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Bolesław Prus

Boleslaw Prus, born Aleksander Głowacki (born on 20 August 1847 in Hrubieszów, died on 19 May 1912 in Warsaw) is one of the leading figures in the Polish literary realism of the second half of the 19th century. He grew up in the Lublin region, but his adult life and work were associated with Warsaw. In 1863, Głowacki - then a 16-year-old high school student from Kielce – joined the January Uprising. Wounded in a skirmish near Siedlce, he was taken prisoner by the Russians. Those events remained in his memory as a traumatic experience. In 1866, he matriculated in the Department of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Warsaw, which at that time operated under the name of the Main School in Warsaw. In his third year of studies he terminated his university education due to financial difficulties. Later, he studied at the Department of Forestry at the Institute of Rural Husbandry and Forestry in Puławy, for a short time, from where in 1870 he came back to Warsaw for a permanent stay. Subsequently, he took on various jobs, i.a. he was a locksmith, wrote to newspapers. In 1872, he embarked on a career as a journalist. Soon after, he adopted his pen name of Bolesław Prus (derived from the name of the coat of arms of the Głowacki family), and so he began to sign his, as he believed, „trivia”, unworthy of a pen of a serious scientific columnist, whom he wished to become in the future. In 1874, he began working for „Kurier Warszawski” (Warsaw Courier), starting to contribute regular columns from the following year. His “Kroniki tygodniowe” (Weekly Chronicles) (later published in “Kurier Codzienny” (Daily Courier)) would run until the end of his life, and these were the first works which earned him popularity. Prus could comment on any topic in them: he recorded both important and seemingly unimportant matters, dealt with the condition of Polish society and ... the state of pavements in Warsaw. As a chronicler Prus chose the perspective of an „unhurried passerby” who is interested in everything he comes across, as he listens to the rhythm of the present. He developed a distinctive columnist style combining humor with a serious reflection.

Since the mid-1870s, Prus took up literature as a profession. His prose drew inspiration from the great figures of the European literary realism, yet from the inception of his career the writer sought his own way to realism. Short stories by Prus depict the world from the viewpoint which is unexpected or imperceptible in our common perspective. It is often a trivial event or an ordinary object that becomes a pretext for those microobservations (as in the most famous and superb short stories “Kamizelka” (The Waistcoat) and “Katarynka” (The Barrel Organ)), which can reveal what is hidden or overlooked in everyday life. Both in his small prosaic works and in short stories Prus, with a characteristic sensitivity to the situation of the poor and excluded, and the psychological sense of the subject, shows social problems which, despite being set in the realities of the 19th century, trigger reflections even today.

That happens in “Lalka” (the Doll) (book edition 1890), which the writer himself described as „a novel of the great questions of our time”. It features an epic panorama of life in Warsaw in the late 1870s, showing different millieux of the modern city. The main protagonist, Stanisław Wokulski, a participant of the January Uprising, returns from exile to Warsaw, where he begins the life of a merchant and businessman. Wokulski is, on the one hand, a success story, on the other hand – a melancholic, in vain searching for the meaning and purpose of his existence. He discerns the purpose of life in a beautiful aristocrat whom he romanticises, which inevitably leads to a disappointment. The narration develops in the rhythm of illusions and disillusions, and reveals the mechanism by which individuals and communities yield to idealistic illusions. The Doll, a picture of Polish society under transition, was not understood by his contemporaries - mainly due to the use of the experimental narrative and an open ending, which makes it impossible to explicitly close Wokulski’s story.

“Emancypantki” (the New Woman) (book edition 1894) was another great novel by Prus. This work can be regarded as the voice of the writer on the emancipation of women, which was one of the pressing issues of the time. This is, however, predominantly a novel about a process of growing up of the main character - Madzia (Maggie), who is seeking her place in the world, experiencing a crisis of faith and finding her own way to God. In his only historical novel “Faraon” (Pharaoh) (book edition 1897) the writer presented the mechanisms of power and the functioning of the state. It also raises important questions about the conditions and possibilities of a rebellion. The last finite novel by Prus was “Dzieci” (Children) (book edition 1909), which showed a disturbing and dark image of the Polish revolution of 1905.

His novels depict the story of a Pole who must contend with his own psyche and the circumstances of the times in which he lived. Therefore, it is worthwhile to return to the questions raised by the writer – most notably to opportunities for Polish business and culture in the rapidly changing world. The main theme of literary journalism and literary work by Prus was the Poles’ immaturity and „ juvenility”, as he called it. He would often write about the excessive adherence of Poles to big gestures, heroic figures and beautiful images of the past. He urged a reliable assessment of national defects and complexes, and wrote that the Poles should learn everyday living the same way they study arithmetic or geography.

Ewa Paczoska