"Madame," by Antoni Libera, translated by Agniewska Kolakowska. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. $24.
Remember the kid in your class, probably in high school, who always seemed to know everything and never stopped talking, the eager one who squirmed up there in front waggling his hand, frantic to answer the teacher's every question? The one who also seemed to outwit authority, got perfect grades and looked unbearably cool throughout?
We all hated that kid. Well, he's the verbose first-person narrator of this novel, telling us in excruciating detail about his infatuation with his beautiful French teacher, the impeccable ice goddess the whole high school is besotted with.
Despite determined stalking and intrusive investigation that would in most places get police attention, the lovesick adolescent doesn't attain his object, nor does Madame yield her ultimate secrets. But what a wearying non-affair this one proves to be. Long before the inevitable pitying brush-off, one wants repeatedly to slap the boy, tell him to grow up, find someone his own age, stop whining and wallowing in Weltschmerz and, above all, self-congratulation at each of his moves in what he often tells us is his brilliant chess game with Madame as the goal.
Since the reader also has to endure the narrator's chronic spouting of Schopenhauer, long quotations from French philosophy and poetry and his irritating habit of replying to those he wants to impress in Shakespearean verse, his stratagems and maneuvers seem to take years rather than months, and one conceives a certain sympathy for Madame, whose coolly amused patience with her student-as-young artist seems almost saintly.
Reinforcing the tedium of this schoolboy's sentimental education is the surrounding bleak landscape: the story is set in repressive, gritty, paranoid Poland during the last years of the Communist regime. The high school itself is run on authoritarian lines, where Marxist study is obligatory but the students are dazzled by subversive dreams of a West they know only from books and occasional smuggled records and films.
There are moments when we appreciate that Madame's principal appeal may be less erotic charm than her links to the glamorous outside world, exemplified by the elegant French Embassy she frequents, and her background of cosmopolitan high culture and gracious pre-war manners, contrasted vividly with Communist coarseness and stupidity.
"Madame" is a first novel by Antoni Libera, a literary critic, translator and theater director in Warsaw, noted for his collaboration with Samuel Beckett, whose emanations are perceptible throughout. Those who have sat through a Beckett play may indeed experience in reading "Madame" a familiar sense of claustrophobia, reinforcing the conclusion that youthful obsessions, no matter how passionate, tend at length to enchant only the obsessed.
If somehow the self-celebrating narrator were more likable, we might feel sympathy for his pain and even his hopeless quest. But relentlessly arch and dramatizing, he is not really interested in engaging lesser mortals, pronouncing in his final paragraph: "Voici l'oeuvre finie. I cast it out into the world like a message in a bottle onto the waters of the ocean." There are better uses for most bottles.
A. J. Sherman, a foundation consultant and writer, lives in Vermont. He has written "Island Refuge: Britain and Refugees from the Third Reich, 1933-1939," "M.M. Warburg & Co., 1798-1938," "The Raven of Zurich, the Memoirs of Felix Somary" and three pseudonymous thrillers on international banking. His most recent book is "Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948."
Pub Date: 04/16/00