Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Doll: Mr. Rzecki is in charge of appraisals

Ignacy Rzecki, oldest of the main characters and intended to represent the older, Romantic generation easily became my favorite character of the novel. The excerpts from his journal provide the reader flashbacks to important events in his as well as showing some of Wokulski’s formative years. During the Hungarian revolution of 1848 Rzecki and friends joined a revolutionary army fighting the Austrian armies. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post the chapter on the fighting in which he was involved is one of the best battle scenes I’ve read in literature. Rzecki constantly looks back on his younger days and the glory he earned from the fighting as well as his the loss of his Jewish friend Katz during that war.

Rzecki proves to be a comical figure or, maybe better said, provides comic relief. He is always the last person to find out about something, his assumptions or guesses about what will happen inevitably turns out wrong. This “gift” is something to keep in mind when trying to figure out what happens to Wokulski at the end of the novel—it’s a safe bet to choose the opposite of Rzecki’s opinion. Rzecki devotes his life to Wokulski and the shop, watching the younger man’s rise and admiring his talents. The other major figures in Rzecki’s life are the Bonapartes and when Napoleon III’s son, Prince Loulou, is reported dead fighting in Africa for English troops, Rzecki’s despondency is just as great as when Wokulski sells his shop. Rzecki ages quickly after these two losses and is the subject of a beautiful, moving final scene. The excerpts below are taken from chapters that quote Rzecki’s journal.

While lamenting Wokulski’s single status and how he should take a wife, he notes the interest many of the local citizens have in attracting his attention for just such a purpose (as well as providing an example of the tongue-in-cheek humor of the novel):
Dozens of such suitors pass through our store. Some mothers, aunts or fathers simply bring their eligible young ladies to us. The mother, aunt or father will buy something for a rouble, and meanwhile the young lady walks about the store, sits down, shows off her figure, puts forward her right foot, then her left, displays her hands…All with the aim of trapping Staś [Wokulski], who, more often than not, isn’t even in the store, or—if he is—doesn’t even look at the property, as much to say: “Mr. Rzecki is in charge of appraisals…”
(page 121, ellipses in original)

The following excerpt focuses on two types of relationships Rzecki mulls over often—with women and with Jews:

Only on one point do the old and the new gentlemen agree, and here Zięba is even a help—in teasing our seventh clerk, Szlangbaum. This Szlangbaum (I have known him for years) is of the Hebraic persuasion, but an honest fellow for all that. Small, dark, bent, unshaven—in a word, you would not give tuppence for him when he sits at the cash desk. But as soon as a customer comes in (Szlangbaum works in the department of Russian textiles), good gracious, how he twirls like a top! Now he is at the highest shelf on the right, now at the lowest of the left. When he begins hurling rolls of cloth about, he resembles a steam-engine rather than a man; when he begins unfolding and measuring, I think he has three pairs of hands. Also he is a born salesman, and when he starts recommending goods, making suggestions, guessing taste, all in an exceedingly grave tone, then I give my word that not even Mraczewski comes anywhere near him. It is too bad, though, that he is so small and plain; we shall have to get him a stupid but handsome young man as assistant with the ladies. For although it is true that ladies linger longer with a handsome clerk, yet they also complain and bargain less. (Heaven protect us from lady customers! Perhaps I lost my taste for marriage by seeing ladies in the shop all the time. The Creator, when he formed that miracle of Nature known as Woman, cannot have realized the misfortune He would bring down upon tradesmen.)

Thus, though Szlangbaum is a decent citizen in the fullest sense, yet no one likes him since he has the misfortune to be a Hebrew… In general, I have noticed over the last year or two that dislike of the Hebrews is increasing; even people who, a few years ago, called them Poles of the Mosaic persuasion, now call them Jews. And those who recently admired their hard work, their persistence and their talents, today only see their exploitation and deceit.

When I hear such things, I sometimes think a spiritual twilight is falling on mankind, like night. By day all is nice, cheerful and good; at night, all is dark and dangerous. I think this, but can say nothing; for what does the opinion of an old clerk matter in the face of well-known journalists who can prove that Jews use Christian blood on their matzos, and should have their rights restricted. The bullets overhead, Katz, whistled a different tune…
(pages 135 – 136, ellipsis in original)

For the final section I’ll pick some miscellaneous quotes from Chapter XXXV (still a part of Rzecki’s journal) since it highlights many common themes of novel:

Somehow, my health isn’t what it should be. I won’t say that anything ails me, but there it is…I can’t do much walking, I’ve no appetite, I don’t even feel very much like writing. Ini the store, I have hardly anything to do, for Szlangbaum rules there, and I remain only to deal with Staś’s affairs. By October Szlangbaum will have paid us off entirely. I shall not be poor, for honest Staś assured me fifteen hundred a year for life; but when a man thinks that soon he will not mean anything in the sotre, that he won’t have the rights to anything… Life isn’t worth living…If it weren’t for Staś and young Napoleon, this earth is sometimes so painful to me that I could do away with myself…Who knows, my old colleague Katz, that you didn’t act for the best? True, you have no hopes, but you don’t fear disappointments wither. I won’t say that I do, for after all, neither Wokulski nor Bonaparte…But, all the same…How tired I am; already it’s hard for me even to write. I’d gladly travel somewhere…Good God, for twenty years I haven’t been beyond the Warsaw toll-gates! And sometimes I have a great yearning to visit Hungary once more before I die…Perhaps I’d find the bones of my comrades on those former battlefields. Ah, Katz! Do you remember the smoke, the bullets, the signals? How green the grass was, and how the sun shone!
(pages 587-8, ellipsis in original)

I must be off…away! If only Klein [a young clerk] doesn’t get mixed up in some foolishness. It’s terrible how childish they [the younger generation]are; they’d like to rebuild the world, but at the same time they perform such silly antics.
(page 594, ellipsis in original)

Brr! So I left. I bought a ticket to Cracow, got into the train at the Warsaw-Vienna railroad station and then, after the third departure bell had rung, I jumped out again. I can’t leave Warsaw and the store even for a little while. I got my luggage back from the railroad on the next day, it had gone as far as Piltrków. If all my plans go like this, I must congratulate myself.
(page 596)

Note: all page numbers refer to the first edition of the Central European University Press version of Bolesław Prus' The Doll (Hungary, 1996).


Isabella K said...

I really liked Rzecki, too. The way he thinks the shop will fall apart without him, and his obsession with Napoleon — such earnestness!

Dwight said...

His cluelessness is fun to watch, too. I love how he assumes Wokulski has all these motives behind his actions, assigning him much more rational reasons than is really there.

I wonder how much we're supposed to infer from his dedication to both Napoleon and Wokulski?