the violinist, and Rossi, the actor – obviously. They are hard to forget. What about writers, men of letters? There only seems to be one true writer in The Doll.

And so we would immediately like to know how, and for whom, he writes. Is he thinking of fame, or at least of publication – or maybe of the posterity, which usually remains obscure enough to seem like the most eagerly expected audience. Is this Flaubert’s way of writing – a horrible anguish in which, one after another, a variant of text is edited and destroyed? Or is his writing closer to, say, Andrzej Brycht’s, whose sentences needed no editing, flowing, as they were, perfectly from his pen on to paper?

None of these questions are satisfactorily answered. We only know that he writes alone. So he lights a lamp, maybe, or a candle to provide more ambience, and he pulls curtains over his windows, as the writing takes place in the evening and is not to be interrupted by an unexpected visitor.

We only know that Ignacy Rzecki – for, obviously, he is the writer – enjoyed talking to himself and kept his journal “with the utmost secrecy.” How was the writing? It probably came easily, since conversations with oneself are always easier than with others. There is nothing to explain, nothing to argue about. There can’t have been much fear of an empty sheet of paper, since a letter to Wokulski which needed writing seemed like an easy thing to do.

It is easy to notice that there is much reading in The Doll, and probably even more writing. We are so preoccupied with the novel’s sad plot that we usually fail to notice that all main characters write, including Wokulski and Łęcka. Others take to writing too, composing letters, wills, reports, newspaper articles or submissions, charades, aphorisms, pamphlets, and as a last resort, that most pragmatic genre of writing – receipts, monitories, promissory notes.

The very top of this pile is a true literary gem – the journal of the old clerk. The first doubt appears almost immediately – is this really a journal? Rzecki creates a piece of work that certainly goes beyond the ramifications of the genre and the author’s initial project. What does he write about? The expected answer in each high school quiz is: Napoleon – no matter how many dangerous connotations come with this answer. Napoleon and his posterity are the main subject, of course, but Rzecki does not really want to write about them. On the contrary, he admonishes himself, near the very beginning of his writing: “In this journal of mine, I want to talk about myself.” Not about Napoleon or the Bonapartes, but about himself – an old clerk writing for other clerks’ edification, creating a clerk’s version of The Book of the Courtier. But neither Castiglione, nor Górnicki would serve as Ignacy Rzecki’s literary guides. If anyone, it would be Montaigne, who considered himself to be the matter, the theme and the author of his Essais.

Since, as readers, we know things the old clerk is unaware of, we can clearly see that the author of the journal also tends to project the characters’ fates according to his wishes. He creates a fiction which never becomes reality in the world of the novel. A fiction within fiction, a meta-fiction, perhaps an abandoned variation of the plot, perhaps a tale which the author of The Doll would never dare to compose: his novels are devoid of happy epilogues, although secretly we always dream of happy endings to the stories we read – we did a hundred years ago, and we do today.

In Rzecki’s better world there is no Izabela Łęcka, because there is no space there for women who betray. There is Mrs Helena Stawska, who never betrays. There are no travels to faraway lands, no dangerous expeditions, the business is always good, not dependent on a banal miracle, but paid for with everyday toil. All that’s there is the old clerk’s invented paradise – nothing less and nothing more.

After all the praise bestowed upon Prus and his decision to introduce a second narrator and to create another perspective for viewing the described events, the bravado of reading Rzecki’s work as separate from the rest of the novel seems like the logical choice. The Journal without The Doll, pages torn out, chapters isolated, excerpts as mystifying as Italo Calvino’s novel. Well, after a dozen or so readings of Prus’ masterpiece, this is surely finally allowed? Maybe there is more there to find out?

The journal of the old clerk occupies a liminal space between an essay and a modern novel – perhaps more modern than The Doll itself. Its narrator does not completely control the timeline of the narrative, finds himself unable to resist the digressions and the omnipresent flow of memories, which makes all events appear adjacent to one another: the difficult childhood, the education at Mincel’s, the Hungarian campaign, the fascination with Mrs Stawska. True, there are dates – although I doubt whether they’re exact – but on the whole, everything in the journal is “now” and can become a focal point at any moment. The same thing happens to space: it compresses to the size of a room, only to expand to encompass the whole planet the very next moment. There’s the Mincel store, right next to Wokulski’s – and right next door, there’s England, Austria, Turkey, even Africa. This is the chaotic universe in which characters from the tale’s different layers continue to meet: Prince Louis Napoleon, uncle Raczek, Stanisław Wokulski, Katz.

It is tempting to say that all this resembles an experimental novel by Leopold Buczkowski, where Dido is being taken away to face the firing squad, and Melusine makes a sudden appearance in the besieged Przemyśl. It is equally nonsensical to say, too, that Ignacy Rzecki is more courageous than Prus, who takes great care in tying up the novel’s loose ends. There’s more madness in Rzecki, we might say, less predictability, more gregariousness. The moments of perfect focus and true mastery come in his battle scenes – we almost want to say that he is a better writer of battle-pieces than, well… than who – the narrator? than Bolesław Prus? This is hard to determine – but it’s certain that these descriptions of battles are better than anything written by Prus elsewhere.

Rzecki is also a master humourist, although it is common to assume that the comical situations happen against his will. But in the stance of the old clerk who turns into a wise man at night, there is, after all, enough scope for a dose of irony, for scepticism, for a well-meaning acceptance of the world’s oddities. When he states, melancholically, that “people are like leaves, blown by the wind” – is that not demonstrating a remarkable gift of aphorism?

Maybe it is worth returning to the initial idea, then – doesn’t Rzecki’s blend of the vital and the insignificant (let us recall here the intriguing attention to detail in the description of the tenement house’s lit windows, whose arrangement forms an H and a T) resemble Montaigne, watching the world from the tower of his tiny room?

The death of the novel’s only true writer may seem ordinary, and far from heroic, but Prus departs here from his usual restraint, choosing instead to paint more pathos into the scenery by referring to a detail that is both ambiguous and difficult to ignore. There is a letter sticking out of the dead man’s pocket, bearing the words “NON OMNIS MORIAR.” This conceit, of course, would not be sufficient for a connoisseur reader – it appears to be too literal, too provocative.

There are, however, other ways of reading this.

Here is one.

We see the letter, but where is the journal? What became of Rzecki’s journal? I know this question is not as intriguing as the question of Wokulski’s disappearance. It may be, however, worth asking from time to time.

Trans. Marta Dziurosz