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Antoni Libera

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To purchase Madame

Title: Madame
Author: Antoni Libera
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 440 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Madame - US
Madame - UK
Madame - Canada
Madame - France
Madame - Deutschland
  • Translated by Agniewska Kolakowska.

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Our Assessment:

B : broad picture of an intellectual youth's life in Poland in the 1960s -- ambitious and decently done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent A 4/6/2001 Katarzyna Zechenter
The LA Times A 2/4/2000 Thomas McGonigle
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 19/10/2000 Ulrich M. Schmid
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 6/8/2000 David Walton
The Spectator A 10/2/2001 Anne Applebaum
The Washington Post A+ 7/5/2000 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all consider it excellent, with only minor reservations.

  From the Reviews:
  • "I was unable to put down the beautiful Madame (.....) This vibrant novel about love in the Communist Warsaw of the 1960s, and adoration for an unreachable woman, sets Picasso's erotic drawings against the purity of first love, Chanel No 5, and Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War." - Katarzyna Zechenter, The Independent

  • "It is the absence of cunning that one finally admires in Madame. Libera refuses today's novelistic cheap tricks of re-creation, the tugging at the heartstrings: He allows his characters, acting as informants, to tell the narrator what they know of Madame and, through the telling, we are drawn into the mystery of her life. Madame is that wonderfully rare achievement: a book for adults who understand that questions and answers are interchangeable." - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Geschickt rekonstruiert Libera die verstaubte kommunistische Antiästhetik (.....) Der durchschlagende Erfolg von Madame in Polen beruht wohl auf dem attraktiven Identifikationsangebot, das der Protagonist seinen Lesern macht." - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Although this adept translation by Agnieszka Kolakowska can't prevent the novel from being somewhat overlong, Libera's portrayal of a gifted mind learning courage and honor in the most deprived of circumstances is inherently powerful and dramatic." - David Walton, The New York Times Book Review

  • "If the task of a good novel is to describe a particular time and a particular place in such a way that they seem real to people who never knew that time and that place, then here is a very good novel." - Anne Applebaum, The Spectator

  • "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." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ostensibly written by its narrator in 1982-3, just after Poland had come under martial law, Madame focusses largely on the narrator's youth in Warsaw in the mid-1960s. A fairly smart and enthusiastic young man, he is literate, interested in music and theatre, a chess player. His world is only partially dominated by the politics of the day (most notably in terms of the school administration, though in a few other situations the Polish condition also rears its ugly head). He is a curious and ambitious youth, interested in pushing limits and exploring possibilities: a typical wannabe intellectual teen. The book begins with the usual challenges to authority as the narrator forms a jazz band and puts on a theatrical production, small episodes meant to give a feel for the conditions in Poland at the time. Amusing enough, they seem somewhat out of place, not fully connected with the center of the novel.
       It is Madame who takes center-stage soon enough: the narrator becomes obsessed with his school's headmistress when she also takes over the French class he is taking in his last year of high school. Madame la Directrice, thirty-one when she takes over the class, has long been the subject of speculation among the students. Almost nothing is known about her. The narrator's obsession is, at first, focussed on determining who she is -- her background, family status, Party affiliation. There is little sense of love or lust, merely obsession.
       A determined (and personable) researcher, the narrator manages to worm a good deal of information out of various people. He finds out a great deal about Madame, specifically when it turns out that an old family friend, Constant, has a son, Freddy, who studied French literature at university with Madame. (Her thesis was on the work of Simone de Beauvoir; our narrator was, of course, already familiar with a number of works by Beauvoir.) As it turns out it is Constant, the father, who reveals the most interesting parts of la belle Victoire's background. (La belle Victoire is another nickname -- though here we at least learn Madame's middle name.)
       She was born in France, and she had a difficult youth. Her father was involved in the Spanish Civil War, with ramifications that haunt her still (and led to her return to Poland). The Spanish Civil War aside makes for an interesting historical analysis, though again it does not seem ideally integrated into the novel.
       Much is also made of the longing for the West. Freddy, himself an expert on French literature, describes the difficulties of travelling to France to participate in conferences and do research, a sad and amusing story (though perhaps also one that has been told far too many times). Madame's great aspiration is apparently also to return to France, and there is a certain desperation to some of her efforts to achieve this.
       In French class Madame and the narrator also duel it out, the narrator trying to interpret each of the Ice Queen's actions and reactions in schoolroom scenes that could take place most anywhere. In addition, the narrator manages to get himself an entrée to the cultural events given under French auspices in Warsaw -- among them a Picasso exhibit and a screening of A Man and a Woman -- all to observe Madame more closely.
       The youthful infatuation does, finally come apart, and the narrator covers the years in between the last time he sees Madame and the writing of this book in cursory manner. The narrator becomes a published writer, making his debut in his first year at university, but by the time he finishes this work he has long been on the "index of banned authors", publishing most of his work since the 1970s in the West. Returning to the scene of his earlier adventures (as a teacher in training) the circle closes with a sort of redemption.
       The time of Madame, when the narrator was young, saw a brief period of relative freedom, cultural and otherwise, but one soon stamped out. The novel conveys a decent picture of Poland (and specifically Warsaw) at the time, though politics are largely secondary. The novel is also entrenched in the Central European cultural tradition: beside the more obvious French slant (Phèdre plays a prominent role, and de Beauvoir, Beckett, and others also slip in) there is a great deal of Hölderlin, Joanna Schopenhauer, and Zeromski's Ashes, beside plentiful quotation from verse and drama. (Not much that might be an American teen's usual fare.)
       Libera's narrator does come off as a tad too precocious. A jack-of-all-trades, one day turning to jazz, the next to theatre, the next to literary speculation, then playing amateur detective and spy, he never seems fully convincing. The character is searching for his identity and his purpose, without lingering to discover whether any of his undertakings might offer a clue regarding them. Madame as an object of interest seems to follow on a parallel track, and by and large Libera fails to connect the two.
       The narrator at one point breaks out in teenage Angst; surprisingly there is only one such crisis. He complains:

It was all so conventional, so civilized, so "cultured," so polite -- a game of manners, abstract, logical. It wasn't real. There was no madness in it, no divine folly, no ecstasy. No faith except in reason, no sensibility, only sense. (...) Enclosed within myself, inaccessible, locked in the impregnable armour of my brain, I was nothing but irony and superficial wit, the eternal court jester, the buffoon.
       The narrator is a bit harsh on himself (and a bit full of himself). The judgement is, also, ultimately not convincing, the character always more well-rounded than he describes himself here, intellect and reason never dominating imagination and passion. Possibly it is the inadequacy (and irrelevancy) of passion and imagination, futile in this communist state, that the narrator laments. The uncertain focus does, however, weaken a book that ultimately isn't quite sure of its message.
       Noted director Libera brings in some fine theatrical touches and interesting literary digressions on poetry, drama, Schopenhauer, and the Spanish Civil War. It is a fairly entertaining volume, falling a bit flat only because it is not certain enough what it wants to be -- and because the author has not been able to weave the many smaller tales and episodes in the novel neatly into one.

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  • ZNAK publicity page
Reviews: Antoni Libera: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Antoni Libera was born in 1949. Also a literary critic and translator, he is best known as a theatre director (especially of Beckett).

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