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the doll

9 march 2017

In my unplumbable ignorance, I had never heard of Bolesław Prus's great 19th-century novel The Doll till a friend sent me a copy out of the blue a few months ago, from Poland. The Doll is as good as anything in the Russian, French, and English loose-baggy-monster traditions. Learning of its existence is a little bit like finding buried treasure, though it would have been near enough to the surface if I'd ever exerted myself to dig. I can't claim to have read a lot of novels, but I've read a representative sample of Tolstoy and Trollope and Zola, and I was reaching the point where I might (horrors) have to start re-reading them. With Bolesław Prus I've found an new figure whose work is closely comparable.

The doll of Prus's title – in one sense – is Izabela Łęcki, daughter of a minor aristocrat in late 19th-century Warsaw. A beauty past her sell-by date, Izabela has turned down titles and fortunes, and now finds herself of interest only to superannuated lovers who are none too noble or rich. But the rising star of the Warsaw retail world, Wokulski, is infatuated with her, and begins to weave a financial net around her family in order to … well, in order to what exactly is the book's central problem, because it's not even clear to Wokulski.

Wokulski is the protagonist of The Doll, a man torn between different impulses. Shopkeeper, war profiteer, amateur scientist, romantic, depressive, he longs for Izabela but is tortured by the class differences that separate them. He can't help making all the showy gestures of a parvenu in love, but he can't quite seal the deal and carry off his female prize.

The narrative method of The Doll is mixed. Scenes in omniscient third-person narration are interleaved with reflected scenes that get inside a character's head (usually Wokulski's), and those third-person scenes are interleaved with pages from the journal of Rzecki, the aging chief clerk in Wokulski's store. Dialogic counterpoint is the order of the day, as character after character expresses some other facet of 19th-century Warsaw.

Izabela isn't even the only doll in the novel. Wokulski and Rzecki sell dolls in their store. (In a heartbreaking detail, the retired Rzecki, near the end of the book, dresses the shop-windows at night for free so that he can play "with the store toys" [672].) Midway through the novel, a girl named Helena Stawska longs for a doll that had belonged to her neighbor Baroness Krzeszowska's dead daughter. As a treat, Rzecki arranges for the Stawskas to buy a doll from the store at deep discount. Rzecki knows that Mrs. Stawska, Helena's mother is in love with Wokulski; hopelessly in love with her himself, the old clerk dreams of engineering a match between Wokulski and Stawska to keep them both close to him.

Then her own doll goes missing, and the Baroness Krzeszowska accuses the Stawskas of stealing it. They haven't, and the Baroness is humiliated in court. The doll would seem to be a harbinger for Wokulski of happiness with a woman who truly admires him. But as with all other opportunities in his personal life, he lets this one slip. Helena Stawska's doll, after its bid for title status, becomes just one more element among a welter of elements that never add up.

Later in the novel, Wokulski seems to have met a kindred spirit, Mrs. Wąsowska. She has the notion that women should be as free in love as men. Nothing comes of this either. Eventually Wokulski even winkles assent to an engagement out of Izabela, but he breaks it off suddenly when he sees her flirting with another man. "Don Quixote was happier than I," says Wokulski. "He didn't begin to awaken from his illusions until the brink of the grave" (600).

The reader empathizes with Wokulski because readers empathize with any protagonist, from Sir Gawain and Henry V to Iago, Humbert Humbert, and Hannibal Lecter. Wokulski is closer to the latter. He's headstrong, inconsistent, maundering, touchy, and anti-Semitic. But he also reflects the enthusiasms of everyone he meets. More than most novelistic "heroes," Wokulski is an excuse for his author to take stock of an entire nation and its culture.

The Doll seems to me a "state-of-Poland" novel. Poland in 1878, when the novel is set (as in 1890, when it was published) was partitioned between the German and Russian empires, and the characters in The Doll look both west and east for fortune and inspiration. A "Jewish problem" was burgeoning – looking in retrospect mighty like a problem that Polish people had with Jews, rather than a bilateral conflict. It is interesting to see a novel that looks unflinchingly and dialogically at anti-Semitism, giving anti-Semitic characters a voice without seeming to endorse those voices. Wokulski, who simply doesn't like Jews, does business with them because money has no race or religion. At the same time, he realizes that the prejudices that aristocratic Poles have against him as a tradesman are like the prejudices that Poles in general have against Jews.

Despite these mitigating touches, it can be hard to read sections of The Doll. Prus does not give houseroom to characters who attack anti-Semitism. Jews are always a problem for his Poles. They embody capitalism – its shoddiness, its cash nexus, its perpetual drive. (As always, Jews have been invoked to embody any despised social philosophy, from socialism to communism to multicultural 21st-century American liberalism.)

The most anti-Semitic character in The Doll is a Jewish physician named Szuman. He refers to "the Kikes" as "a race of genius, but they're such scoundrels that you won't break 'em in without using whip and spurs" (653). Obsessively racialist, Szuman has devoted his life to classifying human lineages by the quality of their hair. Detached from his ethnicity, a man of science (however pseudo-), Szuman presents his antipathy to Jews as cold sociological fact, political correctness be damned.

Wokulski, too, has a para-scientific rationale for his anti-Semitism. He applies Darwinism, without naming it. Anti-Semitism, he muses, has selected for the worst kind of Jews, who then justify anti-Semitism:

Very noble individuals have perished in anti-Jewish persecutions, and the only ones to survive were those who could protect themselves from destruction. So now what sort of Jews do we have? Persistent, patient, sly, self-reliant, quick-witted, and commanding a mastery of the one weapon left to them – money. By wiping out everything that was good, we have produced an artificial selection and protected the worst. (511)
"Society is like boiling water," Dr. Szuman concludes in a reflective moment. "What was below yesterday will come to the top tomorrow" (542). "And fall back into the dregs again the next day," replies the old clerk Rzecki. None of the characters in The Doll can think their way outside received categories of race, class, and gender. Can any of us?

For all its unsheathed social tensions, The Doll is full of lovely psychological touches. Izabela first sees Wokulski as a tiger in a cage, "but all the same she felt she must at least touch the ear of the tiger" (61). Wokulski moves from mood to mood without a lot of objective cause, as we all do at times, and Prus's observation of his evanescent states of mind is precise. He is prey to existential terrors, as when he sees another Wokulski in an adjoining hotel room (350) – himself in the mirrored door of a wardrobe, of course, but an uncanny double all the same. There's travel to Paris. There's almost an Anna-Karenina-like encounter with a train. There's a novelistic party at a Duchess's country house (at which the inventor Ochocki meta-novelistically remarks "When I came here for the first time … I seemed to be in Utopia, or in the pages of a boring but virtuous novel, in which the author describes what the gentry should be like, but never are" [411]).

And as with all large loose baggy monsters written in 19th-century serial form, you get the sense that the author wrote his way into certain plot meanders and then wondered how he'd gotten there. Such divagations are part of the aesthetic. Modernism arose to tighten them out of fashion, and if you don't like baggy monsters, you can always read the modernists. If you do like them, you will like The Doll.

Prus, Bolesław. The Doll. [Lalka, 1890.] Translated by David Welsh, 1972. Revised by Dariusz Tołczyk and Anna Zaranko. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1996.