The Great Untranslated: Pałuba by Karol Irzykowski

In his introduction to Celina Wieniewska’s translation of Bruno Schulz’s short-story collection The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, literary scholar and translator David A. Goldfarb dwells on the difficulties posed by the polysemy of the Polish word pałuba and mentions in passing the novel of the same name, which is little known even in Poland and is completely obscure to the rest of the world. This is what he has to say:

A particularly poignant symbol of the mythic potential of all matter in Schulz is the figure of the pałubaPałuba is a word so untranslatable that Celina Wieniewska cannot settle on a single English word for it, and sometimes simply passes it over. One scholar of Schulz, Jerzy Jarzębski, has said that pałuba is a Polish word that must be translated into Polish every time it is used. In the relevant sense, it might be translated as ‘hag’ or ‘witch,’ or it could refer to an effigy or doll in the form of a hag. […] The term pałuba enters the language of Polish modernism as the title of a radically experimental novel first published in 1903 in Lviv by the critic and essayist Karol Irzykowski.

I was unable to find this rare word in any bilingual dictionary, so I consulted this online monolingual dictionary of the Polish language, which provided the following meanings:

  1. daw.«niezgrabna lalka lub figurka»
  2. daw.«o osobie przypominającej taką kukłę»
  3. daw.«nakrycie wozu; też: kryty wóz»
  1. old. awkward doll or figurine
  2. old. about a person, resembling such a doll
  3. old. covering of a cart; also: covered cart

In the brief Britannica entry on Irzykowski, The Hag is suggested as the appropriate English translation of the title. However, in the 2014 French translation of some extracts from the novel, the title was rendered as La Chabraque, which obviously reflects an attempt to capture the ambiguity of the original. The word chabraque can either mean a saddlecloth or a prostitute.

We haven’t begun to discuss the book yet, and we’re already confused! Come to think of it, that’s the best introduction of the undervalued literary gem, which Irzykowski started writing as a precocious 19-year old and which, upon its publication in 1903, inaugurated the era of self-reflexive writing and metafictional games long before such frivolities became mainstream. It wouldn’t be a gross overexaggeration to say that Irzykowski, virtually single-handedly, paved the way with his audacious experiments for the future classics of Polish literary modernism, who are still better known than him: Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, and, naturally, Bruno Schulz.

In Irzykowski’s lifetime, Pałuba was mostly dismissed  as a perplexing oddity by the critics who could not understand whether they were dealing with a critical essay masquerading as a novel or with a half-baked novel that lapsed into literary criticism. The true recognition came only after the Second World War, although the novel has never gained wide readership, remaining the object of scrutiny and veneration mostly within the circles of the initiated literati.

Irzykowski’s “novel” is obviously not one, and for us, raised on Nabokov’s Pale Fire and for whom this contradiction seems so mundane, it is very hard to imagine what it was like to come across such a rebellious misfit amidst the preponderance of traditional  forms of storytelling offered by the realist novel, the dominant genre at the end of the 19th century. Pałuba is a collection of five different texts, and the actual novel, which is called Pałuba (A Biographical Study)  (Pałuba (Studium biograficzne)), is just one of them. Besides this short novel, which narrates the story of the Polish landowner Piotr Strumieński and his two marriages (first to Angelika, and, after she commits suicide, to Ola), there is an allegorical novella titled The Dreams of Maria Dunin (A Palimpsest) (Sny Marii Dunin (Palimpsest)) and three critical essays. The novella tells us about an archaeologist who discovers a secret brotherhood devoted to the task of digging for the mysterious ancient Bell whose ringing is supposed to cause great calamities and destruction, and whose existence is as dubious as the veracity of the account itself. The essays give commentary on both the novella and the novel, on the connections between them, as well as insightful reflections on a range of philosophical, psychological and literary topics that seem to have preoccupied Irzykowski’s inquisitive mind ever since his student days at the Faculty of Philosophy in the University of Lwów, at the beginning of the 1890s.

Given the obscurity of Pałuba, I was genuinely surprised to learn that it had been made into a film. Well, understandably, not all of it. In 1984 the “novel” inside Irzykowski’s intricately constructed artifact was adapted for the screen by Marek Nowicki as Widziadlo (Apparition). It makes perfect sense that the most traditional element of the book was chosen as the basis for the film. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to see a cinematic version of the whole thing (enigmatic allegories, exegetical ramblings and all) provided, of course, that I have access to a complete translation of Pałuba first.

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3 Responses to The Great Untranslated: Pałuba by Karol Irzykowski

  1. languagehat says:

    Well, it may have inaugurated the era of self-reflexive writing and metafictional games for Polish literary modernism, but it was of course anticipated by Potocki’s 1805-1815 Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa), which itself was made into a terrific film.

    • Yes, of course. Even the actual history of Manuscrit could have been one of its narratives. Now two different versions are available in French. They even used to be sold as a boxed set.

  2. languagehat says:

    They even used to be sold as a boxed set.

    I love it!

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