Madameby Antoni Libera, Agnieszka Kolakowska (Translator), Agnieszka Kolakowska (Translator)
The comic "sentimental education" of a schoolboy who falls in love with his French teacher. Madame is an unexpected gem: a novel about Poland during the grim years of Soviet-controlled mediocrity, which nonetheless sparkles with light and warmth.
Our young narrator-hero is suffering through the regulated boredom of high school when he is transfixed by a new
The comic "sentimental education" of a schoolboy who falls in love with his French teacher. Madame is an unexpected gem: a novel about Poland during the grim years of Soviet-controlled mediocrity, which nonetheless sparkles with light and warmth.
Our young narrator-hero is suffering through the regulated boredom of high school when he is transfixed by a new teacher --an elegant "older woman" (she is thirty-two) who bewitches him with her glacial beauty and her strict intelligence. He resolves to learn everything he can about her and to win her heart.
In a sequence of marvelously funny but sobering maneuvers, he learns much more than he expected to--about politics, Poland, the Spanish Civil War, and his own passion for theater and art--all while his loved one continues to elude him. Yet without his realizing it, his efforts--largely bookish and literary--to close in on Madame are his first steps to liberation as an artist. Later, during a stint as a teacher-in-training in his old school, he discovers that he himself has become a legendary figure to a new generation of students, and he begins to understand the deceits and blessings of myth, and its redemptive power.
A winning portrait of an artist as a young man, Madame is at the same time a moving, engaging novel about strength and weakness, first love, and the efforts we make to reconcile, in art, the opposing forces of reason and passion.
The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
Those Were the Days!
For many years I used to think I had been born too late. Fascinating times, extraordinary events, exceptional peopleall these, I felt, were things of the past, gone for good.
In my early childhood, in the 1950s, the "great epochs" for me were above all the 1930s and the years of the war. I saw the latter as an age of heroic, almost titanic struggle when the fate of the world hung in the balance, the former as a golden age of carefree oblivion when the world, as if set aglow by the gentle light of a setting sun, gave itself up to pleasure and innocent folly.
Later, some time in the early 1960s, I realized I had come to see the Stalinist period, only just over, as another such "great era." True, I had lived through part of it myself, but as a child too young to appreciate its malevolent power; and although I was well aware that, like the war, it was a nightmarish time, a time of degeneration and crime and collective madness, still it imposed itself on my mindjust because it was so extremeas something unique, almost out of this world. And I felt a strange regret that I had been denied the chance to experience it in full, had scarcely brushed against it, confined as I was then to a view from the stroller, the nursery, and the little garden on the edge of town. The wild orgies of slaughter indulged in by the authorities of that time, the demented trances that gripped thousands of people, the tumult and delirious ravingsall this reached me only as a distant echo, faint and quite beyond my comprehension.
My sense of late arrival was not limited to the sphere of history. It had occasion to emerge in a rich variety of contexts, on a smaller, almost miniature scale.
Take, for example, my first piano lessons. My teacher was a dignified elderly lady, her family landed gentry, her own student days spent in Paris, London, and Vienna in the 1920s. And here I am, on day one, already listening to reminiscences about the glorious past, the days of great talents and great masters, the speed at which pupils used to learn, the delight taken in music, how splendid it all was then and now how hopeless.
"Bach, Beethoven, Schubert ... and above all, above all, that wonder of nature, that example of perfection incarnate, that divinityMozart! The day he came into the world should be celebrated like the birth of Christ. The twenty-seventh of January, 1756: remember that date! There are no geniuses like that now. And music nowadaysoh, it's not even worth discussing. Waste of breath. It's finished. A barren wasteland, a desert."
Or take chess. The game caught my interest, and after a few years of solitary practice I joined a club to develop my skills. There were just a few of usa little group of teenage enthusiasts. Our instructor, a degenerate pre-war intellectual partial to the bottle, had us practice various openings and endgames, and showed us how such-and-such a game should be played. Sometimes, after making a move, he would suddenly interrupt his demonstration and ask, "Do you know who thought up this move? Who was the first to play like this?"
Naturally, no one knows. This is just what the instructor has been waiting for, and he launches into a so-called educational digression: "Capablanca. In 1925, at a tournament in London. I hope you all know who Capablanca was ..."
"Umm ... he was a master," someone mumbles.
"A Master!" He sneers at the hopeless inadequacy of this response. "I'm a Master, too. He was the Master, the absolute Master! A genius! One of the greatest chessplayers the world has ever known. A virtuoso of the positional game! They don't make them like that anymore. They don't have tournaments like that anymore. Chess has gone to the dogs."
"But what about Botvinnik, Petrosian, Tal?" someone ventures; these were the stars of Soviet chess at the time.
Our instructor's face twists into a scowl of unutterable disapproval. Then he lapses into a gloomy reverie.
"No, no," he says finally, with an expression of distaste verging on disgust, "that's not the same thing at all. That's nothing compared to the way chess used to be played, to what chess players used to be. Lasker, Alekhine, Retinow they were true giants. They had the divine spark. They were capricious, they were spontaneous, they were full of wit and flair and élan: true Renaissance types. In their day chess was still the game of kings! But now ... it's just a waste of time. Competitions between windup automatons."
Or take another example: mountain climbing. I must have been about thirteen when a friend of my parents', a seasoned mountaineer, took me up into the Tatras for what was to be my first real climb. I'd been to Zakopane before, but my experience there as a tourist had been confined to stays in comfortable pensions and low-land walks in the valleys and pastures. This time I was to stay in a real mountain shelter and climb real mountains.
And here I was at last, with my experienced guide, in the very heart of the Tatras, in a hostel of almost legendary fame. Our lodgings weren't too bad, as we'd had the foresight to reserve a double well ahead. But the food situation was worse: queues for meals were endless. Trips to the bathroom involved similar difficulties. These obstacles and indignities overcome, we finally set off. There, ahead of us, is the trail, and there, at last, the long-awaited encounter with the majesty of silent peaks and vast empty spaces. But the longed-for peace and emptiness are disturbed at every turn by hordes of screaming schoolchildren, our contemplation of surging peaks and plunging abysses made impossible by the singing and collective clamor of tour groups going down "Lenin's trail." And my seasoned guide, in his dark-green Windcheater, thick brown cords tied at the knees with special bindings, thick woolen checked socks, knee-high and tight, and well-worn, lovingly cared for French hiking boots, perches himself gracefully on a rock and launches into this bitter lament:
"So much for the mountains! So much for mountaineering! Even this they've managed to wreck. Everywhere you go, you come up against these damn pests. Mass tourismwhoever heard of such a thing? What's the point of it? It was different before the war. You arrived, and the first thing you did after you got off the train was to stock up: buckwheat, noodles, bacon, tea, sugar, onionsnot very refined, perhaps, but cheap and dependable. Then you went on to Roztoka or Morskie Oko, either on foot or in one of those small open-roofed vans that made the trip whenever enough people wanted to gonever by coach! There was a family atmosphere about that shelter at Roztoka, and the best thing was that nobody was therefifteen people at most. That was the base camp; you'd strike off from there, sometimes for a few days, sleeping rough in shepherds' huts and, higher up, under the rocks. That's what it's about, after all: silence and solitude, being alone with Nature and with your thoughts. You feel as if you were alone in the world, in a place where earth meets sky, touching the heavens, the cosmos ... floating somewhere above the rest of civilization. But just try and do that now, with these asses all over the place. Tours; coach trips; `guides,' they call themselves. Lowlanders! A circus, that's what it isa travesty. It's sickening."
For years this kind of sneering at the hopelessness of the present and nostalgic sighing for a glorious past rang in my ears as an almost daily refrain. So when I took my place, at the age of fourteen, in the classroom where I was to spend my last four years of school, I was not surprised to hear variations on the same theme. Now they took the form of paeans of praise to former pupils.
During lessons the teachers would sometimes stray from the subject to reminisce about some of these old students and their doings. The personalities were invariably very colorful and their antics quite fantastic. But you would be wrong to suppose that these accounts took the form of edifying parables about exemplary pupils or cautionary tales about rogues miraculously reformed: nothing was further from the truth. The protagonists may have been exceptional, but they could hardly be called sweet or angelic; the features that made them exceptional did not rank high in any catalogue of student virtues. They were intractable, unruly, and insubordinate, occasionally insulting and provocative; they had an inflated sense of their own worth; they exuded boldness and independence; they were headstrong, willful, and proud; and they went their own way. But they all dazzled with their talenta stupendous memory or a beautiful voice, brilliance or wit or a first-class brainthey all had something extraordinary. It was hard to believe, listening to those stories, that the events described had really taken place, especially since the teachers, in recounting their charges' outrageous antics, not only failed to allow so much as a note of condemnation to creep into their narratives but, indeed, seemed to find in the retelling, and in the whiff of scandal that often tinged it, a kind of nostalgic relish, even a certain pride, as if fortune had singled them out for a special honor in allowing them to witness something so far removed from the ordinary.
But of course there was a moral. In all these piquant, apparently iconoclastic tales of nonchalant bravado lurked a far less pleasant message. It was a warning, and it went more or less like this: "The fact that such things once happened does not mean they will continue to happen. In particular, it does not mean that anything of the sort can be allowed to happen in this class. Those years, those people, were exceptional, unique. Now they're gone, and nothing about them has anything to do with you. Remember that: don't even think of trying to emulate them. You'd come to a dismal end."
This attitude was one with which I was all too familiar, but in this case I could not come to terms with it. Yes, the world was once a richer, more interesting, more vivid placeof that I had no doubt. I was also prepared to believe that musicians, and artists in general, were greater in the past. I could concede, although less willingly, that mountain climbing was once a nobler activity than it is now and that the royal game of chess had masters more worthy of it. But school? Was I really supposed to believe that even pupils were better in the past? Nothis idea I could not accept.
It's just not possible, I thought, that all this grayness and mediocrity around me is irrevocable; it can't be entirely beyond redemption. After all, the way things are also depends on me: I can influence reality; I, too, can create it. In which case, it's time to act. Time to launch myself into something. Let something happen: let something start, once again, to happen! Let the old times return, and with them the great heroes, in new incarnations!
The Modern Jazz Quartet
One legend that inspired me in those days was the legend of jazz, especially Polish jazz. Its heroes were teddy boys, daring challengers of the Stalinist morals of the day; the notorious and fascinating writer "Leo" Tyrmand, "renegade" and libertine, indefatigable promoter of jazz as the music of freedom and independence; and the leaders of the first Polish jazz ensembles, with their rich, colorful lives, their often brilliant careers, their trips to the West, even, sometimes, to the mecca itselfthe United States of America. This was the world that made up the legend. My head teemed with images of smoke-filled student clubs and cellars, of heady all-night jam sessions, and beyond them, in a Warsaw still in ruins, still not rebuilt, of deserted streets at dawn, when the jazzmen emerged from their underground lairs as if from bomb shelters, deathly tired and strangely sad. There was a magical quality to these visions, an obscure, haunting charm that made me ache to experience something similar.
I didn't hesitate long. I rounded up some friends who, like me, took music lessons and were competent on some instrument, and persuaded them to form a jazz band. We put together a quartetpiano, trumpet, percussion, and double bassand began to rehearse. We met after classes, in the school gym. Alas, our rehearsals had very little in common with the stuff of my dreams. Instead of intoxicating clouds of cigarette smoke, alcoholic fumes, and French perfume, we were wreathed in a sickly lug of adolescent sweat, lingering from the last PE session; instead of the bohemian atmosphere of half-lit, crowded cellars, redolent of decadence, we had the ambiance of a dingy gym in the harsh light of early afternoon or the cadaverous glow of the ceiling lights. Rows of ladders fixed to the wall, barred windows, and a bare and endless stretch of floor, wobbling in places underfoot because some of the boards had come loose, and ornamented only by a lone leather vaulting-horsethese were our stage and backdrop. Our playing, too, fell short of the artistry of the famous ensembles: we experienced no legendary trances, no Dionysian frenzies, none of that divine fluency and blind improvisatory exhilaration. The most you could say was that we had more or less mastered a skill; we were competent at best.
I told myself not to worry: it was always like that at the beginning; our time would surely come. And to boost my morale I imagined us dazzling the audience at some future concert or school party, bringing them to their knees in admiration, my own brilliant solo greeted with storms of applause and cries of enthusiasm as I, without taking my hands from the keyboard, turned confidently to the audience to nod a nonchalant thanks and in that brief second saw all the school beauties raptly gazing at me with adoring eyes.
After a few months of rehearsing we had a big enough repertoire to play for well over two hours, and decided the time was ripe for our first performance. But here we encountered an unexpected obstacle. It turned out that the idea of a school jazz club, performing on weekends, say, was one the school authorities would not even consider: to permit such a thing would be tantamount, they were convinced, to colluding in the scandalous transformation of a respectable educational institution into a place of entertainment and from there, inevitably, into a den of iniquity. The students, for their part, refused to consider allowing the Modern Jazz Quartet, as we called ourselves, to play at the three annual school dances: at carnival, or the ball held a hundred days before graduation, or the senior prom. Rock `n' roll was by then a star in the ascendant, the Beatles and similar groups were in the early days of their triumph, and this was the only kind of music teenagers wanted to listen and dance to.
Given this state of affairs, our one chance of performing (and even this the school authorities considered a magnanimous concession) was at school ceremoniesstiff, tedious, soulless affairs full of bombast and pompous rhetoric. To agree to such conditions was to accept a compromise that bordered on a betrayal of all our hopes and ambitionsespecially since it was stressed that if we chose to accept the offer, we must play in a "quiet and cultured manner": "none of those barbaric rhythms" and "none of that foul caterwauling." Thus we were reduced to providing "musical interludes" at official school functionswhich rejoiced, among all of us, in the most dismal reputation.
In the end, our role in these events was more grotesque than ignominious, more farce than defeat. We played what we wanted, but the context was absurd. For instance, "Georgia" came on the heels of a histrionic collective rendition of Mayakovsky's "Left Forward," and blues followed the recital, in a series of hysterical shrieks, of verses depicting the horrifying plight of workers in America, where, it was confidently stated, "each day some unemployed / jump headlong from the bridge / into the Hudson." The whole thing, in short, was preposterous, and everyone, the audience as well as ourselves, felt this. How, in such conditions, could one even entertain the illusion that one was creating History or participating in momentous events?
Once a small flame of hope did briefly appear. But it flickered for only an instant, and the circumstances were exceptional.
* * *
We were indulged with various diversions in those days, and one of the most tedious was the annual festival of school choirs and vocal groups. It always took place, according to the rule, in the school whose group had won the first prize, the notorious Golden Nightingale, the preceding year. To our misfortune, it so happened that this particular year the pathetic trophy had gone to a group from our schoolthe ludicrous Exotic Trio, whose specialty was Cuban folklore. Their regrettable triumph meant that the task of organizing the festival now fell to us. This was a monstrous headache, involving "community work" after class and, most nightmarish of all, three days of auditions culminating in a concert given by the winners, at which attendance, as a sign of the hosts' hospitality, was obligatory.
The reality surpassed our worst expectations. This was owing principally to our singing instructor, the terror of the school. Known as "the Eunuch" because of his reedy voice (a "Heldentenor," by his own description) and his old-bachelor ways, he was a classic neurotic, with a tendency toward excessive enthusiasm and an unswerving conviction that singingclassical singing, naturallywas the most glorious thing on earth. He was the object of endless jokes and ridicule, but he was also a figure of fear. When something had enraged him beyond the limits of his endurance he was capable, at the height of his fury, of lashing out and doing us physical harm. Worst of all, he could utter threats so macabre that, although we knew from experience they would not be carried out, the very sound of them made the world go dark before our eyes. The one he resorted to most often went like this: "I'll rot in prison for the rest of my days, but in a moment, with the aid of this instrument"whereupon he would take a penknife out of his pocket and flick it open to reveal the blade"with the aid of this blunt instrument here, I'll hack off someone's ears!"
And this maniac, this raving lunatic, to put it gently, was to be in charge of the festival. What this meant in practice may easily be imagined. For the duration of the affair he became the most important figure in the school. This was his festival; these were the days of his triumph. They were also, for him, as the person responsible for the whole thing, days of great stress. He prowled the corridors in a state of feverish excitement, observing everything, poking his nose into everything, wanting to choreograph our every move; after classes he proceeded, with relish, to torment the chorus with hours of practice. Everyone was thoroughly sick of him and we longed for the day when this purgatory would come to a blessed end.
By the last day of the festival most of the students were showing symptoms of profound depression and went about in an almost catatonic stupor. The permanent, oppressive presence of the demented Eunuch, the constant flow of new decisions, the endless chopping and changing, the whole accompanied, for hours on end, by the dreadful howling of choirs in full flowall this tried our endurance to its limit. At last, however, the blessed end arrived. The last notes of some exalted song performed by the winners of this year's Nightingale resounded and died away; the honorable members of the jury made a grand exit in stately procession; and the students, left to their own devices, with just the chairs to be put away and the stage to be swept, gave way to uncontrollable euphoria.
I had been about to close the piano lid when for some reason I began instead to sound out, rhythmically, four descending notes in a minor key, a simple arrangement that was the typical introduction to many jazz classics, among them Ray Charles's famous "Hit the Road Jack." My unthinking, barely conscious, repeated action had a spectacular and quite unexpected effect. The crowd of students milling about cleaning up the room immediately took up the rhythm; people started to clap and stamp their feet. After that, events took their unstoppable course. The three other members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, feeling the call of blood, launched themselves upon their instruments. The double bass was the first, plucking out the same four notes, eight quavers in quadruple time. Next on stage was the percussionist; with lightning speed he threw the covers off his instruments, flung himself at his drums and, after a few energetic drumrolls and strikes on his cymbals as an entrée, began, in an attitude of great concentration, his head to one side, to pound out a four-four basso continuo. And thenat first distantly, still from within the instrument cupboardthe trumpet came in, joining us in several repeats of those first four electrifying notes; then, when the trumpeter at last appeared on stage, to screams of ecstasy and whoops of joy, he sounded the first bars of the theme.
Everyone went berserk. People began to sway, twitch, twist, and contort themselves to the music. And then someone else, a boy who had been looking after the technical side of things, leaped up onto the stage. He pulled up a chair for me (thus far I'd been playing standing up), stuck a pair of sunglasses on my nose to suggest a resemblance to Ray Charles, pushed a microphone up to my lips and said in a passionate whisper, "Let's have some vocal! Come on, don't be shy!"
Who could resist such an enticement, a plea so eloquent with yearning, brimming with the will of an inflamed crowd? Its urgency was stronger than the choking shame in my throat. I squeezed my eyes shut, took a breath, and rasped out into the microphone:
Hit the road Jack, And don't you come back no more ...
And the frenzied, dancing crowd came in with perfect timing. Like a well-rehearsed ensemble they took up the words, endowing them with new meaning and determination:
No more no more no more!
English was not our school's strong point, and hardly anyone understood what the song was about, but the force of those two words, that "no more" so sweet to the Polish ear, advancing rhythmically up the rungs of a minor scale in a row of inverted triads at the fourth and the sixth, was clear to all. And the crowd took up the chant fully aware of its significance.
No more! Enough! Never, never again! No more howling; no more having to sit and listen. Down with the festival of choirs and vocal groups! To hell with them all! Damn the Golden Nightingale, damn the Exotic Trio, may they vanish from the face of the earth! Damn the Eunuch, may he rot in hell! Don't let him come back no more ...
No more no more no more!
And as the crowd was chanting these words for the umpteenth time, in an unrestrained, ecstatic frenzy of hope and relief, there burst into the room, like a ballistic missile, our singing instructorpuce with rage and squawking in his reedy voice, "What the bloody hell is going on here?!"
And then a miracle happenedone of those miracles that usually occur only in our imaginations or in a well-directed film, one of those rare things that happen perhaps once in a lifetime.
As anyone who remembers Ray Charles's hit knows, at the last bar of the main thematic phrase (its second half, to be precise), on the three syncopated sounds, the blind black singer, in a dramatic, theatrically breaking and swooping voice, asks his vocal partner, a woman throwing him out of the house, the intriguingly ambiguous question, "What you say?" This question-exclamation, most likely because it ends on the dominant, is a kind of musical punchline, one of those magic moments in music for which we unconsciously wait and which, when it comes, evokes a shiver of singular bliss.
Now it so happened that the Eunuch's blood-curdling scream fell precisely at the end of the penultimate bar. I had less than a second to make up my mind. I hit the first two notes of the last bar (another repeat of the famous introduction) and, twisting my face into the mocking, exaggerated grimace assumed by people pretending not to have heard what was said, crowed out with that characteristic, rising lilt, in the general direction of the Eunuch, standing now in the middle of a stunned and silent room, "What you say?!"
It was perfect. A roar of laughter and a shiver of cathartic joy went through the room. For the Eunuch it was the last straw. With one bound he was at the piano and had launched himself at me. He kicked me roughly off my chair, banged shut the piano lid, and hissed out one of his horrifying threats: "You'll pay dearly for this, you little snot! We'll see who has the last laugh! You'll be squealing like a stuck pig by the time I'm finished with you. In the meantime, I'll tell you right now that you've just earned an F in singing, and I really don't see how you can change that before the end of the year."
That was the last performance of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The following day it was officially dissolved by the school authorities, while I, as an additional reward for my brilliant solo (and it was brilliant, whatever else could be said about it), was favored with a D in discipline.
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