Antoni Libera’s Madame (1998 in Polish, 2000 in English, translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska) has become something of a literary phenomenon, having been highly praised by reviewers in such prestigious newspapers and journals as The Washington Post, Die Welt, The Los Angeles Times, El Pais, The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Independent. Widely proclaimed as one of the novels of the year in 1998, winner of the ZNAK literary competition and nominated in 1999 for the Nike prize (Nagroda Literacka NIKE) one of Poland’s most important literary awards, translated into 15 languages, Madame is utterly absorbing and holds the reader’s attention from start to finish.
Madame – a novel about a French teacher and a student, set in 1960s Warsaw.
Libera’s book is based on a prosaic, even trivial, story: a young man feels a deep fascination for one of his teachers. Madame, however, is an unapproachable beauty, who symbolises freedom in the grey PRL era. While ostensibly she teaches French, her actual lessons are more about freedom of thought, the power of the word and the civilising influence of culture and art, and are experienced by the young narrator as a breath of fresh air in the dull, fusty reality of the mid 1960s. Despite the somewhat humdrum plot, the novel is distinguished by the author’s exemplary style and wealth of cultural allusions, the manner in which the descriptive passages are carefully constructed and the frequent escalation of tension and emotion.
Antoni Libera, who was born in 1949, is a graduate of Warsaw University and an acknowledged expert on the plays of Samuel Beckett, which he has translated into Polish and often directed both in Poland and abroad. Madame, which is partly an ironic self portrait of his youth, is his first novel. As Stanislaw Barańczak noted when reviewing the American edition, Madame is a work that can be treated in a number of different ways – as a love story, a thriller, a comic political novel and a social satire.
Madame is a work that is thought-provoking and which inspires reflections. Among those who experienced them, it stimulates the recall of times now irrevocably passed. For a younger generation, its skilful handling of mood and setting provides an insight into the realities of a period characterised by greyness, forced conformity and the longing for freedom, a period which, nevertheless, was not without a certain richness.