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Zofia Nałkowska: Granica (Boundary)
Zofia Nałkowska is barely known in the English-speaking world, despite the fact that four of her novels and one of her short story collections has been translated. This novel, the fourth to be translated into English, is considered a classic in Poland, and we must be grateful that Northern Illinois University Press have published it in English. It is a pity that we have to had to wait eighty years for it. However, it was worth the wait.
We know more or less what is going to happen from the first paragraph of the book. Zenon Ziembiewicz has clearly died, presumably murdered, by a woman initially only identified as Bogutówna (her surname), though who we later learn is called Justyna Bogutówna. We learn that she is the daughter of a widow who had worked as a cook in a local manor house. The mother had died and Justyna had worked for a sick woman before getting two different jobs as a saleswoman, thanks to the intervention of Zenon Ziembiewicz’s wife. She had left both jobs, though it was not clear why. The novel, of course, is about what led to this tragic event.
Zenon Ziembiewicz was the son of Walerian Ziembiewicz, an incompetent womaniser, working as the overseer at the local Boleborza estate. He claimed that his family descended from the minor nobility. Though Walerian Ziembiewicz was nominally the overseer, Zenon makes the discovery, when he is a bit older, that his father actually did nothing all day, except wander around, drink, womanise and shout at people. Zenon, who is a serious young man, is ashamed of both of his parents.
As well as following the events of Zenon Ziembiewicz and his family, we also follow the story of Elżbieta Biecka, Zenon’s future wife. She is fifteen when we first meet her. She lives with her aunt, Cecylia Kolichowska, an elderly lady who is twice a widow. Her first husband, a socialist, by whom she had a son, Karol, had left her and emigrated. She learned of his suicide by reading about it in the paper. We learn more of this later in the novel. Her second husband was far worse. He, too, was a womaniser. He was also very controlling, not letting her go out or have friends and checking up on her all the time. Since his death, she had run the house and converted all of it into flats. She and Elżbieta lived upstairs in a nice flat. The cellars had been converted into flats for the poorer people, many of whom struggled and some of whom paid little or no rent, with the kind-hearted Elżbieta defending them. Elżbieta’s mother had run off with her lover, whom she had later – much later – married and gone to Paris.
The house very much becomes a symbol of the situation in Poland. The well-to-do live comfortably upstairs while the poor live in almost squalor downstairs. In many cases, several people are crowded into one flat. Elżbieta later comments on this to Zenon. In the course of the past three years three children have died under this floor. She goes on to mention the old mother who had arrived from the country and who had cancer and the brother of the younger woman who was now living there having lost his job at the factory. Elżbieta, who is well aware of it, as she has to register each coming and going with the authorities, is horrified by it. Zenon, however, is indifferent as he did not feel in any way to blame for this state of affairs.
Zenon had been in love with Elżbieta since he was fifteen and had visited the house often. Elżbieta, however, was in love with Captain Awaczewicz the only real thing in her life. Despite this, she is adamant that she will never marry and her devotion to the Captain is remote, to the extent that she almost dreads coming into close proximity with him. When he tries to kiss her, she is repelled and pushes him away.
Justyna appears in Zenon’s life when her mother is hired by the Tcwewskis, owner of the Boleborza estate where Walerian Ziembiewicz works. Karolina Bogutowa, Justyna’s mother, had health problems so had had to leave previous jobs and had only been given this job because the previous cook was a drunkard. Soon after, Zenon had gone to Paris to study with Karol, son of Cecylia Kolichowska. There he had met Adele. As with most romantic relationships in this book Zenon’s treatment of Adele is hardly exemplary. She is ill and, indeed, will soon die. He does not love her but she considers her love for him sufficient. On his (temporary) return home, he keeps seeing Justyna, falls for her and starts an affair with her (though Adele is still alive at this point). They become lovers. Meanwhile, again like many of the men in this book, he is attracted to another woman, Elżbieta, and frequently visits her. He sees no contradiction in his actions. (Men! say Cecylia Kolichowska and her friends. A lower breed of humanity, an animal species you had to subdue, subjugate, break in, know how to keep hold of. You sacrificed your whole life to it, the whole intelligence of your feelings, the entire ingenuity of your instincts, creating a new psychological discipline, full of injunctions, norms, rules – all to no avail.)
Zenon goes back to Paris, getting help from a local rich man. He finishes his course and, when he returns, the local rich man gives him a job as editor of the local newspaper, Niwa, which, according to the excellent footnotes, means something like Open Field. He means to finish the affair with Justyna, but one last fling results in her getting pregnant. Meanwhile, he is clearly planning to marry Elżbieta and is becoming more right-wing in his views.
First and foremost, this is a feminist novel, Indeed, Nałkowska has been compared to Virginia Woolf in her feminist approach. Most of those that suffer in this book are women, often at the hands of violent, drunkard, irresponsible and/or womanising men. The quote above shows the attitude of many of the women in the book towards men and, presumably, at least to some degree the attitude of Zofia Nałkowska herself (she was twice divorced). It is also a political novel, criticising the treatment of the working class. Zenon, while editor of the paper, does what he can to assist the rich men and propagate their views, while ignoring the views of the poor (often to Elżbieta’s disgust). While the leading characters are probably Zenon and Elżbieta, the most interesting is Justyna, partially a victim of her own behaviour but, as Nałkowska shows, a victim of life and a victim of men. Zenon essentially deserts her at her hour of need and, though he does help her later, it is a case of too little, too late. She cannot cope with her life, with her fate and, above all, with the loss of her child and her mother.
Zofia Nałkowska has written a first-class novel. Her rich descriptions are beautifully done. The episode where Cecylia Kolichowska has all her old female friends around and Elżbieta is serving them tea and cake and observing them is wonderfully done. They were excessively fat or exaggeratedly thin, shrivelled and swollen, silver-haired or balding, attired in dignified black dresses from various epochs… wan and strangely fragrant and They were dreadful, yet entirely innocent of how they were. Above all, she writes with great sympathy about the poorer people and, above all, the women, who suffer at the hands of men, without being overly sentimental or vicious. It is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a pity and, indeed, amazing that we have had to wait over eighty year to read it in English and we should be grateful that we can now do so. We must also be grateful to Ursula Phillips, the translator of this and other Polish novels for giving us both a superb translation as well as detailed and very helpful footnotes and a most useful afterword.
First published 1935 by Gebethner i Wolff
First English translation 2016 by Northern Illinois University Press
Translated by Ursula Phillips