Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Be sensible"

More quotable bits from of The Doll, by Bolesław Prus, which I'm now done with and which I thoroughly enjoyed.

P 208:
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.

P 250:
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.

P 281:
"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?"

P 345:
Politics are still much the same: continual uncertainty.

P 358:
"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."

P 537:
"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"?

P 539:
"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."

P 600:
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.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Literary sentence

A judge in Utah is sentencing people to read books, like Hugo's Les Misérables, not as a punishment, but as a tool.

For example,

Fernando Infante, who will be 20 this May, is an inmate at the Cache County Jail. He was already incarcerated last year on burglary and theft charges when he was charged with stabbing another inmate, causing serious injury.

Willmore said the state did not want to see Infante go to prison because of his young age. But he had few options, due to the violent nature of his crime.

So, Infante is now in maximum security at the Cache County Jail, where he sits in a jail cell 23 hours a day. However, because Willmore did not want him to do nothing but watch time go by, he ordered Infante to read as many books as he could during his incarceration.

Every 10 days or so, Willmore gets a letter from Infante, who tells him about the books he has been reading.

"I am able to see how he has grown and changed, how he applies himself to a character and sees the changes he can make in his life," Willmore said.

Helena is starting on a similar program herself this week. The student teacher has asked that each of the students write her a letter about the book they are reading.

I guess we're all of us, criminal or not, sentenced for life. Maybe it's why I do this. Read, and blog about it, I mean. Maybe I'm supposed to learn something.

Friday, February 24, 2012


Eight days in the Carribean, hotel nights and plane flights on either end. Three ports of call, including one major 11-hour excursion. A party of eight, including in-laws, a sister I see all too rarely, and my 9-year-old child. Oh, and! my other half, with whom the rare commodity of romancing is something of a luxury these days.

So how many books do I bring?

It's taken years for people to get me on a cruise. I never thought it was the vacation style for me, and then I read David Foster Wallace's "Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise," which only solidified my horror at the prospect. A horror of being trapped, on a boat, with 5000 people of the type who go on cruises. But here I am.

They say it's heaven — a deck chair and a book. I believe it. I just don't see it as easily attainable. But I'll try. I have options as follows:

  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell — It's a flipback!, so it's ultraportable! How could I not bring this? Only, I'm not sure I'm actually in the mood to read it.
  • These Days Are Ours, Michell Haimoff — A review copy, a post 9-11 thing. I'm not sure I want to read about the post 9-11 thing, but both the book and the author sound pretty smart.
  • The Man Who Wasn't Maigret, Patrick Marnham — Library book. I probably shouldn't bring a libary book on a cruise.
  • The White Horse Inn, Georges Simenon — Another library book. I'll have to renew the loan so I can read it when I get back.
  • Tropic Moon, Georges Simenon — I have a little Simenon project going on right now, only I'm not at liberty to divulge details just yet.
  • Act of Passion, Georges Simenon — I really do need this, for research purposes. I should bring some Simenon.
  • Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett — Comes highly recommended by Oprah and my mother-in-law, which recommendations I regard as dubious. But it's also the best book ever according to the coffee girl whith whom I chat about books. And then a coworker pressed her copy on me. Also, we recently introduced Carcassone to my mother-in-law, and she says it reminds her of this book, for which reason I'm now deadly curious.
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov. Only I might read this before I leave.

Those are the ones I haven't pushed into dusty corners.

Then there are the e-books I've been loading up on:
  • Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (I love the TV series.)
  • Impromptu in Moribundia, Patrick Hamilton
  • Spurious, Lars Iyer
  • Phantoms of Breslau, Marek Krajewski
  • The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa (readalong, anyone?)
  • The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
  • The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

This time next week I'll be leaving on vacation. Maybe I'll get to read a little. Or maybe I'll just spend all my waking hours at the champagne bar.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A hideous commerce

"It looks to me as if Wokulski is . . . in love, as it were."

The doctor stopped dead on the pavement and, leaning on his stick, began laughing in a way that attracted the attention of the (fortunately) few passers-by: "Ha ha! Have you only just made that monumental discovery? Ha ha! This old fellow pleases me . . ."

It was a ridiculous joke. However, I bit my lip and retorted. "It was easy to make that discovery, even for someone . . . less skilled than I am (I think I caught him there!). But I prefer being cautious even in supposing things, Mr Szuman . . . In any case, I never dreamed that such an ordinary thing as love could bring about such havoc in man."

"You are mistaken, old man," the doctor replied with a gesture. "Love is an ordinary thing in nature and even to God, if you like. But your stupid civilisation, based on Roman views long since dead and buried, on the interests of the papacy, troubadours, asceticism, the caste system and such-like rubbish has turned a natural feeling into — guess what? — a disease of the nervous system! Your supposedly chivalrous and romantic love is nothing more than a hideous commerce based on dishonesty, which is very properly punished by the lifelong imprisonment known as marriage . . . Woe to those who bring their hearts to such a market-place! How much talent, even life it devours . . . I know this very well," he went on, breathless with rage, "for although I'm a Jew and will remain one till the day I die, I was nevertheless brought up among your people and was even engaged to marry a Christian girl . . . Well, and they forced us to make so many compromises in our plans, they watched over us so tenderly in the name of religion, morality, tradition and goodness knows what else — that she died and I tried to poison myself . . . A man as clever as I am, and as bald."

He stopped again on the sidewalk. "Believe me, Ignacy," he concluded in a hoarse voice, "you will not find anything as vile as human beings, not even among the animals. In Nature, the male belongs to the female who pleases him and whom he pleases. So there are no idiots among the animals. But among us! I am a Jew, so am not allowed to love a Christian woman . . . He is in trade, so he has no right to a well-born lady . . . And you, who have no money, have no right at all to any woman whatsoever. Your civilisation is rotten! I'd gladly perish, provided its ruins came down on top of me . . . "

— from The Doll, by Bolesław Prus.

Ah, love. Well, you think it's about love, but then it's about politics. But for Ignacy, everything is about politics, even when it isn't.

I'm about halfway through and find myself fully invested in these characters and their lots, despite the overuse of ellipses (as a punctuation mark, I mean — see excerpt above — not a narrative device). It fills me with horror that Wokulski might be led to ruin by love, or something like it.

Izabela to this point is not quite the cold-hearted bitch I was led to anticipate; she is oblivious to some concerns and at times thoughtless, but this is because she is a product of the class system, not because she is inherently evil.

There's a flashback in which there's much drinking and Wokulski agrees to jump off a bridge, which is reminiscent of an early scene in War and Peace, where the young pups dare each other to drink out on the window ledge. It's funny and life-affirming and mildly horrifying (the scene, I mean, but maybe also the story in general), but seen through Ignacy's eyes, it's all political.

My love is away this week, so I'm off to bed with my book.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The feelings of frozen hearts and the dreams of unfeeling heads

Some quotable bits from the first 205 pages of The Doll, by Bolesław Prus, with a few thoughts.

P 10:
At eight in the evening they closed: the clerks went off, and only Rzecki remained behind. He made out the day's accounts, checked the cash, planned his activities for the morrow and wondered whether everything had been done that should have been done that day. For he paid for any neglected duties with insomnia and dismal dreams of the shop in ruins, of the final decline and fall of the Bonaparte dynasty and with the thought that all the hopes he ever had in his life were only nonsense.

"Nothing will ever happen! We're doomed, and there's no hope," he groaned, tossing on his hard mattress.

— I find this is pretty funny, though perhaps in other times it was normal to feel such strong concern for the state of one's nation, or one's political heroes.

P 36:
Then they sat down to supper, at which mouths ate, stomachs digested and little shoes under the table talked about the feelings of frozen hearts and the dreams of unfeeling heads. Then they would separate, to regain their strength for the dream of life in real sleep.

— I love this. The mouths, stomachs, shoes are disembodied! There are a few passages (and a dream sequence among them) that border on surreal.

P 43:
At this point the conversation ceased; it had been in Polish, copiously ornamented with French, which made it resemble a face disfigured by a rash.

— How very insulting. I'm guessing French would be used among the aristocracy, as a sign or education, worldliness, fashion. But whose point of view is this in the conversation between Izabela and her countess aunt? Is it Izabela's view? Does she view the aristocracy of which she is a part with disdain? Or is this the stamp of our omniscient narrator?

P 49:
"And is there no war on today? It is the weapons that have changed, that's all. Instead of an axe of scythe or scimitar, they fight with roubles. [...]"

— A pretty progressive thought for 1878, no?

P 65:
What a stupid life!... We're all of us chasing a dream in our hearts and it is not until the dream escapes us that we realise it was an illusion.

P 72:
"Experts say first love is the worst," Wokulski murmured.

"Not so. After the first, a hundred others are waiting, but after the hundredth, there's nothing."

— Wokulski's got it bad. His every move — financial, social, charitable — is to attract her attention.

P 99:
"[...] They insist you want to kill the industry. Is the competition you are creating really so dangerous?"

"It is true," Wokulski replied, "that I have three or even four million roubles credit with the Moscow manufacturers, but I do not yet know whether their products will suit our market."

"A huge sum of money, to be sure," the Prince murmured. "Do you not see a genuine threat to our factories in it?"

"Not in the least. I see only an insignificant decrease in their own immense profits, which are no concern of mine. My duty is to concern myself with my own profits and give my customers good value; for our goods will be cheaper."

— There are a lot of similar discussions throughout. Wokulski clearly sees that the factory owners are exploiting their workers and their customers.

P 120:
Gradually the smoke died away. As far as the eye could see we saw what looked like scraps of white or navy-blue paper scattered in disorder on the trampled grass in various places. Several carts were moving around the field, and some people were placing these scraps in them. The rest remained. "So this is what they were born for," Katz sighed, leaning on his rifle, overcome by melancholy.

— This battle interlude — the Hungarian uprising of 1849, which many Poles joined — reminds me a little of War and Peace. It is particularly sobering for Rzecki, the old clerk in Wokulski's shop, his illusions of the glory of war, of purpose, being stripped away.

P 125:
During the entire journey I felt as though the quilt over my knees was more densely populated than Belgium.

P 138:
This young man proved to me, by quoting very clever people, that all capitalists are criminals, that the earth ought to belong to those who cultivate it, that factories, coalmines and machines ought to be the property of everyone, that there is no God or Soul which priests invented to trick people into paying tithes. He added that when they start the revolution (he and the three "prikashchiki"), then we shall all work only eight hours a day, and enjoy ourselves for the rest of the time, even though everyone will have a pension when old, and a free funeral. Finally he said that paradise will not come to this world until everything is held in common: the earth, building, machines and even wives.

— "Work only eight hours a day"! Damn Socialists.

P 158
"[...] They are all somewhat scatterbrained, as you will have noticed, but they're men of good will . . . They want to do something, they're intelligent and educated — but they lack energy. A sickness of the will, my dear sir, their whole class is affected by it . . . They have everything — money, titles, respect, even success with women, so they want nothing. But without that urge, Mr Wokulski, they cannot help becoming tools in the hands of new and ambitious men . . . We, my dear sir, we still want many things," he added in a still lower voice, "they are lucky to have found us . . . "

P 192:
"Well, and what have you to say to all this, doctor?"

"Only what I have already said," Szuman replied, "we're approaching the fifth act. Either this is the end of a gallant man, or the start of a whole series of follies..."

"And the worst sort, for they will be political," Mr Rzecki interposed.

— Wokulski has demanded satisfaction, so there is a duel! Barely a third through the novel, we can be fairly certain this is not his end, but rather as Szuman suggests merely the beginning of his end. I almost missed the insult and the challenge, they were so underplayed. Wokulski's head is so full of love that other, significant events happen in a blink.

I have not quoted here from the 5-page encounter with Izabela's cousin, Julian Ochocki, scientist, and his obsession with flying machines, which surely would prove to be a turning point for the world. But there was more to the conversation than that. Something about it was bitter to Wokulski, reminding him of pursuits he'd given up. I expect we'll meet Ochocki again.

Coincidentally I've been dipping into David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years this week, and it's complementing my reading of The Doll in terms of the role of usurers and the development of a class of tradesmen. It casts a light on Wokulski's sense of financial and moral obligation, and how closely they are tied.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost

Official site.
A bit of background.

It's joyful and thought-provoking, beautiful, and even funny at times. It's a "documentary," but without much dialogue — it's all about the dance, in the studio, on stage, and out onto the streets. The floating trams of Wuppertal are a marvelous backdrop. It's in 3D, directed by Wim Wenders, and nominated for an Academy Award in the category of best documentary feature.

Aging and memory are major themes in the works that are excerpted. The dance is deeply psychological (and with a touch of absurdity), the more so for humans being cast alongside basic elements — cascading water, flinging dirt, blowing leaves.

I dragged the family to see it this weekend, and we all loved it. J-F was astounded to discover that modern dance could be so meaningful (having seen Lalala Human Steps with me years ago and being unimpressed by the repetitiveness, and in contrast to, say, Cirque du Soleil, which ultimately is about feats of strength) — he is currently considering giving up his career in the civil service to join a dance troupe. The 9-year-old says it was very cool, so don't hesitate to take your kids — expose them to something a little out of the ordinary while saving yourself the expense of arts centre tickets. See it.

Thursday, February 02, 2012


Finally I'm reading The Doll, by Bolesław Prus. It stands as the Great Polish Novel (according to people who know better about these things than I do), but it wasn't until I actually cracked it open that it intimidated me.

It's 1878, and it's all Napoleon III, Bismarck, Gambetta, on top of which, it's set during the Partitions, and while I understand the fact of the partitions, it's hard to appreciate the logistical reality of them—how it affected people's heads, their language, culture, politics, their day to day. And when we're dealing with a main character who participated in the 1863 Uprising and was sent to Irkutsk as a result, and then went off to make his fortune in the Russo-Turkish war, I get the feeling the political background might be a little bit important.

[My grandparents were born some years after the events of this novel take place, but still in unPoland. Their day to day, their schooling, was German, yet they remained Polish, if nationless. I cannot fathom what that childhood might've been like.]

So even more so than with War and Peace, or The Red and the Black, I feel I am out of my depth.

But! I've looked a few things up, reread a few passages, passed the 50-page mark (of 683), and wishing I could stop the world so I could sink into it for a few uninterrupted days.

Izabela, our allegedly cold-hearted bitch of a heroine, is reading Zola's latest novel, A Page of Love.

Jacek Kaczmarski's song of the novel in the above clip is illustrated by scenes from Wojciech Has's 1968 film adapatation.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Księga zdarzeń zawsze otwarta w połowie

Wisława Szymborska, 1923–2012, whose poem "Love at First Sight" was put to song and used to great effect in Trois Couleurs: Rouge.