Piers Paul Read

Polonaise is an excellent book by Piers Paul Read which mimics the Polish dance of the same name.  The Polonaise dance is the national dance of Poland.  Poland plays an important part in the novel.  The story starts before World War II in Poland and ends after the war.

Like the dance, the novel’s characters walk together, bow, and circle around.  The dancers have to adjust to a change in meter, where there’s a hop into a bow, with a couple of quick steps as the body straightens out.  Likewise the characters fortunes fall and rise.

The main character is Stefan Kornowski.  The reader will see his character develop into a student, a revolutionary, a writer, a husband, father and widower.  There are times the reader will sympathize with him, but he is so weak, he never becomes what we hope him to be.  He is a fallen man.

His sister Krystyna is another important character.  She seems to be stronger than Stefan.  She is capable, and does what needs to be done.  Sometimes what she does is morally wrong, but Krystyna knows right from wrong and accepts the consequences.

Early in the story, one summer while in their aristocratic estate’s summer house, Stefan tells Krystyna, that there is no God.  Stefan is a thinker and dreamer.  He has deduced from his teenage ruminations that belief in God is an ideal only necessary for peasants to believe in.  At first, Krystyna thinks Stefan is wrong, but life assails her quickly and her own young faith isn’t adequate to match what fate has in store for her.

The times are 1935-6.  Poland watches Germany and the rise of Hitler with incredulity.  Stefan and Krystyna are bankrupt, so their eyes are focused on their own problems.  Their father has gone mental and eventually dies.  Their lost aristocratic status isn’t felt as acutely as it could have, due to the fact that Stefan and Krystyna have become students of Marx and Lenin.  They eventually marry other communists and have children.  The story touches on the economics of socialism, fascism, and capitalism, with their class struggles and materialistic views.

Stefan has always dreamt of becoming a writer in Paris.  To get out of Poland, he leaves his wife to join the war against fascism, in Spain.  Stefan takes his sister Krystyna’s husband, Bruno, with him.  Bruno does go to Spain.  Stefan stays in Paris.  Both men eventually make it back home to Poland. 

Because the reader is reading the novel after the story’s timeline, he knows that Stefan’s wife, being Jewish, isn’t going to survive.  Neither will their children.  The author doesn’t build up sympathy for this angle, in the plot line.  Stefan doesn’t invest too much sentimental emotion on his family at all.  He is out of the country when the Nazis take over Poland.  The readers eventually learn that Stefan’s wife and children were killed, but their deaths are not part of the story.

 Polonaise is divided into three parts.   Part I goes to the beginning of the Nazis taking over Poland.  Part II deals with Spain, Paris, the USA, and the characters quickly adjusting to the quick political changes in Europe.  Lastly, Part III ties the main characters together.  The reader learns that Stefan’s family has perished.  Krystyna’s Bruno has died, but their son Teofil is fine.  In fact, Krystyna is living in Paris, and has remarried.  Her second husband, Alain de Pincey, has adopted Teofil.  Stefan also moves to Paris.  He is still trying to be a writer.

A new and important character enters the scene, Annabel Colte.  She is a rich young lady who has come to Parish to broaden her parochial education.  She boards with Krystyna.  She also meets Krystyna’s son, Teofil, and the two fall in love. 

Unfortunately, Annabel’s parents don’t want her to marry Teofil.  They try to discourage the marriage.  When it seems that the parents have reluctantly resigned themselves to the marriage, Stefan perceives a villainous plot to derail the marriage.  This is where learning how to dance the polonaise becomes useful.  Stefan, maintains the dance’s noble image.  He steps up and saves Annabel from ruin.

Not that Stefan is a noble character, by any means.  He never was.  The readers’ first encounters with him at the summer house view a slothful, cheerless, blasé teenager.  He freely admits to cowardice.  He never really loves his wife and children.  He seems too cynical to love anyone.  In fact, Stefan falls deeper and deeper into lechery.  He fantasizes committing sadistic, masochistic sex.  His writing is pornographic and dark.
The author Piers Paul Read, manages to convey sensuality throughout the book.  All his characters, except for Teofil, have sex on their minds.  Teofil believes chastity proves strength.  He only wants the best for Annabel and that would be his pure love.  Well, I guess Teofil does have sex on his mind, like all of us.  Teofil, however, has the moral strength to wait for the marital bed.

The novel concludes  with Stefan writing his masterpiece.  Annabel and Teofil figure into Stefan’s work.  But in writing the preamble, Stefan found himself philosophizing.  He had many unanswered questions, starting with that summer house declaration to Krystyna, that there was no God.  But if there were no God, why is everybody always pursuing happiness?  What was he always searching for?  Why was important to him that Teofil and Annabel live happily ever after? 

The novel ends with a polonaise circle, again asking the ultimate philosophical question the teenage Stefan pontificated to his sister, Krystyna: God is an ideal only necessary for peasants to believe in.  Really?

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