The Doll, by Bolesław Prus
A few months ago I decided to make The Doll my main October read. I've been looking forward to it for a while, and it did not disappoint. Now that it's been nearly two weeks since I read it, I hope I can still say some good things!
Bolesław Prus (IRL Aleksander Głowacki) 1847-1912, was a Polish journalist and novelist. From what I can tell, he is still one of the great 19th century Polish names, and The Doll is widely read. There is actually very little about a doll in the novel; Prus would have liked to call it Three Generations to highlight the main theme. Instead, this is a story of Polish society.
Stuck between decadent, useless aristocrats who waste money, and a huge population of hard-working people who are live so close to the edge that minor disasters are enough to ruin lives, Poland cannot seem to progress. The three men of the story (well two mainly, plus a minor one) are of three generations. All are idealists, but against the background of a degenerating society, nothing they do has any staying power. Prus is not an optimist about the future of Poland.
The oldest, Rzecki, is a humble shop assistant and former soldier--an ardent Bonapartist who awaits the day when the young Napoleon IV will take control and fix everything. He is such a nice person--and comic-- but nothing that he predicts ever comes to pass.
Wolkulski is the main focus of the novel. He is of common stock, but his romantic love of a young society beauty has spurred him to make an enormous fortune. Now he is the pre-eminent business man of Warsaw, and the aristocrats invite him to dinner, but of course they do not accept him as one of themselves. Wolkulski is a great believer in practical economic help for his country; he helps many poor people to get started in business or good jobs, but he is always looking for something different than what he has. His adoration of Izabela changes him deeply.
Ochocki is the youngest, and doesn't appear as much. He is semi-aristocratic, but has no interest in high society; he cares only for scientific progress. He is certain that his inventions can change the world for the better.
The Doll has a large cast of people from all walks of life, and they're all interesting to read about, each with their own life story. Some are awful; some serve as comic relief. Others point out problems on the horizon; as the novel progresses, so does anti-Semitism in Polish society become more prominent and threatening. I also thought it was really interesting to see a novel in which one main character is an elderly man, and the other is middle-aged. I don't recall reading a lot of stories like that.
I really found this to be a fascinating novel. Good stuff. If you are looking for classic European literature, this should go on the list. Prus' other most famous novel is called Pharaoh, and while it's a historical novel about ancient Egypt, it's also all about modern politics. I would quite like to read it some day.
Dwight at A Common Reader read The Doll last year, and wrote a whole series of great posts on it. Head over there for some nice analysis.