Washington Post

Washington Post, Sunday, May 7, 2000: X15.
Michael Dirda

Don't be put off by the heart-sinking phrase "Translated from the Polish."

Madame reads perfectly, with no sign at all that it wasn't written in English.  For this, we must presumably congratulate Agnieszka Kolakowska - but only after first thanking Antoni Libera, a critic, translator and theater director in Warsaw, for having written such a winning and vivacious first novel. With disarming nonchalance, Madame deliciously recreates the awakening of first love, the traditional horror of high school classes, the bluster and rebelliousness of youth, and the gradual discovery of a vocation. Imagine Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with a far more likeable protagonist and a dazzlingly sexy and elusive heroine. In short, this is an exceptionally entertaining book. And there's not a pierogie in it.

A high school student in the 1960s, our 18-year-old narrator - unnamed - possesses the swagger and self-confidence granted only to the deeply, seriously smart.  He's an officer of the chess club, plays jazz piano, and composes theatrical pieces that draw on the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Beckett. He can extemporize speeches in blank verse, knows French well enough to write 20-page compositions in the language, and is willing to shell out substantial cash for Holderlin's poems in German, a Gallimard edition of Conrad's Victory, and the journal of Joanna Schopenhauer, mother of the famously moody philosopher. In America such a paragon would seem an overachieving, straight-A sycophant, but Libera's amiable, slightly naive hero possesses a kind of unforced exuberance for learning that has nothing to do with 800s on the SATS. You care for him a lot. You wish your own children could be like him.  Intelligent and well read as he is, this whiz kid tends to rub teachers the wrong way. But what teachers! "Worst of all," the boy says of one instructor dubbed the Eunuch, ?he could utter threats so macabre that . . . the very sound of them made the world go dark before our eyes. The one he resorted to most often went like this: "I'll rot in prison for the rest of my days, but in a moment, with the aid of this instrument - whereupon he would take a penknife out of his pocket and flick it open to reveal the blade - 'with the aid of this blunt instrument here, I'll hack off someone's ears.'" Naturally, Libera's (probably at least semi-autobiographical) hero provokes the school authorities?the Viper, the Tapeworm?constantly. They accuse him of cosmopolitanism, of denigrating not only Polish culture but also the manifestly glorious achievements of Marxist-Leninism.

Still, there is one teacher who rises, like the evening star, above this pettiness: Madame la directrice, the recently appointed headmistress of the school and instructor in French. At 31 she embodies all that we mean by Gallic worldliness and elegance:

"The entire class lived only for the French lessons; between them we merely existed, in a kind of hypnotized daze. The boys wandered about gloomy and sullen, with flushed cheeks and dark circles under their eyes, leaving no doubt as to the activities to which they devoted their spare time; the girls crept around listlessly, scribbling in their diaries, where they scrupulously wrote down every detail of Madame's appearance each day: her skirt, her dress, the color of her scarf; her makeup, and whether it seemed heavier or lighter than on the previous day; her hair, and whether it looked as if she had recently been to the hairdresser's. These notes were then compared, cross-referenced, and compiled, so that the girls, like secret agents or archivists for the Security Services, were in possession of almost all the facts concerning Madame's use of cosmetics and the contents of her wardrobe. They knew such arcane details as the brand of mascara she used and the number that corresponded to the exact shade of her lipstick; they had evidence that she wore panty hose (an almost unobtainable rarity in those days) rather than stockings, and that one of her bras was black."

At first our romantic chevalier sans peur et sans reproche tries to impress the no-nonsense, seemingly indifferent Madame with his wit and ingenuity: He writes an essay in French, incorporating subtle, only half-hidden compliments, including plays on her name and references to her birthday. When this fails to thaw the Ice Queen's reserve, he determines to find out all he can about her personal life, and so embarks on the great adventure of his last year at school.  In due course, the narrator's investigations lead him back into the political and cultural history of Poland, back to the Spanish Civil War, even back to Schopenhauer's unhappy parents. At one point, he is nearly arrested after he visits the French embassy, but manages to sweet-talk his way out of near disaster. In fact, to make his various discoveries, he increasingly draws on his verbal flair, the dramatic skills of an improvisational actor, and a propensity to regard human interaction as a chess game or ongoing fiction. Though much of the novel possesses a wistful, slightly dreamlike quality - how does even a star student manage so much time away from home and classroom?--there are frequent reminders of the petty tyranny of Iron Curtain life, exemplified most memorably in a pair of crudely savage bus-ticket inspectors. In one bitter chapter we feel the humiliations and disgust of an idealistic Romance Languages professor as he desperately tries to attend a scholarly conference in Tours. Yet there are, of course, far worse sufferings: Madame's father dies in prison, after being spirited away by the secret police at dawn. And Madame herself, for all her cool Catherine Deneuve-like beauty and chic, is ravaged by yearning for . . .  something more than what her present life allows.

Against these gray-suited political realities, Libera regularly counterpoints instances of quiet but overt sensuality or explosions of color and vitality, most of them linked to France. The high school senior stops by the Centre de Civilisation Franaise and encounters a svelte and undeniably flirtatious 60-year-old:

"'?Have you any other questions?' She picked up a Bic (one of the rounded kind) and played with it idly, clicking the mechanism repeatedly, in and out, watching the tip extrude and retract."

Soon the erotic undercurrents grow increasingly powerful during three special events: an exhibition of scandalously sexual Picasso drawings; a presentation of Racine's Phedre - the tragedy in which an older woman lusts after her stepson; and a showing of Claude LeLouche's movie, "A Man and a Woman." At each soiree our hero spies out Madame and, after the film, follows her home. To his dismay.  One would expect a novel of sentimental education to end with heartbreak, like the story our sighing lover eventually writes: "It was a novella about the illusory nature of human hopes and dreams, darkly pessimistic and permeated by an unrelieved skepticism about the possibility of happiness. Happiness does not endure, the narrator seemed to be saying; it does not breed happiness. It can only be fleeting. Life's melody is a sad one, and if it is sometimes heard in a major key, it always ends in a minor. A joyful, hopeful beginning must always be viewed from the perspective of the end." But in his own book Antoni Libera concludes by regaling and pleasing the reader with a series of romantic surprises. At one point he magically transmutes the recitation of Racine?s verses into something akin to sexual communion. Certainly, by the close of Madame most male readers will be as deeply infatuated with this generous and frankly sensual woman as her young disciple.

Replete with erudition, subdued humor and sorrowful political satire, an aria to all things French, as well as an almost courtly love story and a paean to the power of art - what more can one ask of a novel? Stendhal himself would have loved Madame. And if he had known known Polish, he might even have written it.