THE DOLL is the most engrossing novel that I’ve ever been so ambivalent about

Remember yesterday when I wrote about Boleslaw Prus’ THE DOLL? Well today I’m 25% of the way through! Yes, I made an absurd amount of progress with this 1000 page Polish realist novel, because it’s actually really readable. For the first few chapters, I was like, what am I reading? And then I realized it was a novel about a businessman who’s in love with an impoverished noblewoman and I’m like okay, I get it.

The reverse of this novel is actually a staple of more Romantic literature (the high-status woman who’s being courted by a business man–Trollope’s The Way We Live Now comes to mind). In those novels, commerce is always portrayed as something quite ignoble and demeaning, though. But in this one the businessman is the hero! And what’s more, he’s also a would-be scientist!

It’s a fascinating book. So full of rich detail about 19th-century Poland. For instance, I’ve only rarely read a novel that was so concerned with how things look. You get paragraph after paragraph of loving description of the interiors of places.

The book is full of set-pieces. For instance, there’s one where the businessman, Stas, encounters the object of affection in his store and suddenly realizes he’s just a woman and that there’s no reason to be obsessed about her. And then he wanders the streets of Warsaw for twenty pages and sees all the poverty and need, and thinks, “Hey, I’m rich. I could do something about this!” and then he goes home and continues to obsess about the woman.

But he also maintains a vestigial interest in charity. He’s obviously been changed by this epiphany…he just hasn’t been changed very much. Which I love! It takes a lot of psychological insight, and a very sure hand, to thread the needle in that way.

And the book is just, on a page by page level, engrossing. I compared it yesterday to War and Peace, and I think the comparison is apt. Just like War and Peace, it makes you forget that you’re reading a book. Instead, it’s just a dream that goes on and on. When I was reading, I had the–nowadays quite rare–experience of checking where I was on the kindle and seeing that I’d gone ahead thousands of locations without realizing it! That’s pretty amazing. Usually even the best book leaves me wondering how close I am to finishing it.

And yet…the fatal ‘And yet.’

The book is uneven.

There are parts that leave me scratching my head. For instance, there’s an internal set of chapters: ‘The journal of an old clerk’ where the businessman’s head clerk narrates his life in the first person. The best thing about them is that oftentimes they’re so clearly tedious that you know you can skip them. So, for instance, there were pages and pages of the clerk’s experience as a partisan in the Hungarian revolt, and I just skipped them. I’ve read The Charterhouse of Parma and I’ve read Les Miserables and I’ve read War and Peace, so I know that long battlefield scenes can be very powerful and interesting. But in this case they weren’t.

And I am also left with a persistent feeling that the underlying engine of this book–the love plot–is unworthy of the fantastic eye and energy and level of detail and observation that we see. I don’t know. All the characters are interesting, but it’s just…I suppose it’s that the businessman seems too self-sufficient. He doesn’t seem like he’d fall prey to this kind of obsession.

In a way, it’s similar to those genre novels that keep you compelled and then leave you wondering, “What’s underneath this?”

Here I’m left wondering, “What about theme?”

It’s there, of course. This book is indisputably great. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as War and Peace. I particularly love how it examines the relationship between the aristocracy and the bourgeois. This is the moment when one is giving way to the other, and it’s fascinating to see how the two groups dance around that. But still…I do have an ambivalence…Bolesław_Prus_(1897)

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