Introduction

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Read, Piers Paul 1941–

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Read is an English author of both fiction and nonfiction. He is perhaps best known for Alive, his restrained account of what has been called the most arresting peacetime survival story yet told, the 1972 Andes air crash. He was the choice of the survivors to write their official story. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

The severity of [The Upstart] is not immediately apparent. The opening chapters record the childhood and youth of a Yorkshire clergyman's son in a sharp but amusing way, so that the author might be congratulated on the "malicious" wit with which the boy's "agonies" of social embarrassment are presented. But, quite suddenly, words like "malice" and "agony" need to be used less lightly and loosely. The boy, Hilary Fletcher, might seem not unlike L. P. Hartley's Eustace as he diffidently tries to place his social position between the knowing children of the local aristocracy and the rough farmboys. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the boy has grown up monstrous. The calm, graceful prose which seemed so appropriate for a traditional social comedy about class is equally effective for describing young Fletcher's progress in joyless depravity. Finally he becomes a Roman Catholic, recognizes himself as evil, and repents. So it is, after all, rather like one of Hartley's novels—My Fellow-Devils, with its persuasive emphasis on Catholicism and evil….

[There is a] melodramatic sequence of events [that] takes up most of the book. It is so lurid that it could have been ludricrous, but there is a grim, simple intensity in the writing which makes the story acceptable as a serious representation of evil. The narrator persuades through the apparent objectivity of his presentation of himself: it is like the cold, factual-sounding account that the agnostic Winterman gave of the sins and penitence of the hero of Mr Read's Monk Dawson.

"Prodigal's Progress," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 7, 1973, p. 1017.

Nick Totten

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Novels like Polonaise usually die at the outline stage. In skeletal form they impress everyone, not least the author; but as the appalling difficulty of actually writing them gradually emerges, there is a tendency to turn to other projects. Also, they fall uncomfortably between two stools: more than just another novel, but distinctly less than the masterpiece one will write some day. But there is a lingering attachment to the material—always a feeling that it could somehow be pushed and prodded into that vital inevitability which was promised in the original conception. So sometimes the writer buckles down to it.

Piers Paul Read has buckled down to it, and produced a novel not without conviction. It is about a writer, which is difficult enough; but much more so when the writer is a decayed Polish aristocrat involved in Communist politics between the wars. Stefan Kornowski is also a very particular kind of writer: he is and remains into middle age an adolescent nihilist, the kind who identifies dutifully with De Sade and picks interminably at the scab of his atheism. The characterisation is extremely accurate—in terms of a stage of development: many precociously intellectual young people enjoy this pose for a while, and can be seen any day promenading through the older universities with their black capes and other paraphernalia. It is at least an effective cover for sexual nervousness. But the idea of someone spending his life stuck like this—because the wind changed at the wrong moment?—is horrifying. It makes one worry about Mr Read….

There's a great deal of plot in Polonaise, certainly, spun in endless strands of insubstantial candy floss. The historical background is solid, though, or at any rate plausible; and obviously something has to happen to fill the prolonged pause in Stefan's development. Clearly if anyone could keep this stuff up for a lifetime it would be a Slavic Catholic aristocrat: look at Nabokov. But why should we, or Mr Read for that matter, be interested? By the time Stefan makes his earth-shattering discovery that nihilism is a mistake (the whole tenor of the novel being that old Chestertonian nonsense about Christianity and nihilism as the only alternatives) I was watching the picture with the sound turned down. (p. 22)

Nick Totten, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 20, 1976.

John Mellors

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Stefan,… [the] unheroic hero [of Polonaise], is a writer thwarted by 'the unreliability of his characters'. He persuades himself that he is a Marxist, but when he tries to write about 'positive heroes', his carefully constructed puppets run amok and shock even him, their creator. He concludes that his 'muse', his creativity, 'is irony, undiluted irony'. He rejects communism because communists still believe in the perfectibility of the soul; the Soviet Union 'is Holy Russia under another name'.

Stefan is a typical Read character, introspective, intelligent, determined to use self-knowledge in order to cultivate his true individuality….

Polonaise is a rich and resonant novel of ideas, saved from solemnity by the astringency of Read's style and his ability to make the most eccentric characters believable. Where it fails, as The Upstart, Read's last novel, failed, is in slipping at crucial points from drama into melodrama. (p. 688)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), November 25, 1976.

James Brockway

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The sub-title of [Polonaise] should read: 'Or the Wreck of the Titanic'. Like the Titanic, the greater part of this book is a magnificent piece of engineering, a product of intelligence, great technical skill and hard work. Also like the Titanic, when the journey has almost been completed, in fact as late as page 343, Read's finely constructed artefact, of which its creator has every reason to feel proud, hits an iceberg of such shattering banality that the reader is left at the end like the survivors of the Titanic after she had plunged from sight for ever: surrounded by nothing else but flotsam and jetsam, a very cold feeling at the bottom of the stomach and the unanswerable question: Why did it have to happen?

Now, in his previous book, Alive, Read wrote highly successfully of the Andes air crash of 1972 and in the novel which preceded that, The Upstart, he showed how his cold-blooded hero wreaked havoc and destruction among those who had humiliated him during his youth. Could it be that the author has now been unable to resist the temptation to wreck one of his own creations, and just as ruthlessly?

What is Polonaise about? Stripped to its barebones, which Read has richly covered with some excellent writing, it recounts the fortunes of Stefan and Krystyna Kornowski, children of a dissolute and spendthrift Polish count who reduces his family to poverty and is very soon reduced to imbecility himself, after an absurdly unsuccessful attempt, à la Uncle Vanya, to slay the representative of the bank to which he has come to owe all he has….

It is Stefan with whom Read is chiefly concerned. We first meet him lying across a summerhouse table on his father's ruined estate, attempting to take Cogito, ergo sum a few philosophical steps further. He is a thinker, a cynic, an immoralist (God is dead, so why shouldn't Stefan Kornowski take over?). He is also an embryo Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper, who in his early writings is soon linking the ecstasy of sex to the ecstasy of inflicting pain. As for Poland, his attitude to his country is one of contempt. When he is successful as a fashionable playwright, founding the 'theatre of brevity', he sees his success as the triumph of Polishness over himself.

Of art he says: "what is art but artificiality … a fraud, a hallucinatory drug for those without the courage to live?"… His plan [to murder for pleasure] is frustrated by an unexpected opportunity to indulge his sensuality in another way—a nice example of Piers Paul Read's special brand of undercooled cynicism, his refrigerated sense of humour.

Indeed, it is partly because he makes of this monster, Stefan Kornowski, so fascinating a creature that the final disaster is so disastrous. But it is also because Read is a fine writer, so that about halfway through his novel, the reader, who has so far felt everything is proceeding pretty slowly, begins to feel he is on familiar territory—in fact, in the middle of a nineteenth-century novel such as Dostoevsky's The Idiot or Flaubert's Education Sentimentale, to which there is indeed a passing reference, without actually mentioning title or author.

By the time Stefan has just avoided committing his murder, Hitler has crossed the Polish border and Stefan, man of ideas and not of action, is then halfway across the Atlantic, on his way to America, where he stays for the duration.

The author then leaps twenty years (Whatever Happened to Baby World War II?) and the last part of his novel begins in Paris in the late Fifties. Here, Krystyna, escaped from the Nazis and now Madame de Pincey, takes into her home young Annabel Colte, daughter of the Earl of Felsted, whose seat is an unlikely manor on the north coast of Cornwall.

In Paris, young Annabel meets young Teofil [Krystyna's Polish son] but also Uncle Stefan…. Meantime the air is cooling and we are entering the iceberg zone. Soon all these disgusting Continentals are invited across to Cornwall to meet the English aristocracy, into which poor Teofil is going to marry. Icebergs are now already actually in sight, in the shape of Annabel's relatives. Then along comes the fatal iceberg. Uncle Stefan, wise to the game the dastardly English aristocracy are up to, to wreck the proposed marriage between their daughter and this piece of Polish riffraff, Teofil, gets rid of the pawn the English aristos are using, by shoving him over a cliff.

The incident here is sufficient to annihilate everything the author has achieved up to page 343, just as that iceberg put paid to the Titanic. I have suggested the author may have done it deliberately. Out of contempt for the novel? Out of contempt for the reader, who hasn't the courage to live but uses the novel as a hallucinatory drug? Or was it to be able to end his novel somehow, any old how, because what had fascinated him, Polish society between 1929–1939, was now lost and gone for ever, anyway?

I have taken the risk of telling much of the story but have deliberately left many salient features out so as not to spoil the reader's enjoyment—for writing of this quality, which is fascinatingly unlike much other novel writing of quality in England at present, should be read. Piers Paul Read is an authentic personality as a writer and, icebergs in the offing or not, to read his novel is an authentic experience too and not to be equated with the taking of an hallucinatory drug. (pp. 22-3)

James Brockway, "Going Down Bravely," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway 1977; reprinted with permission), February, 1977, pp. 22-3.

Peter Vansittart

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

Admirers of the spare, intelligent Monk Dawson may be disappointed by Polonaise, an unexciting academic chronicle-novel…. A leading theme is the slow evaporization of oh young men oh young comrades into disillusion, self-interest, patriotism, common sense. There is the familiar amiable, soft-fibred intellectual whose ineffective good intentions and minor talents compete with a feeble sadism and a mordant temptation to see Hitler as the uninhibited artist in action. The Poles tend to cherish self-absurdity and national deprecation. The writing is clear yet makes somewhat plodding recapitulations. 'Capitalism is a necessary state in the development of Man's productive capacities …'…. Read fills in everything to the last detail, his dialogue more earnest than compelling. He describes and explains too much. (p. 108)

Hitherto justly acclaimed for freshness, stylishness, inventiveness, Read here takes too few imaginative risks. He reminds us of serious matters in what is not quite a serious novel. (p. 109)

Peter Vansittart, in London Magazine (© London Magazine), February-March, 1977.

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Read, Piers Paul (Vol. 25)