Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Comedienne by Wladyslaw Reymont

Off to a slow start
In his homeland of Poland, Wladyslaw Reymont is considered one of his country’s greatest authors. Though he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924, very few of his works have been translated into English. His four-volume masterpiece The Peasants hasn’t been printed in English in almost a century, and has yet to show up in an ebook edition. The same is true for another highly acclaimed novel, Promised Land. The one work of Reymont’s that is readily available in a public domain English translation is his first novel, Komediantka (The Comedienne), originally published in 1896.

Janina is the daughter of a railroad stationmaster in the rural town of Bukowiec. Though she is a beautiful young woman pursued by many suitors, she has no interest in marriage and wishes to remain independent, unfettered by the shackles of matrimony. She daydreams about escaping the confines of her hometown and becoming an actress. When she refuses a marriage proposal which had been arranged by her father, he becomes furious and casts her out, disowning her forever. Motivated by the loss of home and family, Janina is finally determined to make her theatrical dreams a reality.

She joins the company of a minor theatre on the outskirts of Warsaw, far removed from the prestigious theatre that bears the city’s name. This Polish equivalent of an “off-off-Broadway” company is a ramshackle operation, constantly in financial dire straits. In fact, the personnel of the company are so unprofessional it’s a wonder they make any money at all. The various players are constantly peppering each other with insults and squabbling over petty matters, not only behind the curtain but even on the very stage itself during public performances. Reymont pays a lot of attention to the malicious banter that’s hurled back and forth between the thespians—too much attention, in fact. For the first two-thirds of the book, this is all that happens. It’s as if the entire purpose of the novel is merely to describe this unpleasant environment and the aural combat that takes place there.

It isn’t until at least chapter eight (out of eleven) when things finally start happening and Janina begins to make any kind of progress either positive or negative. Her lofty notions of the artist’s life come into conflict with the reality of this theatre, in which the actresses are so underpaid they have to prostitute themselves to survive. While she may be able to resist the immorality, she can’t avoid the poverty. Before becoming a novelist Reymont worked in the theatre, and he clearly has a love for the stage. As the characters in the book debate the future of the dramatic arts, Reymont simultaneously glorifies the high ideals of the theatre while lamenting its poverty-stricken reality. There is some really profound stuff in chapter ten. Janina receives some advice from a stranger who represents a stoic philosophy of life diametrically opposed to her overly emotional nature. If only the rest of the book were this good! In the final three chapters one begins to see in Reymont’s writing some resemblance to the unflinching realism and social consciousness of the works of Emile Zola. In this debut novel, however, his potential is still unrealized.

It’s a shame that the only work by Reymont that’s readily available to English language readers is one that doesn’t adequately reflect his prodigious literary talent. Seek out and find The Peasants if you can. Meanwhile, I’ll be hunting for Promised Land.

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