Monday, December 2, 2013

Let's Read: Lalka (The Doll) by Bolesław Prus

Bernardo Bellotto, View of Warsaw from Praga

It's December already. Hrm.

I'd like to do another book club in the same artery as the Pierre experiment and the two-man assault on Romance of the Three Kingdoms that Jon B. and I mounted over the summer. I mentioned the idea months ago (in the Three Kingdoms post, in fact), but now we're finally getting around to it: Mr. B. and I will be tearing through The Doll by Bolesław Prus. It's called Lalka in the original Polish, which sounds much less dull than "The Doll" does in English. Because it's not a dull book! It's one of the best novels I've ever read! It blew my socks off when I read it three years ago! (Again, how time flies.) I even posted excerpts here and here.

Here's the thing about Lalka. If I want to talk to somebody about Moby Dick, there are people in my circles who have read Moby Dick. Ditto for War and Peace. I even have an acquaintance who has read History of the Peloponnesian Wars. But none of my friends have read Lalka, and this needs to change.

Since I'm writing this on the fly, here's a blurb from the Wikipedia entry:

The Doll (Polish title: Lalka) is the second of four major novels by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus (real name Aleksander Głowacki). It was composed for periodical serialization in 1887-89 and appeared in book form in 1890.

The Doll has been regarded by some, including Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, as the greatest Polish novel. According to Prus biographer Zygmunt Szweykowski, it may be unique in 19th-century world literature as a comprehensive, compelling picture of an entire society.

While The Doll takes its fortuitous title from a minor episode involving a stolen toy, readers commonly assume that it refers to the principal female character, the young aristocrat Izabela Łęcka. Prus had originally intended to name the book Three Generations.

The Doll has been translated into nineteen languages, and has been produced in several film versions and as a television miniseries.

The Doll, covering one and a half years of present time, comprises two parallel narratives. One opens with events of 1878 and recounts the career of the protagonist, Stanisław Wokulski, a man in early middle age. The other narrative, in the guise of a diary kept by Wokulski's older friend Ignacy Rzecki, takes the reader back to the 1848-49 "Spring of Nations."

Bolesław Prus wrote The Doll with such close attention to the physical detail of Warsaw that it was possible, in the Interbellum, to precisely locate the very buildings where, fictively, Wokulski had lived and his store had been located on Krakowskie Przedmieście. Prus thus did for Warsaw's sense of place in The Doll in 1889 what James Joyce was famously to do for his own capital city, Dublin, in the novel Ulysses a third of a century later, in 1922.

And here's what I apparently had to say about it on my (pretty much defunct) Goodreads page:

You've probably never heard of this book, but it comes damn close to meeting War and Peace on its own terms.

History rolls forward. The aristocratic scumbags are replaced by capitalist scumbags. The solutions to yesterday's problems become new problems and we don't get anywhere. A great man becomes a great man in pursuit of a vain and hopeless goal that eventually destroys him. A world of fops, fools, scoundrels, and nihilists loses something it desperately needs.

We can be 99% certain that society is irredeemably fucked. But unless we try to be better, we deprive ourselves of that last 1%.

When you hold out hope for human potential, you'll almost definitely be disappointed. But damn it, we've got to hope. And we've got to try.

Huh. I wonder where that came from.

Anyway: the plan right now is to begin reading on December 21 -- the winter solstice. There are some details that remain to be worked out; pages per week, for instance. (It will definitely not be 200 a week like we did with Three Kingdoms, however.) The sooner you email me if you're interested, the sooner these things can be determined!


Step two: Email me.
Step three: Read a classic world novel! Discuss it! Feel your horizons expanding!

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