The Argonauts – Eliza Orzeszkowa

Sometimes you find a hidden gem that you understand why became hidden. Either the book isn’t good enough to fight obscurity, others have a language barrier that hinder even brilliant books to shine internationally. Other times you find hidden gems you take offence with are hidden. This is one of them.

thThe story is very simple. We are in Poland in the early 1900.  Aloysius Darvid is a millionaire with a wife and three children. At the beginning of the story his wife is ending an affair, his eldest daughter wants to marry someone he doesn’t approve of, his son is living his life as a dandy not making something of himself, and his youngest daughter dotes on him. That the youngest is such a daddy’s girl is sub-textually explained with her elder siblings and mother are shielding her. The plot of the story is just about how these three elements are resolved.

It’s difficult to talk about this book and not compare it to Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Both deal with people having to deal with the uglier side of life and how not everyone is able to handle it.

“I want painted pots” – The Argonauts

“If you take away the life-lie to the average person, you take away his will to live.” – The Wild Duck

uten navnI’m not saying it’s the same story though, far from it. Both are character driven stories about dealing with the uglier side of life. Both authors are known for writing critically about the upper middle class for the upper middle class. Both shows the difference in temperament and that the difference in temperance mean they handle things differently. In this I also read the warning that those born with a stronger temperament (those who aren’t afraid to talk to crowds, to take issues head on, to be able to get information quickly, can make people like them quickly) have an obligation to be careful with people with a different temperament than themselves.

I wouldn’t say that the stories are identical. As a shorter play Ibsen creates a short introduction to what is happening. We don’t really get the full picture and must piece the pieces ourselves. Ibsen don’t really paint any of the characters present as “the bad guy”. Orzeszkowa on the other hand hands us the main character Darvid on a platter telling us he is the one who did it. Not being evil, he is more painted as the tragic Byronic hero who ruins everything around him because of his greed. Not greed for money, but for the chase of money. This is shown in conversation between him and his youngest daughter. After telling her that the greatest thing in life is to work she states:

“But I” she began, “if I wanted to work, should not know what to work for, I should not know for what object I could work.”

He laughed.

“You will not need to work: I will work for you, and instead of you,”

“Well father,” exclaimed she, with a resonant laugh. “what can I do? To worship, to love, is exaltation – duty is labour, but if I may not labour, what may I do?”

Again she opened her small hands with astonishment and inquiry: her eyes were flashing, her lips trembling. Darvid, with marks of disagreeable feeling on his face, reached for his watch.

“I have no time,” he said, “I must go to the club,”

I can’t really recommend this book enough, especially as a co-read with The Wild Duck if you haven’t read that one either. This is a hidden gem that needs to shine.


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