Nothing to See Here: Wioletta Greg’s “Accommodations,” Translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft


By Benjamin Paloff


WiolettaGregAfter reading Wioletta Greg’s Accommodations, one can be forgiven for wondering whether the novel—not this short novel in particular, but the novel as such, as a literary form—might have exhausted its possibilities. That is no slight against this pleasant, if forgettable, little book, just a pertinent observation about a text in which nothing much happens. It’s 1994, a period of rapid socioeconomic transformation in formerly Communist Poland. The young narrator-protagonist, also named Wioletta (usually shortened to Wiola), leaves the traditionalist village where she has been raised and settles in Czestochowa, a small city that is the seat of Poland’s distinctively reactionary brand of official Catholicism, which is obsessively homophobic, xenophobic, and demanding of blind obedience. This might in itself constitute a happening, insofar as abandoning the village for the city typically occasions an adventure, that of the newcomer learning to navigate a world of unforeseen differences, whereas Czestochowa is an urban amplification of the very same provincialism one generally leaves the village to escape. But Greg shows little interest in this modest twist. Neither Wioletta—not the author, nor the heroine—projects a strong desire for anything transformative.

This lack of ambition, or at least of the kind of ambition that could be satisfied by achieving the new, the unexpected, the eventful in prose, would at first seem to place Greg’s project within the genealogy of Modernist works that likewise depict nothing much beyond waiting—for the end of the day, for death, for Godot, for Proust’s maman to absent herself from the dinner party and kiss Marcel goodnight. But there, it’s usually the compositional or diegetic form that takes center stage. Here, not much is happening with the form, either.

Accommodations is, rather, a portrait. And just as the most moving effects in painted portraiture are usually accomplished by creating drama in the absence of action—that is, by suggesting movement, interiority, and relations while showing none—so too is it Greg’s idiosyncratic and easily distracted attentions that best recommend this book. Wioletta-the-protagonist doesn’t so much narrate a story as she offers a running play-by-play. In clipped, present-tense remarks, she conveys the immediacy of her own experience as she pieces together a life for herself in a new setting. But unlike the stock tale of trying to make it in the Big City, which immediately begins to turn the ingénue’s innocence into experience, Wioletta’s adventure hardly seems like an adventure—literally, an “arrival” or “approach”—since there is nothing momentous here to let us know we have arrived in the first place. The closest thing to such an event might have been the internal drama of deciding to quit one’s home and community in the countryside for the urban unknown, but that decision has already been made by the time Accommodations begins, and in any case Czestochowa remains, in its social and religious conservatism, much closer to the village than it is to Warsaw. Wioletta doesn’t seem to feel much of a difference. There is little to change her over the course of the novel, and by its end there is little sense that she has changed.

Readers will have radically different experiences of this stasis depending on whether they come to it having already read Swallowing Mercury, Greg’s previous and similarly autobiographical novel, published in Eliza Marciniak’s translation in 2017. A coming-of-age story consisting of very short, individually titled snapshots, that volume offers the formal and experiential events that this one carefully withholds, such that reading the two books in succession renders Accommodations the extended denouement to Swallowing Mercury’s take on the Bildungsroman. The backward-looking, past-tense rumination of Swallowing Mercury finds its implied “to be continued” completed in the present tense of Accommodations. Read in isolation, Accommodations is simply the background radiation of growing up already done and decisions already made.

If the reader may find him- or herself exasperated by any one element of this telling, it is less likely to be the durability of its stasis, from which the lively prose provides ample distraction, but rather the creeping solipsism of its focus. Even on a monumental scale, as we find in Proust or, more recently, Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, the tightly autobiographical novel can mitigate the project’s narcissistic tendencies by turning self-reflection outward, using the granular detail about the author’s own experiences, feelings, and philosophical musings to cast a new light on society, history, or even the reader’s own life, on what it means to think about oneself in biographical terms, from the outside. In Accommodations, we never get outside. Greg’s protagonist never stops being a babe in the woods, as blind to others’ interiority as she is uninterested in her own. Every so often, the reader may feel oddly superfluous, as though this speaker would drone on blithely to and about herself whether or not there were anyone there listening.

Why, then, would we listen? For the language of the telling more than for anything told. Greg, who has lived in the United Kingdom since 2006 and anglicizes her surname (Grzegorzewska) when publishing in English, is a poet, and her prose retains a distinctly lyrical sensibility. There is little connective tissue that would prescribe meaning to the offhand allusions, trivial impressions, and passing observations that arrive with such rapidity that the reader willing to succumb to the flood has no time to remark the paucity of storytelling.

A great many of the references, whether to the general peculiarity of living in a Central European Nowheresville in the years following the collapse of Communism or to the specific brands, personalities, or geography that compose that peculiarity, will be lost on the uninitiated. When Wioletta is wandering among hawkers of devotional trinkets and meets “a new friend who hangs out at one of these stalls, a gregarious rat I call Rydzyk, like the milk-cap mushroom,” any Pole will immediately recognize the significance of naming a rat “Rydzyk,” which happens to be the name of Poland’s most notoriously outspoken, virulently anti-Semitic cleric. Rather than alienate the reader, however, such a connection washes effortlessly into others, for readers to catch or miss as they will. The audience familiar with the righteous inanity of Tadeusz Rydzyk may just as easily be perplexed by a passing reference to watching Miami Vice on VHS or playing Tekken. There is a pleasantly democratic ethos at work in language that doesn’t seem to differentiate between proper nouns and common ones, the esoteric and the everyday, the essential and the superfluous. And there is an honesty in it, too. Unlike the life fashioned in a conventional autobiographical text, life as it is lived is pure input, an informational flow free of preconceptions about what is relevant.

None of this happens in a translated work, of course, without the artistry of an able translator, and since there is so little going on in this book beyond language, what is happening within language can be ascribed almost entirely to Greg’s translators, first to the foundation laid by Marciniak’s rendering of Swallowing Mercury, and now to Jennifer Croft’s advancement of it in Accommodations. Croft, a polyglot novelist whose translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights received the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, knows her way to a well-wrought phrase. Thanks to her efforts, the willing reader need not be concerned that there is so little novel in this novel. There’s still plenty of poem.

 

Greg, Wioletta. Accommodations. Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. Transit Books, 2019.

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