Friday, February 15, 2013
Selected Polish Tales by Boleslaw Prus, et al.
Mostly mediocre works by otherwise great authors
In 1915 and 1916, translator and editor Else C. M. Benecke published two collections of short stories and novellas entitled Tales by Polish Authors and More Tales by Polish Authors. She was working on a third collection at the time of her death. Completed by her colleague Marie Busch, this volume was published in 1921 under the title Selected Polish Tales. Perhaps the posthumous completion of the book explains why it feels like a collection of leftovers. Compared to the two volumes that proceeded it, this third collection is a disappointment.
Two-thirds of the volume is taken up by a complete novel, The Outpost by Boleslaw Prus. Though Prus is one of Poland’s most renowned authors, this is not his best work. Originally published in 1886, it tells the story of Josef Slimak, a gospodarz, or peasant landowner. Slimak embodies the peasantry’s admirable work ethic but also their ignorance and resistance to change. At first the book seems like it’s going to be about the interaction between the different social strata of Polish society. Then it becomes a tale of conflict between Slimak and some German colonists. Then a series of tragedies befalls Slimak. At first, these hardships are clearly the consequences of his poor decisions. Later in the book, however, Slimak suffers a number of essentially random catastrophes, and the book devolves from a tragedy into a miserable tale of woe. Though the novel offers some interesting perspective on Poland’s socioeconomic history, the story is relentlessly slow, and the unsatisfying ending leaves the reader with a feeling of pointlessness.
Nobel laureate Wladyslaw Reymont has two pieces in this book. In the preface, Busch says they are excerpts from his novel The Peasants. Having read The Peasants, however, I know that to be incorrect. They are obviously excerpts from some larger work, however, for they feel incomplete and out of context. The one entitled “Death” is a particularly fruitless meditation on misery, in which a dying man is abused by his daughter because he has disinherited her. It’s possible these selections come from great novels, but as presented here they fail to adequately represent Reymont’s formidable talents.
There are a couple of bright spots amidst this otherwise gray collection. Adam Szymanski’s “A Pinch of Salt” is set in Siberia among the Polish dissidents who have been exiled there. This story is the closest thing to lighthearted and touching that can be found in this otherwise bleak collection, and it even finishes off with a satisfying bit of a surprise ending. In the bleak category, the strongest piece is “The Sentence” by Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski. Set in World War I, it relates the story of a cold and starving old man whose cottage is encroached upon by a threatening band of Cossack soldiers. It is an emotionally powerful story that moves in some unexpected directions.
The absolute worst selection in the book is “P.P.C.” by Madame Rygier-Nalkowska, set in the early days of World War I. The resolution of the story hinges upon the abbreviation in the title, yet nowhere is it explained what these three letters stand for.
While there are some excellent authors included here, for the most part this collection doesn’t do justice to them. Rather than reading Selected Polish Tales, seek out the previous two volumes in this series, which are far superior to this one.
Stories in this collection
The Outpost by Boleslaw Prus
A Pinch of Salt by Adam Szymanski
Kowalski the Carpenter by Adam Szymanski
Forebodings: Two Sketches by Stefan Zeromski
A Polish Scene by Wladyslaw Reymont
Death by Wladyslaw Reymont
The Sentence by Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski
P.P.C. by Madame Rygier-Nalkowska
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