Killing the Second Dog
The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman
Joseph Conrad once wrote to an English friend enquiring, rather querulously, “What is all this about Jane Austen?” Conrad could not see the point of Jane Austen, nor was his friend able to enlighten him: indeed, it sounds rather as if the skepticism of the great Polish-English novelist made the friend himself begin to wonder whether there could really be anything in Jane Austen’s novels after all. No other literary form is so instinctively and involuntarily national, perhaps because nationalism was a growing force when the novel entered its dominant period.
But the novel’s brand of nationalism is not a simple matter. It often seems to contradict or undermine the national archetype. John Bull and Jane Austen have nothing very obviously in common. Yet there is a certain logic in the fact that the novel in Poland should concern itself with philosophical and metaphysical questions, with the question, “What should we do, if?”—with extreme situations, hypothetical or actual. Poland’s very existence, historically, might seem to depend on such a query. Being Polish has often in the past been a state of mind and spirit rather than a matter of topographical belonging. Conrad remained haunted by the fact that he had “jumped”: that like his own Lord Jim he had abandoned ship, in his case the native country. It made him a novelist who asked the basic questions—How does one survive? By what does one live? His nationality, put into works of fiction, expressed itself in abstract terms. Life, the destructive element, had to assume in his novels the plots and places that fiction requires, but its cold reality cannot be localized, even in relation to the sea. No wonder he could not understand Jane Austen, for whom a house, a village, a family, were the essential beginning and end of any fictional enterprise.
Polish fiction is of course rich and various, but it may be that all of it is at least touched by the ultimate bareness and extremity of intellectual perception that is so marked in Conrad. Aleksander Wat, one of the most original Polish writers of the postwar era, gave his own fantastic version of it in Lucifer Unemployed, a series of wholly bizarre stories first published in Warsaw in 1927. The second, “Kings in Exile,” begins with a sentence that might make us think we are back in the sea world of Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus. “The first mate of the English ship Cromwell peered at the horizon….” But in another second we are engulfed in an anarchic world in which nothing makes sense even though all the ingredients seem familiar and recognizable, the sort of world which surrealists and futurists had perceived as coming into objective existence after the chaos of the Great War. Wat was one of the writers who rose to the challenge and tried to find his own correlative fictional world to express what had happened.
He wrote about the nature of that world in My …
God’s Playground October 25, 1990