The Coming Spring
By Stefan Žeromski. Translated and with an introduction by Bill Johnston. Budapest-New York: Central European University Press (firstname.lastname@example.org), 2007. xiii + 413 pages. ISBN 978-9637326899. Paper. $16.95.
Stefan Žeromski’s allegorical last novel, The Coming Spring [Przedwiośnie, 1925], asks a series of questions about how to define a home and build a nation. The novel’s central character, Cezary Baryka, tries to reconcile his ideas of home and nation with his revolutionary beliefs. The novel is a product of Žeromski’s involvement in Polish independence movements and his concerns with social reform. Its timespan comprises the years when Poland reappeared as an independent state, Europe was recovering from the First World War, and neighboring Russia underwent its own transformative revolution. Cezary Baryka is consistently presented with scenarios that challenge his adopted Marxist views. Ultimately, he must reconcile these views with how a newly independent Poland should be governed and what role the people should play in that nation.
Cezary is raised in an upper-middle-class home in Baku, Azerbaijan where his father, Seweryn, works as an oil executive. After his father is drafted to fight communist revolutionaries in Russia and then disappears, Cezary discovers that his mother secretly pines for an abandoned lover in Siedlce, Poland: “That name had a magic power for her. It conjured up long-ago spring mornings and summer days that were no more” (20). His mother’s longing for a place she can no longer see clashes with Cezary’s mounting interest in communism. As Soviet revolutionaries prevail, the family’s home is requisitioned and its fortune lost. In spite of that, Cezary still defends the revolutionaries. Only after his mother dies in a labor camp when she is caught hoarding food and valuables to save the family does Cezary discover communism’s secret dimension.
The father’s sudden reemergence results in a new conflict in which the Polish characters are forced to secretly flee to Poland, a land Cezary’s father yearns for fiercely and nostalgically. Seweryn tells his son about a new project in which architects are designing futuristic glass houses that can provide “protection from the severity of human nature and its fearful toxins [and] that the middle classes will strive for. . . to become healthy and stay that way” (94). Cezary begins to see ways that revolutionary politics can merge with nationalism. When the long and difficult train trip ends, however, the family’s few remaining belongings are extorted, his father dies, and the technological utopia is obviously absent upon Cezary’s arrival.
Cezary is a young man who can claim no clear home. His birth nation has become part of the Soviet Union. Although a political refugee from there, he still embraces Soviet politics. He now lives in Poland, a nation attempting to define itself in the twentieth century while clinging to its past. As a “new Pole” he is faced with the dilemma of which side to fight for in the Polish-Soviet War. Fascinated by Poland’s enthusiastic nationhood, he decides to fight for his newly adopted homeland and befriends Hipolit, a fellow soldier. Hipolit’s family’s sprawling manor, Nawłoć, allows Cezary a place to stay while he decides whether to resume medical studies in Warsaw.
Bill Johnston notes in his introduction that some critics have suggested the Nawłoć section “would function better as a separate novella” (x). The section does tonally match a Victorian novel of manners more than the political discourse predominating the novel’s beginning and ending. The section, however, does correspond thematically to Žeromski’s explorations of home. Cezary is perpetually conflicted at Nawłoć, as he is everywhere else. He feels entirely accepted at Nawłoć and resigns himself to the comforts of bourgeois country life, but is clearly displeased by his enjoyment of it. More importantly, however, Nawłoć serves as a place where he discovers love. Like most of the situations in The Coming Spring though, the series of relationships turns out to be more complex than expected, ending in a series of misunderstandings and tragedies. At this point the novel’s title clearly becomes ironic—the sense of renewal that connects Poland’s renewed nationhood with Cezary’s ability to establish a stable home is constantly thwarted by irresolvable struggles.
Unwelcome in Nawłoć, Cezary resumes medical studies while living in a squalid Warsaw apartment. There he is again torn between two widely varying ideologies. Szymon Gajowiec, an academic friend of Cezary’s father, presents an intensely romantic—albeit revolutionary—case for Polish nationhood. Gajowiec hangs pictures of martyrs for Polish independence and quotes Adam Mickiewicz’s poems to bolster his arguments. Meanwhile, Antoni Lulek, a sickly, sadistic Marxist, attempts to manipulate Cezary into rejecting Polish nationalism for revolutionary communism. Cezary’s interest in how the Polish people, and especially the poor, actually live forces him to decide whether he can reconcile ideologies with a growing attachment to his adopted homeland.
Many of the novel’s concerns seem relevant, especially given Poland’s entry into the European Union and the current world economy. Cezary’s consideration of how the Polish nation must provide for its immigrant population seems pertinent in light of increasingly diasporic work forces. While the novel’s rhetoric describing Jewish ghettos comes across as very critical of Jews, the immigrant status of several characters renders the ideas of even these passages worthy of consideration. Likewise, Gajowiec’s discussion about building a national economy through the złoty certainly creates parallel questions about what adopting the Euro in a few years will mean for Poland. Even in twenty-first- century Europe, many of Žeromski’s explorations of nation and governance remain pertinent. ◊
Back to the January 2010 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 2/22/10