Iwaszkiewicz: an aimless groping to understand life on a level of analysis too low for any hope of understanding

September 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wajda’s Panny z Wilka (Young Women of Wilko), based on a novella by Iwaszkiewicz, has some pluses:  the portrait of the gentry house between the wars, with its low-ceilings, ceramic stoves, animals, servants, out-of-tune pianos, and dances to which people put on their best, 20 year-old get ups is accurate; and the author’s cameo appearance in the final scene is both clever and touching.  The plot and characters are not terribly convincing, though.  For although there no doubt did exist gentry households with 6 daughters and no sons; and qualified bachelors often were scarce (the best men having died in the wars or moved to cities); so the situation of several sisters in love with the same man probably arose frequently; women are practical and the sisters would no doubt have come to some arrangement amongst themselves and chosen from amongst themselves the one to marry him; or arranged some kind of a sharing schedule.

The hero’s inability to choose/ declare himself looks more confused than it needs to:  if he liked one more than the others, he was free to take her; if he wanted to sleep with all of them in turn, he probably could have done it had he but shown a little enterprise; he chooses neither option and the explanation offered that he is “a coward” (unable to make up his mind); or that the war experience has somehow broken him sound unconvincing.  The reason for this false note is clear:  Iwo, probably more homo than bi, cannot imagine (let alone experience and describe) man’s relationships with women; but dares not come out and give the one explanation that would make sense here.  The result is that the dialogues are as unbelievable as those in Sheltering Sky, another novel about a hetero-relationship written by a homosexual man determined not to disclose the fact.  (The clue, probably unintended, is the way the hero turns out the light before making love to Julia:  uncertainly and… reluctantly).

The dialogues are the usual depressing Iwaszkiewicz:  grievances and resentments seething under the surface expressed indirectly, in ad hominem generalities (“you always do things like this”), obliging the target to wonder whatever it is that’s being objected to.  This is not untrue — people talk that way, my mother does — but hardly worth reading about or watching; and the hero’s reminiscences about meaningless of struggle against fate (“aimless striving”) are like Iwo’s stupid reflections in his journals:  an aimless groping to understand life on a level of analysis too low for any hope of understanding; on a level on which life cannot be understood.

Iwaszkiewicz is perhaps modern Polish literature’s most seriously overestimated writer.

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