“My soul is not a fashionable eatery
for fine ladies to delight!”*


These are the opening lines of a poem by Bulgarian poet Penyo Penev. He was born in 1930 and took part in the major urban construction project under Bulgarian Communism – the southern city of Dimitrovgrad, raised on a barren plateau in the late 1940s and romantically labelled The City of Dreams and The City of Youth.

Discouraged by his inability to earn enough to meet the medical expenses of his infant boy, Penev killed himself in April 1959, aged 29, in a hotel room in Dimitrovgrad. He had also grown increasingly depressed and disgusted by life under Communism, described in blood-chilling detail by his contemporary Georgi Markov – a novelist and playright who emigrated to London in 1969 and was assassinated by the Bulgarian State Security in 1978.

Among other things, Penev was disillusioned over the privileges bestowed on writers supportive of the new power and the rampant nepotism in accessing state-owned resources regardless of merit and in direct opposition to the principles of the people’s government declared earlier.

I thought of Penyo Penev, not with the idea to comment on his tragic life and beautiful poetry, but rather in relation to a book I have recently read and have been greatly impressed with – The Doll (Lalka in Polish), by Boleslaw Prus (accent on the E in Boleslaw). The word Lalka is known in Bulgaria as a female name, fairly popular under Communism, but definitely old-fashioned-sounding and extinct today.

Kukla Koritsa

So The Doll…it was written for periodical serialisation and was first published as a book in 1890. It is about 1,000 pages long and looks very daunting. The plot covers about 1.5 years of actual time, offering a kaleidoscopic image of the Polish society in the second-half of the 19th century and providing minute physical detail of Warsaw of the period.

One of The Doll’s many parallel narratives tells the story of Poland’s impoverished aristocracy struggling to come to terms with the rising class of nouveau-riche tradesmen and industrialists, on whom they grow increasingly dependent for money.

Another storyline takes readers back to the 1848-49 Spring of Nations and late 19th-century European politics. A third one lifts the curtain on the inner workings of Poland’s aristocratic society with its intrigues, hypocrisy, haughtiness, shallowness and promiscuity.

A fourth sub-plot centers on the role of Jews in Polish society, highlighting snowballing anti-semitism and predicting its monstrous manifestations in the first half of the 20th century.

On a more personal level, the book tells the life story of shop-keeper Ignacy Rzecki – elderly, lonely, a bit eccentric, keen on politics and with a fixation on the military feats of Napoleon Bonaparte. Some of the book chapters are written as Rzecki’s personal diary, where the events of the narrative mingle with his personal comments, many of which are very funny in a subtle way. Generally, throughout the book, author Boleslaw Prus shows his very keen eye for the absurd in human relations and situations. Good-natured humor, irony and sarcasm are unobtrusively present in the speech of the characters themselves, left for the discerning reader to find and interpret by themselves.

The poignant self-negating friendship and love, in the purest sense of the word, of Rzecki towards his boss and main protagonist Stanislaw Wokulski, offers glimpses of the noblest manifestations of the human soul.

All this overwhelming detail aside, The Doll is above all the story of the rise and fall of Wokulski and his obsessive and heart-wrenching love for Izabela Lecka, the beautiful and marrigeable daughter of a bankrupt Warsaw aristocrat.

It is impossible to produce a synopsis of Wokulski’s excruciating quest for Izabela’s heart and his subsequent disillusionment, without ending up writing another novel.

The gist, however, as far as I understood it, is that in real life, people are unable to live the Romantic Love immortalised by the poets, underpinned by Church teachings and generally the proud result of the civilizational attainments of the West. In the same time, intelligent and sensitive persons are – perhaps not purposefully – raised and bred to believe in it, and while chasing this ideal, they actually end up shortchanged, as real people and the circumstances binding them make the realisation of such feelings impossible.

Poets are like dolls, or rather, puppets, because they have used their exceptional talents and sensitivity to praise what the civilization has programmed them to long for; decent chaps like Wokulski are like dolls too, because they have learned to look at love through the poets’ eyes; the aristocracy and people of all the other walks of life are also like dolls, because each and every one of them is unable to leave the rut where Circumstances and Reality have placed them. Or if they are brave and strong enough to (attempt to) do so, the other dolls undermine their efforts, bound by the rules and conventions of their own ruts.

Chasing his romantic love made Wokulski earn a fortune to impress his beloved. It also motivated him to raise himself from a shop-owner to a welcome guest in the homes of the Warsaw aristocracy, so as to be able to approach her. It made him dream of Izabela and devise ways to meet her, his heart pounding like a drum at the mere sight of her, like a schoolboy’s.

His feelings also made Wokulski do crazy things to please Izabela and plunged him into agony because of her indifference, duplicity and immorality. His love made his soul fly with happiness at the crumbs she occasionally chose to give him, and also made him feel exhilarated, hopeful, happy, sad, lethargic, crazy, focused, distracted, noble, ignoble and totally devastated one after the other. He was like Icarus and Sisyphus at the same time – able, tenacious, bold and brave, but crushed under the weight of his dreams – beautiful birds smothered by an inert and colourless environment.

While trying to cure himself of his infatuation for the vacuous panna Lecka, Wokulski gets attracted to a beautiful widow who had some original ideas about the women’s spiritual responsibilities and role in society. The character, pani Kazimiera Wasowska, was also at the height of Wokulski’s intelligence, which resulted in dialogues showcasing intellectual and flirtatious spat at its best.

Another woman, a beautiful and humble one by the name of Helena Stawska, also fell in love with Wokulski but he, while considering both Wasowska and Stawska as options and acknowledging their qualities, chose, perhaps in a final burst of romanticism, to give up women altogether and leave Warsaw to pursue his ambitions in natural sciences. The question whether he had or had not committed suicide while blowing up some rocks that once were the backdrop of a tryst between him and panna Izabela, remains open at the end of the narrative.

Many of Wokulski’s friends urged him, as a way to get over his infatuation for Izabela, to marry the beautiful and humble pani Helena and enjoy quiet domestic happiness the bourgeois way. He rejects that and leaves the country, saying that what the heart does not want, cannot be happiness.

I guess the book ending represents a triumph of the impossible romantic love over the make-do small-time affection Wokulski is urged to resort to to fill the void. Thus the ending, while being some sort of a self-sabotage and an irreparable burning of bridges, also makes Wokulski not a doll, like many of the other characters who, the author claims, act as they do because of the fetters irrevocably chaining them to reality.

Wokulski on the other hand was a self-made man, who raised himself from nothing amid rejection and ridicule, also resorting to a marriage of convenience as a means to an end at a point in his life. With panna Izabela, he bravely fought a doomed fight and quit the game on his own terms. That, alongside his passionate dedication and disillusionment, is something which makes him relate, in a human way, to poet Penyo Penev, whose short life and fine verses are remembered to date, for exactly the same reasons. Moreover, the line by Penev quoted at the beginning somehow sums up, in my head, Wokulski’s stance as he finally left Warsaw, selling off everything he owned in a practice usually associated with the departed, as Rzecki had pointed out with concern in his diary.

The romantic love sung or critically scrutinised throughout the book, is heavily intertwined with the Christian ideas of upholding spiritual and bodily chastity for the sake of having something pure and genuine to offer to your beloved if and when you finally meet them. I realise this may sound ridiculous in the hedonistic 21st century, but I am also at a kind of a loss to assess the extent of the civilizational or moral gains humanity has achieved while adopting the opposite as mainstream behaviour.

The book sporadically deals with the image and role of women in society, but I believe the author has failed to take a definite stance on this issue. A couple of days ago, however, I learned about a book, The Four Women of God, by French writer and historian Guy Bechtel (b.1931), which I totally plan to read. According to the book synopsis, the Catholic world (The Doll takes place in a Catholic environment too), so the Catholic world generally perceives women as either being loose, witches, saints or innocents, and anyway epitomes of temptation and lack of constancy. So there – Izabela is the loose woman masked as an innocent and Helena Stawska is the saint. A woman falling outside these labels is pani Wasowska – a pity that Prus did not explore this character further. She grows attracted to Wokulski, she tries to be a generous friend by easing his meetings with Izabela (by meetings I mean strolls in the park!), she shares her unconventional opinions in an emotional way, but she nips her growing affection in the bud after objectively assessing her chances with Wokulski as nil, despite the mutual attraction. So what is pani Wasowska? Had she been married, the Church would say she is a loose woman; she is neither a witch, nor a saint, nor an innocent. She is not a temptress as Wokulski is a widower and, being a widow herself, she has no one to declare constancy to. So she is a woman of experience – very interesting, but obviously not the typical romantic’s cup of tea.

In the book, Prus repeatedly calls Wokulski and Rzecki Polish romantics and makes a point about their behaviour and morals being somehow typical of and detrimental to, Polish individuals. However, I am not sufficiently acquainted with Polish history or culture to be able to see what exactly makes the Polish more qualified to be romantic against their own good, as compared to nationals from other countries shaped in the same civilisation area.

I rather believe that, at least today, anyone with a Western and a Christian background, who has ever felt the pangs of unrequited or impossible love, would be able to relate to Wokulski’s pain, and also to the behaviour and feelings of the other characters only too well.

This is how the book of Prus has managed to transcend the Polish national borders and has become an achievement for mankind. (On a separate line, I have read that no Bulgarian book, in spite of merit, has ever managed to do that, which may very well be true.)

Reading about Wokulski’s sufferings can be like therapy for the reader’s own pain, softly distilling it in a process described as “the golden gleams of sorrow**,” by Yana Yazova, another great Bulgarian poet and novelist.


I close with a poem by Adam Mickiewicz, whose verses are quoted in The Doll on more than one occasion. In the book, there are some very fine and tender excerpts by him, but, naturally enough, they are in Bulgarian and I have not been able to find English translations, probably because I have been searching for them the wrong way. I keep trying.


Away from thee I never weep nor sigh,
And lose I not my mind when thou art nigh.
But if for a while I have no word with thee,
There’s something missing, someone I must see.
I wonder, yearning thus for days on end:
Art thou my love or maybe just a friend?

When thou hast gone, I cannot in my mind
Recall thy face though gentle so and kind.
However, oft I feel, yet wish it not,
That it is somewhere really near my thought.
And all these doubts of mine may never end:
Art thou my love or maybe just a friend?

I suffered much, but reckoned not, as yet,
To go and let thee know my sad regret.
With no idea where my feet should go,
How come I find thy house I do not know;
And neither at thy door my doubts may end:
Art thou my love or maybe just a friend?

To save thy health, my life I would expend;
To grant thee peace, to Hell I would descend.
Though in my heart no bold desires I nest,
Do know that I would be thy health and rest.
But still these doubts of mine may never end:
Art thou my love or maybe just a friend?

And when thy hand lies gently in my palm,
My mind grows quiet, and my soul is calm;
Meseems my life may in this sleep depart,
But wakes me up the beating of thy heart,
And thus return my doubts that know no end:
Art thou my love or maybe just a friend?

Composing this my song for thee, my mind
Was not to any bardic mood inclined,
I am amazed myself, it baffles me
How I have found the thoughts and rhymes for thee, 
To finally write these doubts that may not end:
Art thou my love, or maybe just a friend?

* Душата ми не е модерен ресторант,
за да гуляят в нея разни дами! (Translation into English is mine.)
**Златни искри на скръбта
***Translated by Jarek Zawadzki;