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Back catalogue #3 Bolesław Prus, Lalka / The Doll (1890). A forgotten masterpiece of the European novel

Bolesław Prus, Lalka, The DollIf The Great Gatsby had been written by Charles Dickens and Dickens had been a Pole, the result might have come pretty close to Bolesław Prus’s 1890 masterpiece Lalka (The Doll), a wacky, rambling, larger-than-life satire of Warsaw in the “positivist age” and one of the very few classic Polish novels that defy national boundaries. Perched on the fine line between a comfortable nineteenth-century realism and a dawning decade of “young Polish” fascination for lurid –isms, The Doll is unabashedly traditional in a way and savagely inventive in another. Steering clear of French naturalism but rejecting the reassuring patriarchal poise of “bourgeois” or “poetic” realism (while unapologetically drawing from both whenever the need arises), Prus finds a way to combine social satire and a genuinely touching love story with the all-encompassing shapelessness of the Victorian roman de mœurs.

The main arc is a deceivingly classic “will-he-get-the-girl” tale of interclass courtship and hopeless struggle. Stanisław Wokulski, a former proletarian patriot and self-made scientific genius turned haberdasher upon his release from a Siberian camp, is head over heels in love with the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, beautiful and heartless Izabela Łęcka. Socially underprivileged but resourceful and man enough to be both an idealist and a reckless capitalist, Wokulski gets rich in a matter of months by doing risky business with the Russian army and comes back for the woman. A beefy bourgeois millionaire in world of bankrupt aristocrats, forty-year old Wokulski proceeds to bribe his way into an impenetrable world of money-starved noblemen and manipulate social conventions with a mixture of superhuman strength and teenage clumsiness. Will his strenuous maneuvering get him any closer to Izabela, the cruel princess of a fairytale world of refinement that no longer has an economic basis?

An extraordinary supporting cast of queer, atrocious, and lovable characters revolves around the main storyline: the elderly shop clerk Rzecki (a veteran of 1848, a staunch romantic, and a die-hard Bonapartist); the sinister Szlangbaum, a frighteningly active money-lender of Mosaic persuasion (anti-Semitism and the role of Jews in Polish society being one of the novel’s major themes); a dozen or two of eccentric noblemen; a couple of mad scientists; a virtuous widow. Prus’s unfailing talent for characterization and tongue-in-cheek comedy are worthy of his great British models.

Clocking in at around 700 pages in small-print editions, The Doll is replete with minor incidents, digressions, seemingly unrelated episodes and much too much beating around the bush, but the magnetic attraction of Wokulski’s personality is strong enough to project coherence onto this heterogeneous social and narrative material. Run-of-the-mill realistic narration is alternated with first-person chapters in which Wokulski’s clerk and diehard friend Rzecki reminisces on his militant youth and comments on the action in a quirky and lovably crabby tone. An embittered bachelor, he is oblivious to the real nature of Wokulski’s predicament and consistently fails to decipher his whimsical behavior, with a droll ironic effect. At one time, a hint of science fiction and surrealism is added to the mix in the shape of a subplot involving a Parisian chemist and the invention of metals lighter than air (flying machines being another recurrent theme, a cruel if far-fetched allegory of Wokulski’s penchant for pipedreams).

Bolesław Prus, Lalka, The DollIn the way of imaginative storytelling and purely literary enjoyment it doesn’t get much better than this. In spite of its daunting length and complex non-structure, The Doll is a novel that screams for a distinguished place in the European canon. It is riveting, funny, melancholy and replete with unforgettable weirdos. At the same time, a historically informed approach will uncover deeper layers of meaning. Like many North- and East-European stories from the 1880s (another great example would be J. P. Jacobsen’s iconic Niels Lyhne), The Doll is a sympathetic but harsh indictment of the political “idealism” and “romanticism” of the previous generation, both notions being late nineteenth-century parlance for a post-1848 approach to life and literature that the political crises of the 1860s had mercilessly shattered and rendered forever unviable. Wokulski is a man of iron will and a jack-of-all-trades, but also a sickly and vulnerable giant: apparently purged of his juvenile starry-eyed political activism, he evolves into a natural master of financial speculation and social climbing, but this new talent for brazen money-making is really just a means to a hopelessly romantic end, his boyish crush on Izabela, and his titanic expenditure of energy gets him nowhere. The down-to-earth “positivist age” has not cured him, it has simply provided him with new powerful weapons to chase after dreams. Even his talent for science is fundamentally idealistic. Poisoned with the poison of poets, old lion Wokulski is forever condemned to be a restless, wandering, generous soul headed for doom in a world of cynical pettiness. The up-and-coming bourgeois feeding off the carcass of aristocracy turns out to be really more anachronistic and helpless than Warsaw’s grotesque noblemen.

Chock full of memorable characters, bittersweet humor, and powerful social subtexts, The Doll is indisputably one of the greatest European novels of the 1890s, a decade of remarkable weakness in this respect. Short of negotiating the Polish original, unfortunately, the wider public had little or no hope of enjoying this classic before David Welsh’s extraordinarily fine 1996 English translation. A French edition was published in three volumes in the early 1960s and never reprinted, and the same goes for the Italian translation, churned out and promptly forgotten by a catholic press house around the same years. As for the Germans, they made the same mistake as early as 1954. This neglect is inexcusable, particularly in a day and age when Anthony Trollope’s bulky London novels are making a comeback for want of better alternatives!

All things to all men, sweet romance for some, biting satire for others, The Doll is a forgotten jewel that awaits rediscovery to claim its rightful place next to such masterpieces as Clarín’s La regenta, De Roberto’s I viceré or young Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the ripest and richest fruits of late nineteenth-century realism.

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