For a brief period in late 2018 the name of the Polish novelist Władysław Reymont (1867–1925) surfaced repeatedly in the international press, only to be returned just as quickly to the shelf of literary obscurity. The occasion for this momentary disturbance of the long dead and largely forgotten was the announcement that another Pole, Olga Tokarczuk, a writer whose acclaimed “constellation novels” are likewise sprawling and centreless, had just been awarded the Nobel prize in literature. Reymont had received his own Nobel in 1924, allegedly as a palatable alternative to his compatriot Stefan Żeromski, who was regarded as overly anti-German in his day, yet remains widely read and admired in our own.
For all the reasons we might have for turning to Reymont’s bricklike The Peasants (Chłopi) in Anna Zaranko’s virtuosic new translation, his standing as a Nobel laureate is the least persuasive. Written from 1901 to 1908 and published serially during the same period, The Peasants offers a portrait of a small rural community over the course of a single year in the then recent past. That temporality shapes the lives of Reymont’s characters, who are bound more closely to the agricultural cycle than to a wider world that they largely ignore. The novel is itself structured around the seasons, and not by plot or by events significant to the emerging portrait of any given character. The protagonist of this tale is Peasants writ large, sans article, which also happens to be a perfectly serviceable rendition of the Polish title.
There are, of course, individual characters and conflicts. Boryna, the most prosperous farmer in the village of Lipce, decides to take a new wife, throwing into disarray his son’s interests – both in the younger woman his father is marrying and in the land that will now have to be divided among more heirs. There is a separate dispute over hunting rights in the nearby woods that erupts into violence. Unresolved tensions between the peasants and local Jews simmer beneath casual interactions. But none of these complications leads to the kind of crisis that typically inspires readerly interest. What happens in The Peasants is as unremarkably real as Lipce itself, which in 1983 officially added “Reymont” to its name to distinguish it from a half-dozen other Polish villages called Lipce.
Reymont seeks to draw the reader into the natural flow of this microcosm of society, as well as into the community’s rich harmonies with nature. He achieves this not by honing the particulars of the extraordinary, but by allowing local sights and sounds to emerge organically from the background and to fade back into it. At times the impressions come at such a clip as to approach rapture, as in this almost Proustian sentence, where a description of Boryna sweeping his young bride into their wedding dance becomes a whirling dance of its own:
And in his wake other couples sprang from the crowd and began to stamp and sing and spin, and all with ever-greater speed so that it seemed a hundred spindles, full of yarn of many colours, were twirling and clattering about the chamber, spinning so fast no eye could tell if they were man or woman – nothing but a rainbow that someone had spilled and whipped to a whirlwind so that its colours played and shimmered and reeled faster and more furious and frenzied, until at times the rush of movement blew out the lamps, plunging the dancers into night, while splintered streaks of moonlight poured through the windows, a twinkling tide of silver across the darkness and the twirling human throng, which surged forwards on the froth of a singing wave, flickering and swirling in the moonbeams like a vision in a dream and vanishing back into impenetrable shadow, to emerge once more and flash across the opposite wall, where flames of light were caught spluttering and spraying in the glazed pictures, and roll past to tumble into night again, so that only the broken sound of heavy gasps, stamping and cries mingled and rang out in the darkened room.
A stress too heavy or a word too ponderous would make a sentence like this sound bombastic in translation, but Zaranko’s touch is as light as the author’s. Whether he is casting himself into verbal flights or transcribing the shouts of a drunken brawl, Reymont invites the reader to take in the flow of colours and movement. Critics refer to this style as “impressionist”, and the allusion to the visual arts is not misplaced. Instead of presenting the world in the definite terms of what we already know, the author relies on the reader’s willingness to be carried by the prose, so that the details become inconsequential and blurry. It is fitting, then, that the proximate occasion for this new translation of Reymont’s magnum opus is the anticipated release of a film adaptation by Dorota Kobiela, whose previous film, Loving Vincent (2017), created an animated image from thick impressionist brushstrokes.
The Peasants is similarly dependent on style. We come to it not to meet unique personalities or to witness impressive feats, but to lose ourselves in quotidian affairs that unfold at just enough remove in space or time as to enchant us anew. Thanks to its many sideward glances at peasant life, which are glossed by efficient notes, the reader can certainly glean a great deal about the world it depicts. But Reymont’s aim is to take us there and see it as he, a sometime railroad worker in Lipce, saw it, or as Boryna sees it, seething with a vitality that is as glorious as it is inconsequential:
All he knew now was what dry trees might dream of in earliest springtime, that it was time to wake them from their winter stupor, time to release the surging sap gathered within, time to hum the jubilant song of life on the winds, for they do not know that their dreaming is barren and all their deeds in vain …
That Zaranko manages to sustain this spell over nearly 1,000 pages testifies to her exceptional talents as a translator and justifies the considerable effort to reintroduce Reymont’s novel, which has been available in an unreadably creaky English version since 1925.
It also strikes a sharp contrast with The Revolt of the Animals, Reymont’s last novel, of 1924, which is now appearing in English for the first time. Known in Polish simply as The Revolt (Bunt), it tells the story of mistreated farm animals who succeed in overthrowing their owners, only to watch their would-be socialist revolution devolve into disillusionment and chaos. The anticipation of George Orwell would be obvious even without the fifty-page introduction in which the translator, Charles S. Kraszewski, belabours the point. Orwell was probably unfamiliar with Reymont’s fable. In any event it is the charm of the language and the strange idyll that it conjures up, rather than the events described, that makes Reymont worthwhile today. Kraszewski’s prose displays none of that charm, instead adhering to an almost algorithmic dutifulness that demonstrates the non-synonymy of accuracy and art. Very often what is wryly fanciful in Reymont becomes Kraszewski’s purple prose:
Every now and then someone new pushed himself out in front of them to give expression to the universal ire, anxiety, and helplessness, only to be shoved aside without any rhyme or reason, battered, trampled, cast shamelessly beyond the pale to perish beneath the beaks of the lurking birds of prey. Shrike, the old manor ox, harangued the longest, being immense and of incredibly powerful voice.
The stylistic features that might catch the eye in this passage – the heightened diction, the echo of “helplessness” in “shamelessly”, the concatenated prepositional phrases, the plodding alliterations – belong much more to Kraszewski than to Reymont, who begins to sound unnervingly like the stiff English renderings of his prose that appeared in his lifetime and are now freely available to anyone with an internet connection.
By contrast, it is in moments free from the internet, perhaps on a beach or resting against a shady tree, that the world of The Peasants will most entice us. As much now as when it first appeared it is a welcome invitation to allow our own sense of time to dissolve into the turning of the seasons.
Benjamin Paloff’s most recent book is Lost in the Shadow of the Word: Space, time, and freedom in interwar Eastern Europe, 2016