Imaginary Magnitude

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Stanislaw Lem’s introduction to the English-speaking world was a belated one. Not until 1970, with the appearance of the novel Solaris (published in Polish in 1961), was a book by Lem translated into English. (Solaris, it is interesting to note, was not translated directly from Polish but rather from a French translation of the Polish original.) By that time, as science-fiction critic Darko Suvin notes in an afterword to the novel, Lem had published more than twenty books and was already widely translated throughout Europe and even in Japan, with more than five million copies of his books in print.

Lem has continued to write prolifically; by 1983, according to an interview in The New York Times Book Review, he had published thirty-five books with more than eleven million copies sold. Since the publication of Solaris, many more of his books have appeared in English translation; Imaginary Magnitude was the sixteenth.

In fact, Imaginary Magnitude combines two related books published separately in Poland almost a decade apart. This information is not provided in the blurb, perhaps because omnibus volumes are traditionally poor sellers; it is supplied only on the copyright page, where it is explained that “In accordance with the author’s wishes, this English-language edition of Imaginary Magnitude includes all the material that appeared in Wielko urojona (Czytelnik, Warsaw, 1973) and also incorporates ’Lecture XLIII—About Itself’ and ’Afterword,’ which first appeared in Golem XIV (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow, 1981).” Thus, although there is a definite connection between the two books (indeed, an overlap, since the GOLEM sections from Wielko urojona were repeated in Golem XIV and supplemented by two new sections, as noted above), they do not constitute a single unified work; the title of the earlier book, Wielko urojona, is the source of the title of the English-language edition.

In several of the essays collected in Microworlds (1985), the first substantial sample of his nonfictional writings to appear in English translation, Lem expresses his impatience with the conventional materials of fiction. In “Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction,” for example, he observes that “not all dramas and adventures of the human spirit in search of knowledge can be adequately represented through the traditional canons of the novel or epic narrative. In other words, the potential treasury of the narrative structures of science fiction has not yet been satisfactorily exploited.”

Lem’s fiction of the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s reflected this impatience, this demand for new “narrative structures.” A Perfect Vacuum (1979), published in Polish in 1971, consists of reviews of nonexistent books, while its successor, Wielko urojona, consists of introductions to books that “do not exist yet.” Surveying his career in the essay “Reflections on My Life,” Lem has described these companion volumes as transitional works which he “began in the first place rather as a joke” but which led him to such unclassifiable books as a monograph-length “review of a fictitious two-volume tome ascribed to a nonexistent German historian and anthropologist, a unique historico-philosophical hypothesis about the as yet unrecognized roots of the Holocaust, and the role that death, especially mass death, has played in the cultures of all times up to the present day.” Lem delights in noting that “there were professional historians who took my fancy for the review of a real book.”

Such is the background of Imaginary Magnitude. The peculiar tone of the book—intellectual playfulness, laced with more serious concerns—is apparent from the outset: Just as A Perfect Vacuum opened with a review of itself (“Reviewing nonexistent books is not Lem’s invention,” the unnamed “reviewer” began), so Imaginary Magnitude begins with an “Introduction” to the introductions that follow.

The ostensible purpose of this “Introduction” is to provide a rationale for the “liberation” of introduction writing:I have long felt a pressing need to rescue this form of writing from the silence of forty centuries—from its bondage to the works to which its creations have been chained. When, if not in this age of ecumenicalism—that is to say, of all-powerful reason—is one finally to grant independence to this noble, unrecognized genre?

In passages such as this one, representative of the entire “Introduction,” the reader senses a slippage between Lem’s Polish and the English translation. The language is deliberately inflated to the point of satire (astonishingly, several reviewers took the “Introduction” at face value), but the focus of the satire is unclear. It appears that Lem’s intention was to mock the pretensions of the typical high-flying literary introduction while at the same time sketching the “terminal” situation in literary evolution that has made thinkable such a genre as the free-floating introduction. Verbal satire, however, requires an ear as exact as Donald Barthelme’s, and whatever the felicities of Lem’s Polish, the language here lacks idiomatic bite. “Here we must get down to brass tacks,” Lem’s introducer writes, and the reader winces, for the cliché does not have any point—it does not satirically evoke the idiom of any real introducers.

The “Introduction” is followed by four introductions to nonexistent books; each one begins with a mock title page, and each of the four appears in a different typeface. The first “book” thus presented is Necrobes, by Cezary Strzybisz, introduced by Stanislaw Ertel. Strzybisz, an artist whose medium is X-ray photography, is best known for his “Pornograms”: In his X-ray photographs of group sex, “bones, clinging to one another in a puzzling geometrical...

(The entire section is 2462 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Booklist. LXXX, August, 1984, p. 1598.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, June 1, 1984, p. 498.

Library Journal. CIX, August, 1984, p. 1451.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 11, 1984, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 2, 1984, p. 4.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, June 15, 1984, p. 79.

Time. CXXIV, September 17, 1984, p. 87.