Sunday, May 01, 2005

Creepy Reading

Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish author (1904-1969) of memoirs, plays, and a few literary novels, also serialized in 1939 in the Warsaw Red Courier a pseudonymous gothic thriller called Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch, which has been translated (via the French!) into English by the publishing house Marion Boyars.

The novel uses all of the stock tropes of the gothic: a dilapidated castle, a decaying family line, a legend of haunting, incest and old family cruelties, occult shadings. But all these tropes are tweaked in order to make room for more modern explorations of the psyche: the ways we hurt each other, delude ourselves, and become trapped in patterns of self-destruction. Click through for my attempts to futz through the major themes.

The requisite young female (Maya) on whom much of the narrative focuses is almost savage in her youthful egotism. She enters the castle because she has decided to marry the mad old prince's secretary, who has assured her that he will become wealthy; she does not love him, wants his money, and plans to abandon the secretary after she's got hers. The young man (Walchak) who loves her, sort of, is a social-climbing tennis instructor, whose petit bourgeois envy and desparation are laid out at the outset--not without some cold understanding--as determining facts. They are alike, "identical"; they are strangely heterosexualized dopplegaengers.

In one extraordinary scene, they play tennis against each other; the desire for and to destroy each other drives them to overcome themselves. However, the power and skill that the young man feels he has, after playing tennis so well against Maya, gives him the delusion of being able to go professional. He is not, in fact ready; you suspected that the sensation of mastery that he felt could not possibly be other than reactive, circumstantial, yet his egotistical epiphanies were so movingly described that you wanted him to get an outside validation.

By the time Walchak gets his delusion of mastery checked by reality, however, you have begun to dread what is happening with his relationship with Maya: they are encouraging each other in their worst tendencies, as part of some game of chicken. (She is more respectable than he, although not by any means moneyed.) And by this time the reader has also learned to fear the castle's influence.

Gombrowicz does something interesting with the haunting: he puts the locus of the castle's terror in "the old kitchen"--and more specifically in the uncanny movement of an old tea towel hanging on a rack. No Radcliffean catacombs: this is MR James territory, the domesticated terror of bewitched everyday objects. You've got all the machinery of the gothic, but the object of terror is utterly prosiac, almost Dickensian (Dickens's ghost stories feature mail-coaches, broken-down chairs, paperwork...).

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the old order, the generation of fading, mad aristocrats whose flaws create the situation of haunting, seem to have erased the traces of female presence. In the classic gothic, the young woman in the present-day narrative meets the traces of violence against the previous generation's women. The woman in the attic is the more famous nineteenth-century version of the late eighteenth-century woman in the catacombs. In Gombrowicz's version, there's a very secondary older female servant, but her role is very minimal.

The primal scene here is the misunderstanding and resentment between a father and a bastard son. The mother is effaced entirely (but there is that tea towel). The father has refused to recognize the son, despite loving him, so the son decided to destroy himself in revenge. Very Dostoyevskean, perhaps mercifully abridged.

The pattern is played out, however, in Maya and Wolchak's attempts to forget each other in an interesting realist sequence in Warsaw. He takes a job as a waiter, takes up with a nice (ish) girl trying to get back at her ex-fiance; she flirts with the seamier side, taking a barely respectable position as a "secretary" to an older man who wants to torture his daughter by visibly prefering the company of another young woman.

The book shows some signs of chaffing at its generic boundaries--the Maya/Wolchak story might not have needed the supernatural setting to be compelling, and I'm still trying to figure out whether I'm satisfied by the ending--although I must admit that the reason a friend passed the book to me was that I can't resist a good gothic thriller. Overall, I must recommend it. And, man, it would make an extraordinary movie in the right hands.


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