Boundary (2016)

Polish title: Granica (1935)
By: Zofia Nałkowska
Translated by: Ursula Phillips
Published by: Northern Illinois University Press

Available for the first time in English, Zofia Nalkowska’s Boundary was originally published as Granica in Poland in 1935. The modernist novel was widely discussed upon its publication and praised for its psychological realism and stylistic and compositional artistry. Over the years, it has been translated into several languages and made into a feature film, and remains a standard text in the Polish secondary school curriculum. 

Nałkowska was a pioneer of feminist fiction in Central Europe. Her observation of inequality in the treatment of men and women is at the heart of Boundary, which explores a transgressive love affair and its repercussions. She perceived that men–especially of the upper and middle classes–felt free to have sexual relations with lower class women, whereas it was not socially acceptable for women of any class to have sexual relations outside of marriage, or even admit to enjoying sex. This meant that working class women were seduced and then abandoned when they became pregnant, leaving them with the stigma of illegitimate children and the problem of finding work. Meanwhile, the higher class wives found themselves betrayed. 

While Boundary can be interpreted as a novel about power and its abuses, it contains several dimensions–philosophical, emotional, existential, moral–that render it a consummate piece of social criticism. An elegantly composed work of imaginative fiction, it does not preach or offer solutions. Ursula Phillips’s excellent translation will interest readers of early twentieth century novels and scholars and students of Polish literature, feminist studies, and European modernism.

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Our group was unanimous that Granica / Boundary is an excellent, indeed inspired, study of Poland during the inter-war period, giving real insights into the problems of the Second Republic, particularly in terms of the social unrest, the class distinctions, the huge gap between rich and poor and corruption. It was pointed out that this was not unlike Britain pre Second World War, with dire poverty and huge distinctions between the social classes. However, one of the group felt that he hadn’t been so conscious of the political/social issues involved, he had been much more aware of the individuals, the clear delineation of each character and the questions of ageing, which led of course to a discussion of the name-day scene – that women were not supportive of one another, they expressed negative views of Justyna’s mother, unwilling to help her when she became pregnant and turning this into a joke.
We agreed this is a multi-layered book with many social strands, a bitter look at landowners and their servants, at politicians and their readiness to push ethical boundaries and fudge moral ones. We noted that the term “boundary” is used very frequently throughout the book – one person counted 14 times.
Everyone agreed that this book is a literary masterpiece, that might rank in the top 10% of European literature, that transcends its time – the mid 1930s, and its place – a small provincial town on the edge of the map, that it is a piece of hugely intelligent writing, totally honest, written by an author who was a brilliant observer and amazingly honest for her time, particularly for her views on the sexual, social and economic interaction of women and men.
Did we like the book? There were two negative views on this. One person felt that the title Granica seemed to indicate something political and it had been hard to adjust this perception, though a second read of the book brought greater appreciation of it as a novel, but, used to nineteenth century literature, this reader found it hard to make the adjustment to Nałkowska’s very different writing technique.
Another reader didn’t like it at all, it did not appeal to his taste; the translator’s Afterward had given him a good insight into the book and he agreed that it has great literary worth, but still was not enjoyable. Which actually some of Nałkowska’s contemporaries also felt e.g. Jerzy Zawiejski who said that her characters are unkind to one another but the composition makes the book a masterpiece.
However, this view was contrasted with one which said that the first 50 pages were difficult, but once again the Afterword was a helpful guide; everything fell into place, he returned to the beginning and found that he looked forward to picking up the book and re-entering its world.
The house was an excellent milieu to show the various social classes, but although there were brilliant set scenes many seemed to be dealt with too quickly. For example, Bogutowa’s death is extremely powerful, but ‘Mann would have spent many pages on this’ – an interesting comment as Choucas too has been compared with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
We discussed the feminist issues in the book. ‘The men are all bastards,’ was one opinion – apart from, we agreed, the priest Czerlon and the cripple Wąbrowski. But the priest was in captivity to Countess Tczewska who ‘was like […] a bear tamer, leading away the dangerous beast on its chain of patient docility’, and clearly compromised, while Karol Wąbrowski is an invalid and was felt to be a passive character. We noted how women like Elżbieta’s mother (who enjoyed wealth and a certain amount of freedom but no real equality) and Pani Jańcia are praised because ‘they know how to handle men’ – by fudging the boundaries and conniving at the sexual inequality that allowed their husbands to bring disgrace to girls like Justyna who had no redress, and that even Justyna was pre-conditioned to accept this inequality.
The issue too was raised of broken motherhood, really a key topic in the book summed up in Justyna’s thoughts: ‘The whole world hadn’t wanted it, its own natural father hadn’t wanted it […] she too had done this to it.’
We discussed the translation. The footnotes give the sense of an academic book, but we agreed the translation read naturally and well. We were all aware of the difficulties in rendering the nuances of Polish e.g. the use of Pani, and even the title, and this too provoked a lot of discussion.
We read the book in various editions and in Polish and in English. Some people using the Polish version had read from school text books and found the comments and annotations revealing, while one of our group had bought an old copy in a very small format and with an interesting cover: a young woman stylishly dressed in 1930s fashion silhouetted against a period motor car.
So, a great piece of literature which produced a multi-faceted discussion.

[Jenny Robertson]

One comment on “Boundary”

  1. Notes before the meeting:
    An ordinary story which from the inside (Zenon’s perspective) seems extraordinary. – The big house offers a microcosm of society. Zenon & Elsbieta’s withdrawal from that into the big house on the edge of town. – Justyna’s attack on Zenon – why acid? why so cruel? the only way she thinks he can feel something of her pain? – Zenon’s suicide, not murder. Justyna’s abortion, not pregnancy (unlike her own mother). – Justyna’s comparatively comfortable position, given Zenon’s support; but she’s bereft emotionally. – Elsbieta’s mother lives independently abroad, and in a sexually liberated way; her emotional distance from Elsbieta. – The ennui of the characters with money; the despair of those without. – What is Elsbietsa’s future, as a single mother herself now? – Nałkowska’s reluctance or inability to stage big set pieces, like the meal in Warsaw, or the receptions in town… short pieces drive the narrative.

    Notes after the meeting:
    I have to quibble with ‘unanimous’ and the repeated use of ‘agree’. Certainly a strong book of its time; the class divisions may be comparable to those in Britain, but I can’t think of a novel dealing with them quite so directly. Jenny mentioned that Nałkowska used a ‘cut-and-paste’ method, constructing her novel from short texts written on strips of paper – she constructed these like a dressmaker a dress; or moved around pecking at them like a hen (I think both these images were conjured by her contemporaries.) During the discussion, the scene that came to me most vividly was Bogutowa’s last illness and death; the only part of the book that moved me. Why does J attack Z with acid, rather than stabbing or shooting him? – To inflict on him life-long suffering, as he has done to her. Grazyna recalled the dog on a chain – a metaphor for so many of the characters.

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