28 October 2006

Malwina, or The Heart's Intuition by Maria Wirtemberska

I'm reading for my Orals full time these days, so the book selection is about to get way more obscure, or at very least, stodgy, especially because I'm proceeding in roughly chronological order.

Malwina's main claim to fame is that its the self-proclaimed first Romance written in Polish (it was published in 1816). And yes, it is a fairly standard Sentimental novel with a Gothic touch, but it's still kind of fun. The story is that Malwina, a hot young widow living in the boonies, meets the mysterious Ludomir, and falls madly in love with him. But he has this dark secret that, he says, means he can never be hers, so he flees, vowing to love her for ever, and expressing his wish that she'll do the same. Depressed, she goes to Warsaw, where, surprise, she meets Ludomir, revealed to be the Prince Melsztynski. But there's something kind of off about the guy, to begin with, the fact that he has a girlfriend. But he dumps her right away, and starts pursuing Malwina again. Meanwhile, she's beating herself up over her own inconstancy, because she just doesn't seem to love the Prince in Warsaw the way she did back home. But it's hard to get around the fact that the guy's character seems to have taken a turn for the worse. Not only is he a player (as opposed to a faithful devout lover), but he doesn't have much in the way of game. And he can't seem to hold his liquor. Meanwhile, mysterious coincidences and spooky happenings are going on left and right. Ultimately, in the not-so-surprising Gothic twist, it turns out that there are two Ludomirs! Ah, the old identical twin kidnapped by gypsies and then miraculously found plot twist. Yawn. Anyhow, Malwina ends up marrying Ludomir the good, and her sister gets Ludomir the somewhat flaky, and everyone lives happily ever after.

A curious feature of the text is the stunning array of coincidences, which wouldn't be so surprising if not for the fact that the narrator explicitly comes out and says that coincidences are a load of nonsense. "People are sometimes amazed when infatuated lovers, by some peculiar twist of fate, always contrive to find themselves in the very place where they might catch a glimpse, if only for a moment, of the object of their infatuation. This does not happen by magic and we should stop being impressed by it. It is not difficult to conceive how those who are constantly occupied with the same thoughts might also, to some degree, act the same". So first, you have a romance novel that is dismissing the idea of star crossed lovers, and second, you have a psychological explanation for what would appear to be coincidence in a novel that is highly dependent on pretty outrageous coincidences to propel the plot. Odd.

Also somewhat notable is a dream sequence that gets thrown in, basically rendering a condensed version of the plot in dream symbols. I don't know why I was so struck by that, it's not as if people didn't interpret dreams before Freud came along, but nonetheless, it was kind of neato.

Another kind of interesting aspect, to me at least, is the structure of the text. It's mostly in the third person, but with a bunch of inserted letters. We never find out who the narrator is, although we do come to learn that she's a Polish woman. She repeatedly insists on the veracity of the story, most clearly by repeatedly emphasizing that Malwina is a real woman, and not one of those idealized characters in a romance novel, but at no point does she, for instance, explain how she managed to get all these letters. Also, while she will occasionally openly speculate about what's going on (and invite the reader to do the same), she will just as easily slip into a confident reportage of Malwina's thoughts and feelings, implying omniscience. It's interesting, because all of the interiority of the novel could just as easily come from the letters themselves, so perhaps the moments of omniscience should be counted as goofs.

Meanwhile, the narrator of course becomes a personality of the novel as well. What's intriguing here is that the narrator is meant to be our guiding consciousness of the text, our sympathetic entry point, but there are some moments where her scope is limited. She serves to formulate some of the explicit morals, doing some soapbox stints on Polish patriotism, for instance, or stepping up to defend Malwina and remind the reader to refrain from judgement until s/he has finished the book. At the same time, as said above, she occasionally indulges in blatant speculation, making clear her own position as interpreter rather than authority. Furthermore, at moments, she makes claims that seem obviously wrong, for instance, when she says, "at these words, Malwina involuntarily seized Ludomir's hand as if afraid he was about to forsake her. But this was no doubt merely from caution, lest she fall into the water, or at least that is how I understand it". Hold up. This is obviously bullshit. T'werent no hydrophobic tic and everybody knows it. So why would the narrator make herself appear unreliable?

Finally, the closing scene is a bit odd, in that you get your happy ever after moment, and then there's some rambling about how everyone ends up, culminating in a scene where, years down the road, Ludomir the good thinks he sees Malwina making eyes at his twin brother, only to be immediately reassured that she's not, and then they live happily ever after, for real this time. So why insert that note of doubt? Especially in such a clumsy, torturous fashion? Very peculiar.

So yes, it's basically a stock classic, but there are some perks that liven it up.

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