Madame (Libera)

Antoni Libera, 1998 (trans., Agnieszka Kolakowska, 2000)
Canaongate Books
438 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781841955209

The comic "sentimental education" of a schoolboy who falls in love with his French teacher.

Madame is an unexpected gem: a novel about Poland during the grim years of Soviet-controlled mediocrity, which nonetheless sparkles with light and warmth.

Our young narrator-hero is suffering through the regulated boredom of high school when he is transfixed by a new teacher—an elegant "older woman" (she is thirty-two) who bewitches him with her glacial beauty and her strict intelligence. He resolves to learn everything he can about her and to win her heart.

In a sequence of marvelously funny but sobering maneuvers, he learns much more than he expected to—about politics, Poland, the Spanish Civil War, and his own passion for theater and art—all while his loved one continues to elude him. Yet without his realizing it, his efforts—largely bookish and literary—to close in on Madame are his first steps to liberation as an artist. Later, during a stint as a teacher-in-training in his old school, he discovers that he himself has become a legendary figure to a new generation of students, and he begins to understand the deceits and blessings of myth, and its redemptive power.

A winning portrait of an artist as a young man, Madame is at the same time a moving, engaging novel about strength and weakness, first love, and the efforts we make to reconcile, in art, the opposing forces of reason and passio. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—April 19, 1949
Where—Warsaw, Poland
Education—Warsaw University; Ph.D., Polish Academy of
Awards—Grand Prix of Znak

Antoni Libera, a Polish leading literary critic, translator, writer, theatre director, is best known for his translations and productions of Samuel Beckett's plays. Other translated authors include Shakespeare (Macbeth), Sophocles (Antigone), Wilde (Salome), Hölderlin and others. He translated a number of operas as well.

Libera's first novel Madame (1998) was awarded Grand Prix of Znak (a major publishing house in Poland) and has been translated into 20 languages. (Adapted from Wikipedia .)

Book Reviews
Madame is at the same time an enthralling read, a nostalgic tale of youthful passion, and a sober analysis of growing up under Eastern Europe's gray skies in the sixties. Antoni Libera, known in Poland up till now as a translator and director, proves himself here to be an experienced and absorbing prose writer.
Times (London)

Antoni Libera's Madame, set in Soviet-controlled Warsaw in the 1960's, demonstrates the power of the coming-of-age novel to renew itself with each generation.... Libera's portrayal of a gifted mind learning courage and honor in the most deprived of circumstances is inherently powerful and dramatic.
David Walton - New York Times Book Review

Stendhal would have loved this novel. If he had known Polish, he would even have been able to write it himself.
Washington Post

The hero of this excellent novel is a high-school student, trying to fulfill his romantic destiny in the decidedly unromantic world of the Communist Polish People's Republic... As the boy investigates his beloved's complicated past with a particularly earnest and endearing deviousness, he is forced to make sense of the social and political myths he has inherited.
The New Yorker

A teenage boy's doomed love for his glamorous French instructor in 1960s Poland informs the masterfully constructed debut of Warsaw critic and drama director Libera. When a beautiful 32-year-old teacher, known primarily as "Madame," takes over the narrator's high school French class, he is entranced by her combination of austere intelligence and immaculate beauty. He soon begins following her and researching her life to feed his obsession. When he flirtatiously taunts her in class with covert references to her past, she seems only mildly indignant. Finally, he discovers that she is the daughter of a man who left Poland for political reasons during the 1940s, and that she has felt uncertain of her own identity for much of her adult life; this revelation fills him with empathy for her. The unlikely chemistry between the immature pupil and his adult teacher is electrifying, and the tantalizing pace builds to a mystifying and heart-wrenching climax. Libera paints the narrator's obsession with Madame with a wit worthy of Nabokov (in a crystalline translation by Kolakowska) as his satire of the youth's reckless romantic impulse mixes with heated romantic intrigue. In the course of researching his amour, the narrator sees Picasso's The Human Comedy drawings and Lelouch's film A Man and a Woman, both new at the time; the attitude toward physical and psychological love expressed in both adds a complex and fitting symbolism to the intense politics and passion in the narrative. The layers of the student's obsession unravel with impressive measure as well, even if Libera occasionally gives too much attention to the inner workings of his hero's mind or the history of Poland's oppression by Communist forces. This epic fantasy is deeply satisfying, heartbreaking and enthralling.
Publishers Weekly

In this first novel from Polish critic and theater director Libera, the high school-aged protagonist finds life in Soviet-dominated Poland to be dreary and lacking in the drama of earlier eras. The pressure to conform politically and socially thwarts his desire for pure artistic expression. His resignation to the unremarkable is interrupted by a growing obsession with his elegant and enigmatic French teacher, Madame—seemingly out of reach at age 32. Thus, the young man spends his final year of high school uncovering the details of Madame's personal life, hoping to use these details to woo her through a covert operation that involves the intricate manipulation of the spoken and written word. While engaged in this espionage, he learns that the dramatic is made up of the everyday and that the Polish-Soviet system promotes mediocrity while burying the exceptional. This deeply symbolic Bildungsroman is full of tragedy and comedy, exuberance and suffocation. Highly recommended. —Rebecca A. Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA
Library Journal

Though numerous digressions sometimes take away from the flow of the novel, the narrator's lively and passionate voice keeps the reader engaged. The only other detraction is the untranslated French throughout the text, but overall, this is an impressive debut. —Kristine Huntley

Discussion Questions
(Many thanks to Monterey County Free Libraries, of California, for developing and sharing the following questions as part of their Book Club to Go program.)

1. What makes this book distinctive?

2. Did you notice any symbolism or underlying themes?

3. How is the setting and period important to the theme?

4. Recollect your time in High School and compare your school with the one portrayed in the book.

5. Did you have any memorable teachers similar to any teacher portrayed in the book?

6. How did you perceive the countries from behind the “iron curtain”? Did you learn something new about life in Eastern Europe in the sixties?

7. How did the ending of the book change your perception of the whole story?

8. Did any literary allusions encourage you to read more books, like “Victory” by Joseph Conrad or plays by Samuel Beckett?

9. Which of the characters from the book would you like to meet in person? What would you like to talk about with her/him?

10. In your opinion, why was Madame so desperate to leave Poland?

11. What do you think really happened to Madame and what was her life like after she left Poland?

12. In your opinion, why didn’t the protagonist escape from Poland? Do you think he finally did, when he finished the book?

13. What can be the meaning of the fact that we don’t know characters’ names?

14. Would this book make a good movie? Why or why not?

(Questions issued by Monterey County Free Libraries of California. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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