It’s probably the best book I’ve read over the past six months, and I have quite a lot of disparate thoughts to share, so I’ll organize this review in bullet points, but will try to give it some semblance of order.
1. I’ve read this book in Polish, and what a pleasure it was! But from what I’ve read, the English translation by Agnieszka Kołakowska is really good; you can read the sample chapter here: http://www.antoni-libera.pl/node/58 . It doesn’t make me as blissed out as the original, but it seems to have received high praise – see this piece from Washington Post - http://www.antoni-libera.pl/node/163 - so please don’t abandon the idea of reading it in translation).
2. The teenage narrator plays a sleuth, trying to discover as much as possible about his French teacher and madame la directrice
, and while doing so, learns the implication of being an adult in post-Stalinist Poland. (The question “Don’t you know where you live?” is repeated throughout the novel as a peculiar refrain.) It’s not a love story, but an exploration of class issues in a supposedly class-less society.
3. The narrator and the convention in which the story is told might require getting used to. The first edition of Madame
was subtitled ‘an educational romance’, and it is very obviously a Bildungsroman, in which I see some similarities to examples of the genre from the first three decades of the 20th century. It is, simply, quite traditional (including trademark naiveté, schoolgirl-like descriptions of the way characters are dressed, and character’s firm belief in being a special snowflake), but it’s a pleasure to read once you get the convention. The narrator redefines precociousness – yet I found him scaringly easy to identify with. Interestingly, he seems to be completely uninterested in his parents, and is mentored by their friend, a fine specimen of Polish intelligentsia.
4. The book touches on subjects such as inner emigration, the survival of intelligentsia in the Communist regime, and determinism (to what degree we are formed by the place where we were born). It also nails what it means to be a foreign philologist in a hostile/ arrogant/ suffering from inferiority-posterity complex milieu
5. My only real issue with the book, and what makes it less than truly great, is that it is too overwrought. It’s very tightly planned, very allusive, very structured; the author, to some degree, relies on crutches - vignettes illustrating the autodidactic education of the young narrator in history, literature, visual arts. Formulating remarks on Racine, Picasso, Lelouch, Beckett, Hoerderlin allows the narrator to distance himself from his feelings and understand the world of adults, their motives and passions.
6. It is so refreshing to read a novel about the plight of the Polish intelligentsia which doesn't mention Katyń http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katyn_massacre , the Warsaw Uprising http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising or even concentration camps – all too familiar Stations of the Cross of Polish martyrology. Instead, we get an insight into Spanish Civil War, and since I knew nothing about Polish involvement in it, I can’t judge the book’s historical accuracy, but found the subject interesting (Libera says he was informed by Orwell’s writings). The main portion of the novel precedes March 1968 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Polish_political_crisis).
7. It is, above all, an exploration of language. The language of students, communist propaganda, post-Stalinist era education, and pre-war intelligentsia.
8. I love how Libera shows how the seeds of our interest and adult achievements are planted when we are in our teens.
9. I found some scenes unrealistic. I can understand the narrator had access to all the non-mainstream books he needed, but in my experience, educators rarely share their thoughts on inner workings of their schools/ institutions with high school students (on the second thought, I knew some bitter librarians...)
10. If you read Polish, consider reading these reviews http://www.antoni-libera.pl/node/122 and interviews with Libera http://www.antoni-libera.pl/node/16