Thursday, May 07, 2015

Bolesław Prus, Emancipated Women (1894)

So I've really never written about me'n'Bolesław on this blog? Well, I guess the main Prus times were before I had this blog. AS GOOD A TIME AS ANY.  LONG BLOG ENTRY ALERT.

So back around 2003, when I would go into the local, non-chain bookstore (Otto's: A Booklover's Paradise, which still exists!), I would look in the “literature” section and my eyes would always be drawn to this mysterious, thick, black-and-purple book entitled The Doll with no other distinguishing markings on the outside, written by some guy with a forebodingly spiky Eastern European name with a weird diagonal line through it. I knew nothing about it, but I just had to, so at some point I bit the bullet and bought it on spec, and when I finally read it, I was really, really, super-impressed. It's about a successful businessman who becomes obsessed with a young society woman, but what it really is is a quite vivid panorama of Warsaw life at the time, clearly influenced by French naturalism. I mean, that's how I remember it, anyway. I cannot wholly disregard the possibility that it isn't as good as I remember it being twelve years ago (and I really do intend to revisit it one of these days), but at the time I was impressed.

So I wanted to read more by Prus, in spite of the fact that he's not exactly a household name in the Anglosphere, and his stuff was spottily available in translation at best. However, I was not fucking around, and I assiduously tracked down every single bit of it I could. It cannot be denied that this was partially just because there was a thrill in ferreting out hard-to-find books by a relatively obscure author, but be that as it may: I was able to find copies of his long historical novel Pharaoh, his short novel about peasant life The Outpost (not easy to find—it was in an old, long-out-of-print book called Selected Polish Tales), a short story called “The Returning Wave” (in another old anthology!), and an excellent short story collection, The Sins of Childhood and Other Stories (and did I really use that latter book as part of a college composition class? What an eccentric thing to do). 'Course, today's Prus-loving kids have it easy --though that old public-domain translation of Pharoah (by Jeremiah Curtin, Henryk Sienkiewicz's translator) is supposed to be not that good—for the record, there is, surprisingly enough, a contemporary translation, which is the one I read, but it seems to be none too easy to find these days—wasn't those days, either.

Right, anyway, so I read all this Prus, and I enjoyed it all, even if The Doll remained the clear standout. But here was the problem: the little biography of Prus, and every little biography I could find, which were presumably all based on the same little biography (these days there's a fuller wikipedia entry, naturally) informed me that Prus' reputation was founded on four novels: The Doll, Pharaoh, The Outpost, and Emancipated Women. WHAT WAS THAT LAST ONE?!? The biographies seemed to sort of vaguely suggest that it was available in translation, but believe me, I did my doggonedest to find the damn thing, and if it really was—something I gravely doubt, looking back—it certainly knew how to keep hidden. So that remained an unresolved frustration, but hey, you know how it goes, I moved on, read other things, and more or less shed my Prus obsession.

But the thing is, I had written a list on amazon of Prus' books in English, and when it came to Emancipated Women, I just linked to the webpage of a university professor, Stephanie Kraft, who, it was alleged, was working on a translation of this book. Then, 'round about two years ago, I received an out-of-the-blue email from Kraft, who had seen my dopey little list, and who wanted to tell me that this translation was finished and did I know the best way to get such a thing published (for some unfathomable reason, it appears that publishers these days are leery about long nineteenth-century Polish novels), and in any event, there was (and is) a website where the novel can be downloaded as PDFs, and if I would pay for it, she would send me a printed copy. My familiarity with the publishing industry being limited, I did not have any sage advice, but YES PLEASE I WOULD LIKE A COPY OF THIS NOVEL. It's a rather classy two-volume affair, eight-hundred-ish pages all told.

So I started to read it, but I'm afraid my enthusiasm had been a little bit dimmed by time, and for whatever reason the book wasn't doing all that much for me—I kinda limped through the first volume and then sort of drifted away. Sorry, Dr. Kraft! You would be justified in giving me a zero on the assignment. However, it was kind of nagging at me in the back of my mind that I'd left it undone. I had to overcome that sort of variation on the sunk-cost fallacy that you get where you've read part of a book in the past and you want to finish it but you keep not doing it because you know you'd have to reread the part you'd already finished and that seems like a waste of time (and thank goodness I was able to get all the way through Proust, 'cause that would've provided the ultimate example of that), but I did it. I saw that at some point Kraft had done the smart thing and released it as an ebook, which is what I should have suggested when she wrote me, but this was before I started doing more or less all my reading via ebook, and I wasn't really familiar with the technology. I don't suppose it sells all that much, but the important thing is, it's out there.

Right, so now the above self-indulgent, thousand-word preamble is probably going to be longer than my actual discussion of the book itself. OH WELL. (Update after finishing review: not so! Hurray!)

Emancipated Women is broken into four volumes. The first two are more or less self-contained stories, while the latter two pretty much go together. The first one is about a boarding school for young women and its proprietor, Mrs. Latter. Indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking that the entire book was going to revolve around the boarding school (at least, I hope you would, because it would be surprising if you didn't). Basically, it's the problems she has to deal with: recalcitrant parents who want their daughters taught in certain specific ways, parents who don't pay on time, and the feeling that this enterprise is financially doomed, not least because of her horrible children, Kasimierz and Helena, whom she has spoiled well beyond what she can afford and who are playing a large part in dragging her down.

Given the title, you would expect Prus to have some message to impart regarding emancipation, but—to his credit, I think, even if it can make the book a little puzzling at times—he holds his cards close to his chest, more or less showing his readers the characters and letting us draw our own conclusions. Is Mrs. Latter, desperately fighting a losing battle, emancipated? Is Ada Solska, a fantastically rich orphan who spends her time more or less aimlessly doing experiments with lichens*? Is Miss Howard, trying to revolutionize women and coming off as what certain right-wing elements today would call a “humorless feminist?”

*see Prus's short, enigmatic story “Fungi of this World”—evidently, this was an area that held some special interest for him.
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Honestly, on rereading this, it was fairly obvious why I had given up the first time: it's engaging in some ways, but it all feels a lot less sophisticated than The Doll, and there isn't much of a sense of place. Still, I also was able to appreciate it more for what it is. It certainly has its moments, but I'm afraid it sort of undermines itself in the end. SPOILERS COMING I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE SHIT OUT OF THE FIRST PART OF EMANCIPATED WOMEN, WHICH IS REALLY THE ONLY PART YOU CAN “SPOIL” TO A MEANINGFUL EXTENT.

Okay, so what happens is, Mrs. Latter has kind of a nervous breakdown from worrying about the school and sort of admitting to herself that her children kind of suck. There's this older country squire, Mielnicki, who's been asking her to give up the school to come and marry him (she's both widowed and divorced)—a solution to her problems, one might think. So she decides this is the best thing to do, and takes a train out to see him. Unfortunately, he isn't there, and he lives over a river; there's a ferry that takes people across, but the river's flooded and it's not there so she tries to swim across and drowns. That's the long and short of it. Mrs. Latter really doesn't come off very sympathetically overall, but there's still a certain amount of pathos here.

The idea that all the pressures on her would eventually drive her to her death isn't outside the realm of possibility, and it certainly resonates thematically with the larger novel. The problem is, Prus really gilds the lily here in an effort to make it seem as avoidable as possible: she just missed Mielnicki on the road, the river just happened to be flooding, the ferry just happened to be slightly later than expected. You can really feel the author's finger on the scale, and it becomes more a matter of “this was excessively bad luck” than “this is the kind of thing that can happen, given social pressures.” In spite of this, however, the first part of the novel remains the best.

In the second part, who our real protagonist is comes into focus: it's one Magdalena Brzeska, a young woman who had been a teacher at Mrs. Latter's school. And to be honest, she's kind of useless as a protagonist: she seems perpetually on the verge of just completely falling apart over any little thing, and she is (or tries her best to be) completely self-abnegating—something of a nothing, really. So after Mrs. Latter's death, she naturally becomes quite ill, and goes back to her small hometown to convalesce with her family. What happens in this part? Gosh. It's a bit hard to say, really. Well, not exactly hard to say what happens, but certainly hard to say what it amounts to. There's another young woman in the village, Eufemia, and several men court both her and Magda, falling in and out of love at comically high speed. Magda has the idea that she's going to start an elementary school, but that never happens; she's basically driven to leave the town again due to the fickle nature and small-mindedness of its inhabitants. Whether or not one is able to be effectively emancipated, it seems, has a good deal to do with location.

In the third book, Magda returns to Warsaw and gets a job as a governess for a rich-ish family. The mother dislikes Magda's sense of social justice that drives her to try to help poor people, not look down on the servants, and teach the children to do the same, but she tolerates her because she's old friends with Ada and her brother Stefan, and she imagines she'll be able to thus meet them. This part's pretty interesting; you really see how efforts at social justice—or emancipation—are mediated by circumstance. How is it even possible to freely choose these things, given circumstances? Okay, so I guess that's not the most profound of observations, but it's handled well enough here.

But partway through the third book, Magda is more or less dragooned away from her situation by Ada and Stefan, with whom she lives for a while, and this is where any momentum the novel had accumulated more or less stops cold. What happens? A lot of aimlessness happens. Will Magda marry Stefan? Will she marry Kasimierz? Will Helena marry Stefan? Stefan is messing around trying to start a sugar factory (looking for some kind of purpose in a life where he doesn't really have to do anything), and he agrees to hire various acquaintances of Magda, showing the limits of that kind of personal charity. Eventually, Magda moves out out of a sense of guilt. Things continue to be aimless. The book becomes less about women's emancipation in particular and more about finding meaning in life in general. There is one rather interesting part, where Magda's brother, who is dying of consumption, shows up, and a professor who'd taught in Mrs. Latter's school, Dembicki, shows up and talks him out of his angry atheism. Prus is clearly using him as his mouthpiece for his theories about the soul, but said theories are interesting and certainly food for thought—though he doesn't do his credibility any favors when, earlier, he propounds his batty theory about how the Biblical flood could have been caused by a comet coming super close to Earth and fucking up the tides. Interesting, but batty.

Still, overall, one gets to the end really glad that one has done so. “An intriguing love story with an ambiguous ending adds spice,” Kraft's description of the book on amazon says, optimistically. Presumably, the alleged “love story” involves Magda and Stefan, though it is really pressing a point to characterize their relationship as such. The ambiguity of the ending is whether Magda will marry him or become a nun, but it is very difficult to imagine anyone really caring.

So, right, Emancipated Women: it has its moments, but I wouldn't hesitate to call it the least of Prus' novels (at least that I've read—he has one later, untranslated novel, The Children, which everyone seems to agree isn't very good) . Disappointing, but it's good to finally have that sense of closure.  And I'm pretty sure this is the most anyone's ever written about it in English, by a wide margin!  Whoo! But what you should really do is go ahead and just read The Doll! It's really good! At least, I think so. Worth a try, anyway.

Oh, and incidentally, that weird diagonal line through the “l?” It means you're supposed to pronounce the letter with a “w” sound, apparently. However, there is very little chance that I will ever not just mispronounce Prus' name in the way that it looks to native English speakers like it should be pronounced.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

It's true that Stephanie Kraft has a Ph.D.in English literature, but she was a newspaper reporter,not a university professor. Otherwise, well done, Inchoatia.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Regular GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Did she EVER teach? I'm positive I initially heard about this translation on a bio on some university's website.

11:03 AM  

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