Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont



The unknown masterpiece
Despite winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924, few Americans have heard Reymont’s name, much less read his work. That’s unfortunate, because this novel truly deserves a spot in the canon of world literature. It chronicles the lives of Polish peasants in the town of Lipka over the course of one year. The Peasants (Polish title: Chlopi) was published in four volumes: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. The four volumes must be read together, in order; they do not stand alone as individual books.

Mathias Boryna, the most prosperous farmer in Lipka, is getting on in years. His adult children want him to retire and hand the family land over to them. Boryna, on the other hand, still considers himself hale and hearty and decides to remarry to a young bride, much to the chagrin of his offspring. Complicating matters is the fact that Yagna, his new wife, is the most beautiful girl in the village, and she’s had a promiscuous past, including an affair with Boryna’s son Antek.

In subject matter this book bears some similarity to Emile Zola’s novel The Earth, and Reymont’s writing bears a striking resemblance to Zola’s brand of Naturalism as well. While many early 20th-century novelists were influenced by Zola, Reymont is the first I’ve come across that actually rivals the master himself. While I have read that this novel is set in the early years of the 20th century, it is really a timeless story, taking place in an indeterminate age. The only hint of temporal specificity is the fact that Lipka, at the time of the story, is under Russian rule. For the most part it deals with everyday issues of family life and community that transcend any particular time and place. You don’t have to know anything about Polish history to read this novel. It does not discuss any major historical or political events. You will, however, learn much about the customs, superstitions, farming practices, living conditions, and religious rituals of rural life in Poland. Reymont populates Lipka with so many complex characters and intertwining storylines that it surpasses William Falkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in its richness of detail and the completeness of its depiction of country life. You become so involved in the lives of these characters that by the time you get to the fourth volume you feel as if you’re ready to get behind the plow or vote in the local elections. This book is long out of print, but for lovers of great literature it’s definitely worth a search online or a trip to your local university library. (This review is based on the English translation by Michael H. Dziewicki.)

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11 comments:

  1. Karl, nice piece. I thought the comparsion with Faulkner books was right on. For a while I thought about doing my dissertation on Faulkner's Hamlet, The Town, and the Mansion (which he called collectively his peasant books) and Reymont's novels.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, John. It's nice to hear some agreement from someone who's obviously more knowledgeable on the subject than I am. This review of The Peasants is one of the most visited entries on my blog. Hopefully I can inspire a few new readers to look into Reymont's works.

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  3. As a matter of fact the name of this village is Lipce and from 1983 it has been called Lipce Reymontowskie- I know that beacause I live there:)

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  4. Thanks for the info. Translators often change the names of Polish places in an attempt to make them more palatable to English-language readers. Here's a web site for Lipce Reymontowskie, showing images of some of the historic buildings at the Reymont Center (Centrum Reymontowskie):
    http://www.lipcereymontowskie.pl/muzeum_zagroda.html

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  5. Can anyone tell me where I can buy this book (English translation). It's so hard to get it.

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  6. I don't think the book has been printed in English in almost 100 years. I had to check it out from my local university library. Although the novel is in the public domain, perhaps the English translation isn't, which would explain why it's not available at Project Gutenberg, etc.

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  7. In addition to most university libraries, you can find used copies at sites like AbeBooks - where I just bought a set for myself. But if you don't have ready access to a library or want to save $, you can read it here in .pdf: http://www.unz.org/Pub/ReymontLadislas-1937 Enjoy!

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    1. Great! Thanks for finding this link. I'm sure a lot of readers will be happy to know that this great work is available online.

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    2. you are welcome!

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  8. you might be also interested in "The Promised Land" by Reymont

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  9. Just bought the set published in 1924....looking forward to their arrival.

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