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The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma
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B+ : an amusing idea, well played out
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma begins with its eponymous (anti)hero down and out in Warsaw.
Now in his mid-thirties, he came from provincial Łysków (so far in the Polish outback that it is now part of Belarus), hoping to make it big in the big city, but when the novel opens he's failing yet again at getting a job -- a lowly job at that, as 'taxi dancer', people hired by establishments to dance with patrons.
The restaurant owner is unimpressed when he auditions: "He's got nothing, no moves, no pizzazz" -- which sums him up very well.
The Nicodemus Dyzma psyche -- lucky for him -- was bereft of imagination. The scope of his plans and expectations didn't extend beyond the boundaries of the very next day, and just as he'd made it through last week by selling his watch, he would survive the next by cashing in his coat and tails and patent leather shoes.On his way home, a load of papers fall out of a portfolio a messenger-boy jumping on a tram is carrying; the boy retrieves most of them, but one falls to the pavement -- where Dyzma picks it up. It turns out to be a fancy invitation. Hoping for a tip, Dyzma even tries to deliver the invitation himself, but is informed the person to whom it is addressed is abroad.
A Saturday night isn't a good night to get the best price for the clothes he figures he has to sell and instead he decides he might as well wear them out one more time. There's no name on the invitation he picked up -- there was just one on the envelope -- and so he decides it's worth a try to see if he can gain entry to the fancy government banquet; maybe he can wolf down some food before they throw him out.
Dyzma is concerned about not fitting in -- "How could he manage to act like one of them ?" -- but that turns out to work in his favor. Focused solely on getting food, he blows up when someone bumps his elbow and knocks his plate from his hands, loudly berating the fellow, Terkowski. This goes over surprisingly well, the well-mannered and polite society-people are impressed that he put Terkowski in his place in this way -- unthinkable for them --, feeling that he certainly deserved it, and they are amused by Dyzma's blasé attitude.
Among those impressed by Dyzma, and then by the attention he receives from the powerful and well-connected, is one Leon Kunicki, a very wealthy landowner who convinces himself that Dyzma is the ticket to helping him sort some of the issues that stand in the way of his business interests. He offers him a position as overseer of his estate and industrial facilities -- so convinced that he must get Dyzma on his side that even Dyzma's admissions that he knows: "absolutely nothing about any of that stuff" doesn't make him any less eager to engage his services -- and, indeed, has him up his offers of remuneration.
The scale of what Kunicki proposes, and the amount of money, dazzle Dyzma:
If Kunicki had offered him three hundred or even five hundred zlotys, the deal would have lost its abstract unattainability and appeared instead as a lucrative opportunity to fleece the old man.But the amounts Kunicki is talking about are beyond Dyzma's wildest imagination (admittedly not a high bar, as we've already learnt he: "was bereft of imagination") -- as is what he is expected to do for them. But Kunicki interprets Dyzma's hesitation as shrewdness and keeps making his offer more attractive. Dyzma is practically steamrollered into going along with Kunicki and at least checking out the estate, Koborowo, and he decides he might as well play along for as long as he can get away with it.
It turns out he can get away with it for a long time.
Kunicki is an astute businessman, a true wheeler-dealer, but also something of a blowhard, talking incessantly. He came to the estate through marriage, to the Countess Ponimirska, Nina, and through some finagling has wrested complete -- if not nominal -- control over everything. The marriage is not a happy one -- but at least Nina has a companion in Kunicki's headstrong daughter Kasia, who is close in age to her; indeed, the two have a close relationship, with Kasia particularly passionate and protective of Nina. (Going through Nina's diary later, Dyzma comes across: "some twaddle about Biltis and Mnasidika" (of Pierre Louÿs' The Songs of Bilitis-fame), but he's both too uneducated and oblivious to even conceive of the idea that the relationship between the two young women might be of a different nature than just the sisterly one they profess to.)
If Kasia is unimpressed and soon outright hostile to Dyzma, Nina is quite taken by him; like many, she is attracted to his raw and blunt, straightforward self, defending him to Kasia:
A brute ? Yes ! This is a new type of modern man ! He's a person of strength ! A victor ! A winner at life !Until then, of course, Dyzma had been anything but -- but once everyone chooses to see him as that, that's what he becomes. When Kasia says: "He tells it like he sees it", she's putting him down -- but everyone else is impressed by that forthrightness, interpreting it not as naïveté -- because, of course, Dyzma remains a know-nothing throughout -- but as wit or astuteness.
Nina also has a brother, Ponimirski, who lives on the grounds but is not allowed in the manor house, or off the property; he's not quite in his right mind and treated as the family madman -- but he also has good reason to be furious, especially at Kunicki, and he enlists Dymza to try get his Aunt Przełęska in Warsaw to help him. Since this Madame Przełęska is well-connected, Dyzma figures it might be useful to play along. Like Kasia, Ponimirski is unimpressed by Dyzma but willing to use him, and in his note to his aunt introduces him as a former classmate of his at Oxford -- a rather farfetched idea, since Dyzma barely knows a word of English, but even all that he can yet again turn to his advantage.
The connections Dyzma makes feed into each other, thrusting him evermore into the limelight. He's astute enough to say as little as possible, but quickly learns a valuable lesson: "repeating what he heard from others and passing it on as his own could produce big-time results". He's also careful not to believe the hype around him -- not that he can't help feeling that perhaps: "he'd rather underestimated himself until now" -- and he remains:
aware of certain shortcomings with regard to his own intelligence, upbringing, manners, and education.When thrust into a high government position, running a newly formed bank, he wisely hires the clever Krzepicki, and they make a very successful team. Dyzma is the ultimate front-man -- and Krzepicki recognizes that this works to both their advantage, so he's happy enough staying behind the scenes.
One danger Dyzma faces as he becomes a more prominent figure is that there are those who know his real background, and could essentially unmask him -- his old boss at the post office, for example, Boczek, or the working girl Mańka. But Dyzma is now powerful enough to see to it that they are handled -- though these are some of the uglier scenes in the novel, as both are brutally handled. Dyzma feels a pang of guilt, but not much more, more concerned at being connected with them (and what happened to them); he may not be well-educated or particularly smart, but he is no naïf, and he is perfectly willing to crush those who stand in his way, as he has proven before -- Kasia, too, was dealt with -- and will again. Krzepicki reminds him: "The world belongs to those who are capable of tossing scruples out the window", and that too is a lesson Dyzma takes to heart.
Nina is in love with Dyzma, and even if Dyzma doesn't feel nearly as strongly as she does (indeed: "By nature, Nicodemus Dyzma had never been one for strong desires, to say nothing of passions"), he acknowledges that she wouldn't be a bad catch -- especially if she regained control over the fine estate. Dyzma could see himself settling down there, as master of the manor ..... Of course, Kunicki stands in the way, with his iron grip on Nina -- but Dyzma has no qualms about destroying the man who made his unlikely rise possible, and sets about doing just that.
The rich and powerful, both the aristocracy and those in government, continue to fall for Dyzma. Even his outrageous outbursts are admired, while the solutions he offers for the country's woes are embraced -- and successful (at least in the short term). Wisely, Dyzma doesn't let it all go to his head, much less get power-hungry. He does what he has to to deal with those who get in his way -- even Terkowski, who never forgot that first confrontation, pops up again, only to quickly be shoved off -- but doesn't get too big for his britches. So also in the novel's conclusion, where everyone is clamoring for him to be the nation's savior again, Dyzma chooses the wiser course (and only gains even more respect for doing so).
The novel's final scene has Ponimirski laughing at everyone being taken in by a man who is so obviously:
a common swindler who's leading you around by the nose, a cunning scoundrel, impostor, and complete and utter moron all at the same time ! An idiot who has no idea about anything, not economics, not even spelling ! He's a boor, without a hint of good breeding, devoid of even fundamental civility ! Look at his yokel face and his ill manners ! A complete nitwit, an absolute zero !Ponimirski is absolutely right -- but no one wants to see it. Or rather, they see the characteristics they want to see: Dyzma's boorish behavior is the self-confident manner of someone who knows his due, for example. His bluntness is appreciated; it certainly stands in contrast to how everyone else in high society and politics acts and behaves.
Dyzma isn't an innocent in all this. There is no small element of cunning to his behavior. He figures out what works and will allow him to pass in this new world and situation he finds himself in, notably saying as little as possible and piggy-backing on others' ideas. He relies on those who are much more capable than him -- first Kunicki, then Krzepicki -- and basically merely goes along for the ride -- even as everyone sees, or chooses to see, him as the visionary leader. He does take action where necessary, notably in the treatment of those who might cause problems for him; indeed, Dyzma proves he can be rather unpleasantly ruthless, Dołęga-Mostowicz ensuring that, however much readers are amused by the character's rise to the top, they can never be entirely comfortable with it, as Dyzma's success is not only entirely undeserved but comes at a rather high human cost as well, as Dyzma truly is in every way a mediocrity, without any redeeming qualities (and certainly no heart of gold or the like).
The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma is, of course, a cruel satire, on how especially the would-be elite -- the movers and shakers of the Poland of the time -- allow themselves to be taken in. Not only do appearances trump competence, but the elite willfully allow themselves, indeed embrace being deceived by appearances that any closer look would reveal to be completely without substance, much less value.
Dyzma is no sweet, wise fool, either; he is in every way a base man. He treats practically everyone badly, except those that can serve his purposes, and even if he isn't smart enough to be truly conniving, he doesn't care about whom he hurts along the way as long he benefits. So, yes, The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma also leaves a distinctly sour taste, Dołęga-Mostowicz offering an often entertaining and funny story but also making sure that readers feel distinctly uncomfortable about the success of his hero.
It is a good story, and mostly a very fun ride. (There are some very ugly bits along the way, especially of sexual violation, which are hard to take.) A bit of a period-piece, it nevertheless is still an entertaining read today.
(Note: much has been made -- not least in Benjamin Paloff's Introduction -- of the fact that Jerzy Kosiński clearly borrowed from this book for his own 1970 novel, Being There (famously also made into a film in 1979, directed by Hal Ashby and starring Peter Sellers). It's fair enough to point to the connection -- it's hard to argue that Kosiński didn't have this novel very clearly in mind when writing his -- but shouldn't be as big a distraction as it's been turned into; these are very different works, with very different protagonists (for one, Kosiński's Chance is a true innocent while Dyzma is anything but).)
- M.A.Orthofer, 13 September 2020
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Polish author Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz lived 1898 to 1939.
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