A 'Ulysses' for Warsaw


FICTION:This year is the centenary of the death of the Polish writer Boleslaw Prus, whose novel ‘The Doll’ stands among world literature’s enduring achievements

MONEY AND SOCIAL CLASS talk throughout this magnificent classic of social observation, described by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz not just as his favourite book but also as Poland’s finest novel.

It is wonderful by any criteria. Self-made man Stanislaw Wokulski, having amassed a fortune, prepares to squander it all in the pursuit of Izabela, an aristocratic beauty whose wheedling, hypocritical father is now bankrupt. Having scorned many eager swains in the past, she is now that bit older and finds she is quickly becoming less marketable.

Izabela may be desperate for a husband, but she is not quite so desperate as to be prepared to accept a taciturn tradesman with large red hands. Boleslaw Prus conveys her self-absorbed arrogance so well that he keeps her interesting as a character without having to confer even a saving crumb of sympathy on her. We see her for what she is – and what she is not.

Wokulski’s infatuation spirals out of control as he sets about buying up Izabela’s father’s debts. His romantic quest parodies those of the knights of romance fiction. The more the merchant does to win the cold young woman, the more she and her father merely accept his assistance as their due.

Prus, born Aleksander Glowacki in 1847, has Balzac’s ability to create a sense of an entire society, and Warsaw comes to life, predating Joyce’s Dublin as reimagined in Ulysses (1922) by more than 30 years. Added to this is a Dickensian flair, humour and range of characters – all graced by an ironic whimsy worthy of Chekhov and an elegant, at times languid style that is also poised and exact. (All praise to David Welsh’s English translation, which was subsequently revised by native speakers.)

The Doll (1890) is the second of four major novels written by Prus, who was a working journalist for more than 40 years as well as a prolific writer of humorous pieces and short stories. Set in 1878 and spanning about 18 months, it is a splendid example of 19th-century realist fiction, and it reflects the best of the British and French traditions while at times approaching the mastery of the Russians.

The central characters, Wokulski and Izabela, are both three-dimensional, and Izabela is daringly unappealing, yet Prus’s triumphant masterstroke is Ignacy Rzecki, an aged clerk who had worked in the haberdasher’s store that Wokulski acquired through marrying the previous owner’s widow, years before Wokulski assumed control.

Rzecki, a true romantic, talks to himself and lives alone with his one-eyed poodle. He is regarded as highly eccentric. “Solemn matrons with eligible daughters sometimes declared: ‘This is what being a bachelor does to a man.’ ” He is shrewd in his daily life and devoted to the store, ever devising new window displays, yet keeps a most revealing journal and has forgotten neither his wartime experiences nor his political paranoia.

It is the clerk who most closely observes the gradual disintegration of Wokulski, who, in his saner moments, questions his obsession and notes Izabela’s various human deficiencies. Gossips are also aware of what is going on; in a novel rich in unforgettable set pieces, most memorable is the vividly choreographed description of a house auction in which everyone has their say.

Prus examines a national mood that is the result of being partitioned between three empires, those of Russia, Prussia and Austria. The chaos that disturbs individual lives reflects the chaos that disturbs Poland in general.

In a novel of nearly 700 pages, Prus never wastes a word nor falters into melodrama. Wokulski, for all his irritating devotion, is by nature generous, given to extensive soul-searching, and is guilty only of deciding to love the wrong woman. He is also frustrated by the backwardness of those around him and by his inability to commit himself to science. This regret is contrasted with the dedication of Ochocki, another character, who, at 28, knows he will place science above all else, even love.

Wokulski makes a trip to Paris that becomes an odyssey of tormenting doubt and hard-won self-knowledge. While there, he is offered the chance of sponsoring a German inventor named Geist (meaning Light) and must choose. Here Prus consolidates his remarkable study of an ambitious though ordinary man – an early, self-deluding, if less calculating model for Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. Paris, seen through the distracted eyes of the depressed hero, is a challenging, very foreign kingdom of wonders and squalor.

In common with Dickens, Prus often wrote his novels for serialisation. Three of his four major novels, including The Doll, were written in instalments. Initially published between 1897 and 1889, The Doll received a mixed response and was also subjected to tsarist censorship.

It captivates from the opening pages. Prus is excellent with dialogue, from banter to awkward exchanges, while his eye for detail, ranging from the barber’s gold cuff links fastening soiled cuffs to the sound of carriages in the street to the slightest gesture, injects life into everything.

Early in the narrative, Rzecki, alone in the store, winds up some mechanical toys: “And when the cock began to crow, flapping its stiff wings, when the lifeless couples danced jerkily, stopping every now and then, when the leaden passengers in the train began to stare at him in amazement, and when all this world of dolls took on a sort of fantastic life in the flickering gaslight, then the old clerk leaned on his elbow and laughed at them quietly and muttered: ‘Ha ha! Where are you off to, you travellers . . . and why do you dancers squeeze one another so tightly?’ The springs will run down and you’ll end up in your boxes again.”

In the background is a Warsaw of merchant wealth and poverty, snobbery, gossip, petty feuds and blatant anti-Semitism, as well as an awareness of a wider Europe constantly being redrawn by war and politics.

Prus completed his only historical novel, Pharaoh (1895), before it too was published in serialised form.

For all his literary success, his life was difficult, overshadowed by his ordeals as a teenage soldier wounded in the Polish uprising against Russia in 1863. He was traumatised and subject to panic attacks. His only child, an adopted son, shot himself, aged 17 in 1904, because of unrequited love.

Boleslaw Prus – writer, dreamer and observer – died on May 19th, 1912. The Doll balances notions of love with genuine feelings of concern and remorse. This singular and timeless Polish masterpiece stands among world literature’s enduring achievements.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent