Friday, May 11, 2012

The Doll: the enchanted world of Izabela

As I mentioned in the previous post on The Doll Izabela Łęcki, love of Stanisław Wokulski, seems to be more of a caricature than many more-rounded central characters Prus includes in the novel. The author still provides plenty of enjoyment during her appearances such as this extended quote, introducing her and providing some of her background. In addition to showing her as accustomed to the finer things in her insular life, it explains what it takes for “ordinary mortals” to penetrate such a world. Implied here is the decay and stagnation of the upper classes, made more explicit later in the book. This unreal world of the upper classes is a staple in many novels but I particularly liked Prus’ imaginative take on it:
From her cradle, Izabela had lived in a beautiful world that was not only superhuman but even supernatural. For she slept in feathers, dressed in silks and satins, sat on carved and polished ebony or rosewood, drank from crystal, ate from silver and porcelain as costly as gold.

The seasons of the year did not exist for her, only an everlasting spring full of soft light, living flowers and perfumes. The times of day did not exist for her either, since for whole months at a time she would go to bed at eight in the morning and dine at two at night. There was no difference in geographical location, since in Paris, Vienna, Rome, Berlin or London she would find the same people, the same manners, the same objects and even the same food—soups from Pacific seaweed, oysters from the North Sea, fist from the Atlantic or Mediterranean, animals from every country, fruits from all parts of the globe. For her, even the force of gravity did not exist, since her chairs were placed for her, plates were handed, she herself was driven in carriages through the streets, conducted inside, helped upstairs.

A veil shielded her from the wind, a carriage from the rain, furs from the cold, a parasol and gloves from the sun. And thus she lived from day to day, month to month, year to year, above other people and even above the laws of nature. Twice in her life she experienced a terrible storm, once in the Alps, later in the Mediterranean. The bravest shrank in terror, but Izabela smiled as she listed to the thunder of the battering waves and the shuddering of the boat, never even considering the danger. Nature was staging a splendid spectacle for her, with thunderbolts, waves and chaos, just as on another occasion it had shown her the moon over the Lake of Geneva, or had drawn aside clouds veiling the sun over a Rhine waterfall. For mechanics in the theatre did the same every day, and even nervous ladies were not alarmed.

This world of everlasting spring, where silks rustled, only sculptured trees grew and where clay was covered with artistic paintings—this world had its own population. Its proper inhabitants were wealthy aristocrats of both sexes. It also included wealthy women and married men who played hosts, matrons who watched over elegant manners and behavior, and elderly gentlemen who took their place at the top table, spoke kindly to young people, blessed them and played cards. There were also bishops, the likenesses of God in this world, high officials whose presence protected this world from disturbances and earthquakes, and finally there were children, little angels sent from Heaven so that their elders could arrange Kinderbale.

Amidst the permanent population of this enchanted world an ordinary mortal would sometimes appear, who had succeeded in reaching the heights of Olympus on the wings of fame. He might be an engineer who had linked two oceans or drilled through mountains, or a captain who had lost his entire company in a battle with savages and, although gravely wounded, had himself been spared by the love of a Negro princess. He might be a traveler who was said to have discovered a new part of the globe, had been shipwrecked on a desert island and even tasted human flesh.

There were also eminent painters and in particular there were inspired poets who wrote charming verses in the albums of the princesses, poets who might fall hopelessly in love and render the charms of their cruel goddess immortal, first in the newspapers then in slim volumes printed on vellum.

All these people, among whom there carefully moved a crowd of uniformed footmen, female companions, poor cousins and relatives seeking promotion—all these people were on a permanent holiday.

From midday they visited one another and returned visits, or drove to the shops. In the evenings, they amused themselves before, at and after dinner. Then they drove to a concert or the theatre, there to see another artificial world, in which heroes rarely ate or worked, but frequently talked to themselves, where the infidelity of a woman caused tremendous catastrophes and where a lover, slain by the husband in Act Five, would rise from the dead next day to perpetrate the same mistakes and talk to himself without being heard by the person standing next to him. On leaving the theatre, they gathered in drawing-rooms again, and servants carried cold or warm drinks about, artistes sang, young married ladies listened to the wounded captain talk about his Negro princess, unmarried young ladies talked to the poets about affinities of the soul, elderly gentlemen gave the engineers their views on engineering and middle-aged ladies fought one another with hints and glances for the sake of the traveler who had eaten human flesh. They they sat down to supper, at which mouths ate, stomachs digested and little shoes under the table talked about the feelings of frozen hearts and the dreams of unfeeling heads. Then they would separate, to regain their strength for the dream of life in real sleep.

Outside this enchanted world was yet another world—the ordinary one.

The moments Izabela (Miss Łęcka) escape caricature revolve around the glimpses of her inner life because, if for no other reason, her desires and fantasies can be bizarre. Her dreams often portray troubling violence around her while she moves unmolested. At times she venerates the statue of Apollo in her room, imbuing it with the looks of the actor or musician she adores. She envisions herself surrounded by such types while retaining Wokulski as a love-struck confidant and adviser. Such dreams and fantasies struck me as adolescent, especially in contrast to her correct navigation through the wiles and mazes of her aristocratic social life. But then this contrast was meant to be, as hers is just one of many examples in the novel of the chasm between appearances (or dreams) and reality.

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