(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

By definition, a polonaise can be a slow, stately processional, almost a walk, set to moderate, 3/4-time music. Polonaise, by Piers Paul Read, is such a promenade, based upon a triple rhythm, a beat of love, God, and politics. This “triad” is carried over into the format of the novel, which has three parts, the first two of which are set mostly in Warsaw during the 1930’s, while the last is set in Paris and Mulford, England, on the North Cornish coast, in 1958.

For his march through places and events, Read brings together a mixture of landless-but-titled Polish aristocrats, members of the landless-but-proud Polish proletariat, wealthy Polish Jews, French and English bourgeoisie, and super-wealthy English nobility. To accommodate all of these people—there are more than a half dozen central characters—the rhythm of the novel must be somewhat slow, although it is a slowness interspersed with jumps of time and city.

Part of the leisurely pace is caused by Stefan Kornowski, whose father, Count Stanislas Kornowski, is in the process of losing the family estate in Jezow by insisting upon a profligate lifestyle when the novel opens in the mid-1920’s. By the summer of 1929, when Stefan is fifteen, the Count is bankrupt, and the bank will soon foreclose its mortgage on the estate. Such mundane troubles do not prevent Stefan from spending his summer vacation—from the Catholic lycée of St. Stanislas Kosta, in Warsaw—in a long internal monologue about “the loftiest riddles of our existence—its purpose, value, significance, etc.”

It is this “Cartesian speculation” which first brings Stefan to the decision that there is no God and that his former religious beliefs were based strictly upon accidents of birth and geography. The fact that extended prayers to the Virgin of Czestochowa three years earlier had not prevented his mother’s death helped him reach this decision, but his struggles with the pangs of puberty were the definitive factor in his conclusion. Unfortunately, his battles with biological maturation are entirely intellectual ones. The extended contemplation on the reactions of his body to the sight of his former childhood playmate, now a sweaty, well-endowed young lady who runs through the fields around the estate in a loose blouse, convinces Stefan there is no God.

That is, the earlier speculations had proved to him that he had a brain—“I think therefore I am”; the sight of Wanda with her sweating arms and legs physically proved he had a penis; the desire for food proved he had a stomach. But it is an intellectual analysis of physical reality, and such data do not lead him to God but to the absence of God. “I am therefore a sweaty-limbs-loving entity which is incompatible with a God-loving entity because the notion of God repudiates sweaty limbs and sweaty limbs laugh at the notion of God.” Others in the novel come to the same realization about God, at least temporarily, but they do so on the basis of acts of cruelty seen in the society or for political reasons. But for Stefan, this realization is all the product of a cold, calculating intellectualizing; that is his chief problem, and Stefan’s intellectualizing is a major problem of Polonaise.

After dallying with the law as a profession and with Communism as a political belief, Stefan decides to become a writer and begins a series of private-journal stories, as well as stories and plays for public consumption. By the late 1930’s Stefan becomes the reigning literary light of Warsaw. He publishes a few avant-garde stories in Polish magazines and has two plays produced, thanks to the influence of his patroness.

Both plays are printed in the book; one takes up six pages, and the other covers about four. When they are performed, they are hailed by the critics as the new “theatre of brevity,” just the thing the Warsaw society desires, since everyone knows that people in Poland go to the theater only for the eating and drinking which take place at the intermission and at the parties which follow. Certainly, Stefan’s plays are brief. They might also be categorized as “theatre of the absurd,” for they become another example of his intellectual game-playing.

Of more interest than the little plays and short stories are the pornographic and/or violent vignettes Stefan writes in his journal, the most extreme of which have to do with the processes by which one can define love as more than an abstract, intellectual notion. The physical expressions of love, as performed by Stefan’s admitted alter ego, Raymond de Tarterre, “urbane young Parisian,” become increasingly sadistic as the novel progresses.

Love—and ecstasy—can only have final definition if Raymond manages to murder the love object with a knife. By being butchered in this way, for the sake of the ultimate sacrifice, the union of death and ecstasy, the young woman will joyfully and willingly “shriek blasphemies at the extremity of her pleasure and pain.” So strongly does Stefan identify with the characters and the underlying concept of these grotesque fantasies, so...

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Polonaise Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXV, December 4, 1976, p. 404.

Booklist. LXXIII, October 1, 1976, p. 236.

New Statesman. XCII, November 19, 1976, p. 722.

New York Times. November 27, 1976, p. 21.

New York Times Book Review. November 28, 1976, p. 8.

Observer. November 14, 1976, p. 29.

Spectator. CCXXXVII, November 20, 1976, p. 22.