I have mentioned two books by MacLehose Press before—In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano and The Sorrows of Mexico: An Indictment of their Country’s Failings by 7 Exceptional Writers—both were amazing. The same publishing house recently released a book called The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Polish novelist and journalist Żanna Słoniowska (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).
Słoniowska was born in Lviv, Ukraine in 1978, and attended the Ukrainian Academy of Printing. She moved to Poland in 2002. She lives in Krakow and (I suppose) holds a doctorate from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw. She is the winner of at least two big Polish awards: Znak Publishers’ Literary Prize and the Conrad Award.
The House with the Stained-Glass Window is a very well-written novel, and a little complicated, which is why I feel I must share the official description:
In 1989, Marianna, the beautiful star soprano at the Lviv opera, is shot dead in the street as she leads the Ukrainian citizens in their protest against Soviet power. Only eleven years old at the time, her daughter tells the story of their family before and after that critical moment – including, ten years later, her own passionate affair with an older, married man.
Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening as she matures under the influence of her relatives, her mother’s former lover, her city and its fortunes.
Set across a difficult century, The House with the Stained-Glass Window depicts the changing face of Lviv (also known by the names Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg and others) as it is claimed by different political powers—Austria-Hungary, Poland, the Soviet Union, Ukraine. The novel closes in 2014 with the Euromaidan Protests.
Entangled in these currents are four women—Marianna the opera singer, Marianna’s daughter (a painter), Marianna’s mother and Marianna’s grandmother. They hardly come across as being terrifically brave or pure. They are messy, often struggling with relationships and attachments that go nowhere; they frequently fail to communicate with and convince each other of their passions and deepest desires. But running through the tumult—domestic and social—is the artistic impulse, passing from one generation to another. It is an activity that injects some order into the chaos. And the shining and glittering stained-glass window that hangs in the house of the women of this story becomes something of a redeeming force, pointing out to a sort of transcendence, a state of being that is greater and higher than the surrounding situation.
I would highly recommend this novel to those interested in Central and Eastern Europe—for it is thorough (and over that, luminously poetic) in its examination of the history and culture of this region.
Read a few excerpts:
My great-granma was an unsuccessful opera singer, my granma was an unsuccessful painter, my mother was a successful opera singer, I would be a successful painter, my daughter would be an unsuccessful opera singer or a successful painter, her daughter, depending what my daughter chose, would be either a successful opera singer or a successful painter, lack of success times lack of success equals success, like in mathematics. We are like Russian dolls, one in the belly of another, it’s not entirely clear who is inside whom, all that’s apparent is who is alive, and who is not, we are like Russian dolls transpierced by a single shot, but I used to think Great-Granma wasn’t in this chain. She was an unsuccessful opera singer, so my grandmother is an unsuccessful painter, but my mother, although she was a prima donna, is now dead.
The art school was located in a large residential building; at the time nobody knew that a few years later it would fall into ruin, and everything would be evacuated from it, including the shabby cinema on the ground floor, which would mean it could be quite officially demolished. Soon it would be joined by the Soviet Union, and they’d fall apart in parallel, in a race – nothing could save them from a hideous death right at the heart of the city, though the building would outlive the empire. Just before its demise, the young people would cover it in colourful slogans; later on, the city would miss it, like somebody missing a front tooth, except that no-one would know if the gap it had left was a sad, senile one, or a temporary one between milk and permanent teeth.
The topography of our flat was fixed for good: just as the seas, mountains and deserts never change their position on the map, so the position of the furniture, fittings and domestic appliances was immovable in our house. This permanence of objects was probably a response to the instability of human fate.
“…For me, the stained-glass window on your stairwell is the city’s final cultural membrane. If that tears, nothing is going to save it.”
Read more about Żanna Słoniowska on the website of the Conrad Festival.