On Reading Big Books Again: The Doll by Bolesław Prus

I’ve been reading enormous books again—the doorstopper variety that Henry James famously labelled as “loose, baggy monsters.” It’s not that I had developed an aversion to large books or to reading in general but I seem to have lost interest in longer tomes in the past 3 years. I remember reading Neil Peart’s book Ghost Rider many years ago in which he recounts the tragedies of suddenly losing his teenage daughter and wife in the span of a year. A talented drummer, songwriter and author, he isn’t sure if he will ever do any of the things he loved in his previous life again; he has to figure out how music and writing fit into his “new” life.

I always thought it was strange that someone who was a talented drummer could suddenly put aside the skill and joy that was so intricately a part of who he was. But, three years ago, having suffered my own, unexpected loss, I, unfortunately, understood all-too-well what Peart was going through. How could I read or write or do anything I formerly enjoyed with such a deep pain in my heart and soul? What did anything matter when my life had been completely shattered? Peart takes his “little baby soul” on a long journey of healing and comes to terms with his new reality, and, luckily for us, he comes back to drumming and music and writing in a reinvigorated way.

In January I had the sudden urge to read enormous books again—the kind that I can get lost in, that completely engross me. In my “previous” life I couldn’t get enough of authors like Proust and Tolstoy and Musil. Similar to what Peart experienced on his healing journey, I have discovered that there are interests like reading and writing that have come back around in my life in refreshing and stimulating new ways. But there are also some things that have gone by the wayside that I will never do again (more on that in a different post). When I asked on Twitter for recommendations of large, absorbing books, The Doll by Boleslaw Prus was a suggestion I immediately jumped at because of who recommended it and who had published it. A classic of 19th century Polish literature, The Doll has been reissued by NYRB classics with a translation by David Welsh that is revised by Dariusz Tolczyk and Anna Zaranko.

Prus depicts Polish life in Warsaw in the late 19th century, the scope of which is reminiscent of a Dickens novel that encompasses all classes of society. Our hero, Stanislaw Wokulski, is a merchant who, for the love of an upper-class woman, has taken risks to enhance his fortune and bestow his generosity on the poor souls he meets in the slums of Warsaw. He has a midlife crisis of sorts and wants to be a better man and leave his mark on the world; he convinces himself that the best way to do this is to win Izabela’s hand in marriage.

Wokulski is a generous, kind-hearted, hard-working, heroic man who is benevolent even to the Jews who are terribly persecuted in Warsaw like they are around Europe. Part of the narrative is told from the perspective of his store clerk and friend, an old man named Rzecki, who deeply admires and reveres his employer. It doesn’t even occur to Rzecki at first that his dear friend could have fallen in love with an insipid, highborn woman like Izabela. She won’t consider Wokulski as a potential husband simply because he is a merchant and beneath her, but she does continue to lead Wokulski on and use him to her financial benefit. Rzecki is hoping that Wokulski will fall in love with a woman named Helena, a humble and kind-hearted widow who is much more deserving of a man like his boss than the shallow and cruel Izabela. (Needless to say, I, too, was rooting for the widow.)

In one of his moments of lucidity and reason, Wokulski wonders if Izabela is capable of loving anyone:

“There are women with moral defects who are incapable of loving anyone or anything except their own fleeting caprices, just as there are such men; it is a defect like deafness, blindness or paralysis, only less obvious.”

Even weeks after I’ve read the book I keep thinking about these lines. I felt like I had a personal epiphany of sorts; it had never really dawned on me that there are those who are simply incapable of love of any kind —romantic, platonic, filial or otherwise. Whether it be from upbringing—as is likely the case with Izabela—or negative past experiences or genetics or a variety of other reasons, there are those who cannot look past themselves and extend love to another. I have a deeper understanding of what the Ancient Greeks were trying to tell us through the myth of Narcissus. Reading Prus also called to mind this stunning poem by Louise Gluck entitled “Seated Figure” which has a similar message about the inability to love:

It was as though you were a man in a wheelchair,

your legs cut off at the knee.

But I wanted you to walk. I wanted us to walk like lovers,

arm in arm in the summer evening,

and believed so powerfully in that projection

that I had to speak, I had to press you to stand.

Why did you let me speak?

I took your silence as I took the anguish in your face,

as part of the effort to move—

It seemed I stood forever,

holding out my hand.

And all that time, you could no more heal yourself 

than I could accept what I saw.

Wokulski’s downfall is due to the fact that he cannot or will not accept the reality of what he knows to be a selfish woman who is lacking the ability to love not just him but anyone.

I’m not sure what brought me back to reading this type of literature but I suspect it has something to do with what Paul Valery says on the subject in Cahiers 2: “Literature! You are nothing if you fail to give me a sense of discovery.” It’s that sense of discovery I was after and even in writing this I have a feeling of euphoria which feels so right in my “new” life.

Up next will be my thoughts on Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and Dickens’s Bleak House. My voracious appetite for epic novels has, indeed, come back with a vengeance. What big books do you like to read?


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18 responses to “On Reading Big Books Again: The Doll by Bolesław Prus

  1. Rob

    I am currently on a “big books” kick as well. I recently finished “Gravity’s Rainbow”, which I didn’t altogether enjoy. The nineteenth century offers better big book pickings. My recent favourite was ETA Hoffmann’s “Tomcat Murr”, affecting and funny by turns. Another possibility (and a similarly tricksy text) would be Potocki’s “The Manuscript Found at Saragossa.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rosemary Considine

    Very beautiful, moving and well written.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for reminding me of The Doll, which I read many years ago; I now feel minded to go back to it soon. Let me second the earlier suggestion of The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, which I re-read and loved again recently. My own two-pennorth of big books: an astonishing utopia, Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright, and Naguib Mahfouz’ powerful insight into a different world, The Cairo Trilogy. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful post, Melissa. I marvel at the grace with which you have navigated the unbelievable turmoil and pain of the past few years, and am so happy to hear that you are finding your way back to reading and writing. Neither can be forced. I am not a big novel reader by nature though, over the past year, I have become more comfortable with the 600-pager (with a few skinny side dishes alongside). And Bleak House is fantastic, like binge watching/reading a TV series.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lovely post. I am very sorry for your loss and the profound effect it has had on your life. I guess it shows, though, that you are definitely not one of those people incapable of love. I am glad you are healing and that it has brought something so beautiful into the world.
    I also love a chunkster but I have to choose my moments or I don’t have the patience. I wish I did because I always find the longer books such an enriching experience. This one sounds very absorbing

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Roger

    The great director Wojciech Has made fine films of The Doll and The Saragossa Manuscript. They’re worth watching for themselves and for the differences between them and their sources.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Those are all amazing books you mention. I am currently reading ´The island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen in German and am totally absorbed by it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hurrah for big books, then! But seriously, I am glad you have found your way back to reading. I can’t believe it’s three years since your tragic loss, but you are strong and have reinvented your life, which is admirable. Sinking into a big book was always my way of escape, but this one is new to me. I adored Bleak House though – one of Dickens’ finest so I hope you love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love Proust and return to him time after time, but a more recent (very) big book that I loved was Vikram Seth’s A SUITABLE BOY. There is everything in that book: history, religion, politics, land distribution, family dynamics, romance, large crowd scenes and intimate conversations. A friend begged me to read the first 50 pages, hoping I would go on, and I was hooked by the second page.

    As for books that are not doorstops, exactly, but slow enough to read that they seem “big,” I always recommend the literary history books of Van Wyck Brooks, THE FLOWERING OF NEW ENGLAND, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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