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the birch grove

2 january 2018

I was led to the stories of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz by a stray allusion in the contemporary detective fiction of Zygmunt Miłoszewski – as so often, coming to my high culture via pulpier references. Iwaszkiewicz was one of the pre-eminent Polish writers of the 20th century, and it was a long 20th century in his case. He was born in 1894 and died in 1980. As Leszek Kołakowski notes in his highly personal introduction to Antonia Lloyd-Jones' translations in The Birch Grove and Other Stories, Iwaszkiewicz lived through several literary movements, contributing to each, and in his later years was much-criticized for accommodating himself to Communist rule in Soviet-era Poland. But Kołakowski expresses confidence that Iwaszkiewicz's work will outlast the controversies. And Lloyd-Jones (who also translates Miłoszewski) did her part with lovely, lyrical versions of one short and three long stories in this Central European Classics edition.

The stories collected here by Lloyd-Jones are from the 1920s and '30s. The short one, "A New Love" (1925) is an abstract gimmick. A man anticipates the arrival of a new girlfriend. He savors the Vorfreude of their coming intimacy – not so much sexual intimacy, though he has no objection to that, but their sharing of childhood memories, their populating of each other's imaginations. His train of thought leads him to their inevitable differences and eventual breakup, and he decides to spare himself the trouble. I'm reminded of Groucho Marx, in Duck Soup, thinking aloud about peace negotiations with a diplomat and then, by the time the fellow enters the room, working himself into a lather and declaring war.

"The Wilko Girls" (1932) is a deliberately difficult story, a tour de force that perplexes the reader with way too many of its title characters. Our protagonist, Wiktor Ruben, is a veteran of the First World War. He manages a farm that is part of a charity institution, but his heart isn't in it; it's neither a calling nor a career. His best friend has just died of tuberculosis, and his doctor recommends that Wiktor simply take a vacation and get his head on straight.

He heads for his aunt and uncle's house, a country place where he used to stay before the War. Down the road live those Wilko girls, a set of sisters, all single and enamored of him when he was younger. They're now variously married, divorced, far along their own paths in life: and still as enamored of Wiktor as ever.

The narrative problem is evident from the scene where Wiktor first re-encounters the Wilko girls: they consist of Julcia, Jola, Kazia, Zosia, and Tunia – five women, because their sister Fela has died of the Spanish influenza (19). "The Wilko Girls" is a long story – 78 pages – but still, it sets itself the problem of giving each of the five women a character note, giving each of them (plus the late Fela) a backstory with Wiktor from before the war, and then threading Wiktor through plot developments with each of the surviving five.

I don't think this is just the Slavic-fiction problem of too many Mashas and Olgas and Irinas. Chekhov, after all, knew better than to write The Five Sisters Plus One Who Died. In the doorstop novels of the 19th century, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky gave themselves hundreds of pages to work through families no more complicated than Iwaszkiewicz tackles in less than eighty. In "The Wilko Girls," he overcrowds the dramatis personae because in Wiktor's mind, the women really do blend together. The supply of beautiful women who find him irresistible (or at least once did) is inexhaustible. He is forced to contrast a past of limitless possibility – half-fabulated, wholly romanticized – with the constraints of the postwar world and advancing middle age.

The title story "The Birch Grove" (1932) is much more straightforward, but no less nuanced and moving. A man named Bolesław, recently widowed, manages a large timber concession in remote rural Poland. His brother Stanisław returns from several years abroad, most of them spent in Alpine sanatoria. Staś looks well enough, but is far from cured: he has come to his brother's house to die. He aims to be buried in the title stand of trees, next to Bolesław's wife Basia.

Staś spends the first part of the story alternately bored out of his mind and frenetic with thoughts of his impending fate. He is the younger brother, the more devil-may-care of the two, but in many ways he's more clued into his own emotions and those of others. Bolesław lets his young daughter Ola run around untutored, and wanders the forest or sits blankly when he's not working. Both he and Staś become obsessed with the peasant girl Malina, who is engaged to a peer but uninhibitedly attracted to both gentlemen. But it's the consumptive Stanisław who actually forges a relationship with her: one bounded by his nearing death, and her nearing marriage.

Much of "The Birch Grove" is an experiment in imagining a slow physical and mental dissolution, right down to the washing of Stanisław's corpse by the peasant women of the forest. It doesn't sound cheery, and in many ways it isn't; but in this bleak circumstance, both brothers paradoxically learn to live for the first time.

"The Mill on the River Utrata" has points of similarity with both the other long stories in the volume. Here, Julek is the cultured outsider, sponging merrily off his friend Karol, a Warsaw-region landowner. The two friends host Desmond King, a black Briton of romantic and poetic proclivities. The three of them make an Odd Trio till Julek turns his back on mystical Catholicism and falls desperately in love with a plain, abused single mother whose family runs the title utility.

The unaccountable attraction between Julek and Jadwisia propels a character sketch of young eccentrics into lurid, three-dimensional drama. Their love leads them into squalor, and it's doomed to begin with: carrying on adulterously with Julek, Jadwisia is at the same time cheating on him with the young mill-hand Zdzisio, in a relationship that recalls the various triangles of "The Birch Grove." The story gains narrative momentum right up till its eventful ending.

The Central European Classics series provides a brilliant setting for works from less-translated traditions, and "The Birch Grove and other stories" is a jewel among them.

Iwaszkiewicz, Jarosław. The Birch Grove and other stories. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002. PG 7158 .I8A25