The Doll, by Bolesław Prus, which I'm now done with and which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Izabella loved the world of drawing-rooms to distraction; she could only quit it for the grave, but as each year and month passed by, she despised people more and more: she found it inconceivable that a woman as beautiful, virtuous and well-bred as herself could be deserted by that world, simply because she had no money.
Izabela and Wokulski had just appeared at the end of the path.
Tomasz eyed them attentively and only now did he notice that these two people looked well together, both in height and movement. He, a head taller and powerfully built, stepped like an ex-military man; she, somewhat slighter, but more graceful, moved as if gliding. Even Wokulski's white top-hat and light overcoat matched Izabela's ash-coloured wrap.
"Where did he get that white top-hat?" Tomasz wondered resentfully. Then a strange notion occurred to him: that Wokulski was a parvenu who ought to pay him at least fifty percent on the capital lent him, in return for the right to wear a white top-hat. But in the end he only shrugged.
"Don't mention higher aims to me," Wokulski cried, banging the table, "I know what I have done for those higher aims, but what have they done for me? Is there no end to the demands of the oppressed who allow no rights to me? I want for the first time to do something for myself . . . My head's full to overflowing with cliches that no on ever puts into action . . . Personal happiness — that's my obligation now . . . otherwise I'd shoot myself, if I didn't see something for myself ahead, other than monstrous burdens. Thousands of people are idle, but one man has his 'duty' towards them . . . Did you ever hear anything more abominable?"
Politics are still much the same: continual uncertainty.
"You are a philosopher," Wokulski muttered.
"Indeed, I am a Doctor of Philosophy of two universities," Jumart replied.
"Yet you play the role of . . . ?"
"A servant, you were going to say?" Jumart interposed, smiling. "I work, sir, in order to live and assure myself an income when I grow old. I care nothing for titles: I have had so many already . . . The world is like an amateur theatre, where it is not done to insist on leading parts but reject minor roles. In any case, all roles are good, providing they are well played and not taken too seriously."
"Helena . . . my child . . . But you aren't . . .?"
"His mistress? No, I'm not, because he hasn't asked me. What do I care for Mrs Denowa or Mrs Radzińska, or my husband who has deserted me? I don't know what has come over me . . . I only feel that this man has taken away my soul."
"Be sensible, at least . . . Besides . . ."
"I am, as far as I can be. But I care nothing for a world that condemns two people to torture, simply because they love one another. Hatred is allowed," she added, with a bitter smile, "stealing, killing — everything is allowed, except love. Ah, mama, if I am not right, they why did not Christ say to people "Be sensible" instead of "Love one another"?
"But making money isn't your concern!"
"Why isn't it? Not everyone can be a poet or a hero, but everyone needs money," said Szuman. "Money is the larder of the noblest force in nature — human labour. It's the 'open sesame' at which all doors fly open, it's the table-cloth on which one can always find a dinner, it's the Aladdin's lamp, by rubbing which everything one wants is to be had. Magic gardens, splendid palaces, beautiful princesses, faithful servants, friends ready to make sacrifices — all these are to be had with money."
Rzecki bit his lip: "You were not always of this opinion," he said.
"Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis," the doctor replied, calmly. "I've wasted ten years studying hair, I spent a thousand roubles publishing a brochure a hundred pages long and . . . not even a dog remembers it, or me. I will try to devote the next ten years to financial operations, and am convinced in advance that people will love and admire me. Providing I open a drawing-room, and keep a carriage."
With deep emotion he revived in his memory the Life of St Genevieve, the Rose of Tannenburg, Rinaldini, Robinson Crusoe and, finally, The Thouasand and One Nights. Once again it seemed to him that neither time nor reality existed any longer, and that his wounded soul had escaped from the earth to wander in magic lands where only noble hearts beat, where vice did not dress up in the mask of deceit, where eternal justice ruled, curing pain and rewarding injustices.
And here one strange point impressed him. Whereas he had drawn the illusions which had terminated in the dissolution of his own soul from Polish literature, he found solace and peace only in foreign literatures. "Are we really a nation of dreamers?" he wondered in alarm, "and will the angel who touched the pool at Bethesda, surrounded by sick people, never descend upon us?"
I think I can let these fine bits of wisdom and wit speak for themselves. As with many long and engrossing novels, I found I was noting fewer passages as I progressed through the book, not because they were absent — on the contrary, I'd've liked to mark up every other page — but because I was just too wrapped up in the story and dying to know what happened next to bother to stop for a pencil or a sticky note.
There are a couple really interesting debates toward the end of the book, one on the place of Jews in Polish society, the other on the place of women.
Part of me insists on comparing this book to War and Peace — the length, the Napoleonic fervour. There's some Middlemarch in it too. The quest for meaning and substance.
In War and Peace, the aristocracy was shown to be in decay, and if it were to survive, it must find resolve in its Russianness — forsake the French language, reclaim the hunt, know its people, its foods and its dances.
I am surprised to find that The Doll, the Great Polish Novel, fails to offer up an analogous Polish identity. But perhaps this makes it more realistic in representing a country that had been wiped off the map. The aristocracy is dying, but rather than cling to any sense of nationhood, Wokulski emerges as a prominent member of a new class in a world based on commerce. He is ready to erase national boundaries; global trade seems to demand it.
All this, plus the talk of science — the possibility of flight using gravity-defying metal materials, hydrogen compounds as weapons — makes this novel feel very forward-thinking.
We never do get to know Izabela very well. But then, neither does Wokulski. We increasingly sympathize with Wokulski, even as he's shown to be weak. I get the sense he was born a little too early to be a successful businessman, a little too late to be an innovative scientist; he chases the wrong dreams at the wrong times.
There's a good deal of humour, intrigue, and romance mixed in with the history lessons. A Polish classic, The Doll deserves a wider audience and should appeal to fans of nineteenth-century literature with a sociopolitical sensibility.