Thursday, 12 January 2017

"Lalka" (The Doll)

My companion in illness has not been B.A. as much as Lalka ("The Doll") by Bolesław Prus (1890, translated by David Welsh), because Prus--who I see was also Głowacki (hence all those Polish cultural things called  Głowacki this or that)--cannot catch this hideous cold. He died in 1912.

It is a testament to the genius of Głowacki/Prus that I have read his 676 page book almost non-stop, taking breaks only for meals, naps, Endeavour, and pacing the floor of the guest room, in which I am quarantined. One charming aspect of this illness is that it allows me only two hours of sleep at a time, and when I awake I feel quite wretched. However, four hours after giving up on sleep, I feel rather better and can read again. Such an absorbing doorstopper of a nineteenth century book has been just the thing. 

Sadly, it is the most misogynist book I have ever read. Thank you, Polish Romantics. Really, the only likeable woman in all of Lalka is a 70 year old duchess, and that is quite something, as the book is also an acid attack on the old Polish class system, especially the aristocracy.

Between them, the Germans and the Soviets liquidated most of the Polish aristocracy during the Second World War, which arguably ended in Poland only in 1989. While researching an article on Poles in Scotland, I was saddened by the information that the Polish soldiers marooned here by Britain's betrayal of the Free Polish government in London in favour of the Slave Polish government in Warsaw were told that they might be called into active service to liberate Poland. Goodness knows how long the true believers waited for the call that never came. The generals took up menial jobs and returned only after the Berlin Wall fell.... It's a very sad story, and something for the British to feel guilty about should they ever tire of feeling guilty about their great and glorious Empire.

Anyway, back to Lalka. Lalka is highly reminiscent of  the works of Dickens, Henry James, and Dostoyevsky. The blurb on the cover says Chekhov, but Chekhov was a short story man, so I myself am thinking Feodor. Also, the book is highly moral with lots of conversations about virtue and vice. But the more I read, the more I thought about The Portrait of a Lady, only the Isabel Archer character is a brilliant businessman named Stanisław Wokulski. You will not find any women like Isabel Archer in Lalka, that's for sure.

There is a spirited proto-feminist character named Mrs Wąsowska. The women in the book are either stupid, stupid and wicked, or clever and wicked. Mrs Wąsowska is clever and wicked, so rather interesting. She does her best to defend the bad behaviour of Polish aristocratic women who flirt with every man alive, marry horrible old men for money and have affairs. The cool thing here is that Prus levels the playing field between the two combatants----his hero married an older woman (now dead) for her money (or, rather, for a job in her shop) in his youth, so he he knows all about selling oneself. The difference is that he kept his side of the bargain, unlike the silly girl he and Mrs Wąsowska are arguing over.

As I read hundreds of pages of a nouveau riche chap's misery over the entitled snob with whom he was infatuated, I felt rather impatient with him for being quite so stupid. However, I have had two-year long crushes myself, so I know they can be hard to escape. But I was very interested in his sulkiness over aristo women flirting with every man around, for it struck me that I knew the philosophy behind this activity first hand.

When I was in elementary school, there was a pecking order among the girls based on whether the boys "liked" us or not. By "like" we didn't mean, "thought was one of the boys"--indeed I knew only one girl like that: all the boys liked her sincerely without "liking" her.  By age 11, I knew that it was a shameful thing not to be "liked" by any boy and by age 14, that it was shameful to be "liked" by the wrong boy. My first cavalier, whom I met on a two-school retreat, took quite a shine to me, but his classmates told my classmates that his father was a garbage collector (i.e. bin man) and this caused great hilarity.

When I was in high school, there was neither a pecking order nor boys most of the time, but I still got the message that the more boys who "liked" you, the better it was. My frivolous heart sang with joy when the Candygram lists were posted, and multiple marks appeared after my name. It's funny that our grades were never posted, but any girl could see how many billets-doux had arrived for the others.

There was also my mother, who was very interested in my tales of high school dances and took an obvious satisfaction in the number of boys who asked me to dance. She was not at all interested in the number of boys I asked to dance; she said that they didn't count, which implied that the ones who asked did. Again: the more, the better.

There were also most books written for girls and women before 1970, which implied--or said flat out--that it was a good thing to have many suitors to choose from. Well, look at Scarlett O'Hara. The whole point of Scarlett's pre-war existence was having a gazillion men around. And I must say, that there is no woman men seem to take more interest in than a woman all the other chaps take an interest in.

Now here's a thing. There were girls in my elementary school class it was okay for a chap to have a crush on, and there were girls (including me) whom it was de rigeur to scorn. I did not have a flirtatious bone in my body until high school when I was so happy to be out of that milieu, I somehow found my Inner Scarlett and did what she said. Result: a mild popularity, i.e. boys enough to dance with. No doubt I confused a lot of already confused high school boys and I definitely hurt some adolescent feelings, but Society had told me from the age of eleven that being found unattractive to boys and men was shameful, so what was I to do?  Nobody handed me Lalka and said "Here, read this highly disapproving Polish novel."

Besi the iddes,ea that you can win the love of a good man (let alone a prom date) with modest clothing, downcast gaze and high ideals about men is rather amusing. It does happen--and I know a woman that happened to before she was too old to have babies--but more frequently it does not. What wins a man most frequently is being a washed and healthy average woman who goes along with the current social norm. If the social norm is sex-on-the-third-date, then chaste Catholic girls are at a serious disadvantage in that society.* Heavens, the one under-70 woman in Lalka who does not flirt and flutter like a demented sparrow is positively miserable.

Anyway, the wickedness of flirtatious women is only a quarter of the book. There is also an exploration of the relationships between the Polish aristocrats, the Polish Jews and the Polish Everybody Else. There is also the most amazing pen portrait of Paris in the 1870s that I have ever come across. My one disappointment is that the hero never does go (as promised) to Moscow, for I longed for a Polish-eye-view of 1870s Moscow, too.

And now I feel rotten so I am going back to bed. Ugh.

*Update: One solution, of course, is to frequent Catholic circles as much as possible and not dismiss boring-looking Catholic guys as actually boring until adequate research has been done. Another solution is to concentrate on your studies or money-making until men your age have grown up. 


  1. I think you focusing on the aspects of the book that talk to you the most and do not see the whole picture. You focus on women, but men are not put in better light- take Wokulski, he has married a much older woman for money, then he spend most of his younger years on making more money and then being a middle aged man he decided to marry a beautiful, young woman of higher social class, basically by buying her. He was made a fool by his own hand because of his aspirations and greed.

    1. I should add that Wokulski was indeed very silly. I don't think he was greedy; he just wanted the woman he wanted. "Wybieraj żonę uchem, nie okiem" is very good advice!

  2. Well, I am sympathetic to Wokulski because he was put in a very difficult position in the first relationship and then he fell in love with a pretty face. It's too bad the face didn't belong to a different kind of girl, for then perhaps Wokulski would have been happy. But then there would have been no story.

    I will write a better review in the autumn of 2018 when I have finished reading the first volume in its original Polish.