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the beautiful mrs. seidenman

4 february 2018

The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (1986), by Andrzej Szczypiorski, is the most systematically proleptic novel I can remember encountering. By "proleptic," I mean one that continually tells you the ultimate fate of its characters while in the middle of stories about an earlier period in their lives. Many novels are proleptic to some extent. First-person narratives tip off the reader – unless they're very tricky – to at least the narrator's bare survival of their events. Prolepsis can provide a story hook, as in the famous opening of García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." But rarely do you encounter a novel that is determined to tell the story of a particular epoch, all the while digressing to tell you what became of its characters many years later.

If digression is even the right word. Although most translations use a title equivalent to The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, the Polish title of Szczypiorski's novel is Początek, or "Beginning." The "end" of the plot proper would seem to take place in 1943, when Irma Seidenman is released by her Nazi captors, thanks to the intervention of a loose network of friends and acquaintances in occupied Warsaw. (There's no spoiler in telling you that, as you learn within a few pages that Mrs. Seidenman survives the war.) But though the story ends in 1943, the events of that year are only the beginning for the characters, the beginning of the rest of their lives. In several cases the rest of their life is very brief indeed; in others, that life will continue till the time of the novel's telling, in 1986. And as the perversity of life sometimes has it, the major historical dramas of 1943-44 influence some of those lives profoundly, while they seem to touch others not very much at all.

Irma Seidenman is Jewish, but in denial about her very identity. She lives outside the Ghetto under an assumed name as the widow of a Gentile officer, when in reality she's the widow of a Jewish doctor. But she is beautiful, as the translated titles suggest, and she inspires the sympathies of many a Polish male – and even of the ethnically German Müller, who has significant pull with the local Gestapo. At the end of a long chain of helpers, Müller eventually wins Irma's freedom.

In a melodrama, that would be that. Evil fails, good prevails, people live happily (enough) ever after. But "life is also that which hasn't yet happened," as Szczypiorski's narrator explains (100). People can blend into their opposites; ironies can accumulate gradually; inevitabilities can be sidestepped. Survival itself comes to look like no great prize.

For those who died, it was all one how they crossed the threshold of eternity. There wasn't much of a difference between the old man shot on the streets of occupied Warsaw and his contemporary who died of cancer a dozen years later. … What had seemed miraculous in 1945, was merely commonplace a few years later, and later still became boring and banal. And it was no longer war that was dreadful, but peace. (153)
Much of the action of The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman consists of Poles resisting the Nazis – smuggling Jews out of the Ghetto, hiding them, sustaining them against great odds. Yet there are remarkably few heroes in the novel: really none, in the final count. One of the bravest resisters, Suchowiak, is a mugger and a bully. One of the right-minded Poles, Kujawski, intends to steward the affairs of his Jewish mentor Mitelman when Mitelman is sent to the Ghetto – but imperceptibly, Kujawski simply expropriates Mitelman, and becomes not just complicit in Nazism but an enthusiastic beneficiary. Sister Weronika, who harbors Jewish children, does so at the cost of extinguishing their identities; her charges emerge from the war at war against themselves.

And so it goes, each character balanced on a knife-edge of contradictions. Individual by individual, we see the beginning of the unmaking of a society. A nation can be liberated, an enemy can be expelled, but after the Ghetto, the Uprising, the Holocaust, and decades of communism, there is no possible redemption. Even for Poles who survived and were able to reconstruct their lives, something has been irrevocably destroyed. A Polish prostitute who briefly shelters a fugitive Jew forgets her own heroism, and becomes like so many other postwar survivors, "unaware that they were maimed, for without the Jews they are no longer the Poles they once were and should have remained forever" (40).

I am painting The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman as bleak, but it is also beautiful: one of the best novels ever written about the impact of the second world war and the Holocaust on a whole society. It is full of contingency and energy; it recognizes the power of drama, even melodrama; it recognizes great goodness, goodness that is not cancelled by its futility, but it refuses complacency. The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman is an amazing achievement in fiction.

Szczypiorski, Andrzej. The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman. [Początek, 1986.] Translated by Klara Glowczewska. 1988. New York: Grove, 1989. PG 7178 .Z3P5913