Monday, August 17, 2020

The Argonauts by Eliza Orzeszkowa

Polish literature, though you’d hardly know it
Eliza Orzeszkowa
The Argonauts, a novel by Polish author Eliza Orzeszkowa, was first published in 1900 under the Polish title of Argonauci. Translator Jeremiah Curtin published an English-language edition in 1901. The story opens in a luxurious mansion, the home of Aloysius Darvid, a self-made tycoon who through ceaseless toil and prodigious business acumen has amassed great wealth. His riches allow him to associate with princes and counts, but, not being of noble birth, he knows he will never be considered one of them. This workaholic pushes himself to the limit, not for the money but for the thrill of the conquest and the cachet of prestige. In pursuing his business interests, Darvid has neglected his family, leading to his wife’s affair with another man and his older children viewing him with contempt. When Darvid decides to put his house in order, he does so with an uncompromising iron fist characteristic of his autocratic business tactics.

One good reason to read Polish literature is to learn more about Polish history and culture. Orzeszkowa may be a Polish writer, but you’d hardly know it from reading this book. The only indication that the story takes place in Poland is that the characters call each other Pan and Pani (the Mr. and Mrs. of the Polish upper classes). It would be difficult to imagine a French novel in which location, either Parisian or provincial, plays no part whatsoever in the story. The city in which The Argonauts take place, however, is never mentioned. The words “Warsaw,” “Krakow,” or “Poland” don’t appear anywhere in the book. The word “Polish” does appear once (as opposed to “polish,” which appears 11 times). Orzeszkowa has more to say about French, English, and German culture than she does about that of her Polish motherland. Her characters gush over the works of Arthur Rimbaud, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites, but I don’t recall a single Polish artist or writer being mentioned in the text. Russian authors sometimes satirize the upper classes of their nation for shamefully trying to deny their Russian heritage by pretending to be French. Orzeszkowa seems to be doing the same thing here, not as a satirist but as a culprit, by excising every element of Polishness from her own novel.

A phrase that appears over and over again in The Argonauts is “painted pots.” This is meant to signify old-fashioned values, outdated conventions, and conservative mores. This epithet is frequently uttered by characters of the younger generation, essentially 19th-century libertine hipsters who consider themselves iconoclasts. They refer to the older generation as Arcadians, a pejorative indicating stuffy old fogies with passé tastes who couldn’t possibly comprehend the sublime beauty and daring intellectualism of contemporary arts and literature. Though Orzeszkowa may have intended the opposite, the reader wants to side with the Arcadians since all the men and women of the younger generation come across as despicable human beings. In fact, almost all the characters in the novel are contemptible. Besides an innocent young girl who’s an easy target for the reader’s sympathy, the only character one really feels for is an aging member of the petty nobility who one day comes to the realization that he’s become a has-been.

The Argonauts is not a bad novel, but there’s not much notably compelling about it either. Orzeszkowa draws vivid characters who act out some valuable moral lessons, but she does so in a rather heavy-handed manner. The exaggerated histrionics, slow plot, and repetitive exposition call to mind the very dusty “painted pots” her characters find so repugnant.

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