Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A review of "Overboard", the first novel in the Homo Sapiens trilogy by Stanisław Przybyszewski

Sometimes worthwhile reads are inaccessible. Certainly this is the case with Homo Sapiens. The books, or the book I should say because the three novels are collected into one volume, are very much out of print nowadays and only available in university libraries. They were printed in the U.S. in 1915 and then reprinted in the '70s in library hardcover. It was in The Evergreen State College's library that I found Homo Sapiens. Lately, though I've been able to finish the first book due to Third Place Books in the Lake Forest Park suburb of Seattle getting a print on demand book machine capable of producing anything that Google Books scanned into its system.

Overboard has a simple enough premise. The main character Falk's best friend from college is coming back to Berlin with his bride to be and wants to introduce her to him. So far so good. What follows is a psychological narrative that takes place over the course of three days, and then over a few days that take place about a week later. Falk, of course, falls in love with Ysa, his friend Mikita's fiance. And not just in love but in the sort of love that usually happens with first love. Endless debate happens in Falk's mind about whether or not he should pursue Ysa, followed by smaller bits of Ysa considering whether or not she should go with Falk and bigger bits of Mikita considering whether or not Falk is going after Ysa and whether Ysa loves him or not. What happens is that Falk decides to chuck his friendship overboard and go with Ysa, and Mikita kills himself.

That's the biggest, grossest, level. Down below is a story where psychological desires and drives are portrayed in ways that are rarely seen. Przybyszewski is great at rendering the irrational aspects of normal psychology realistically, with contact we have with an objective reality outside of our psychological filters coming and going in strength. And it's important to realize that even though Falk is desperately in love there's nothing really pathological about him, or about Ysa and Mikita. Mikita at one point is driven by an internal breakdown brought on by all of this to do some unpleasant things, but is in general normal. So the psychological ebb and flow takes place in relatively normal individuals, with the extreme states experienced by the characters being simply abstractions off of what Przybyszewski seems to be saying all of us experience regularly.

The only thing that puts a fly in the ointment, that changes the whole meaning in fact, are the last four pages. In them Falk has finally won Ysa and they're on their way to Paris in a train car and Falk meditates on the preceding events, including Mikita's suicide. Falk comes out as not caring about his friend's death, thinking that he himself won the struggle for existence and Mikita lost it, that Ysa is now his possession by right of his having the superior will, that he has power over her and that's all that's important. All of this comes as somewhat of a shock because Falk has been portrayed as an extremely sentimental romantic up to this point. What it does is cast everything that Falk has done previously in another light. Now all of the deliberation with himself about whether he's in love or not, or whether it's right for him to take her from Mikita comes from the mind of someone for whom naked power and possession are also strands of their personality.

All in all a good book, one that you should buy if you live in a place with an Espresso Book Machine, that you should read in person if you live near a college library, and that you should read by PDF via Google Books if neither one of the other two are open to you.

No comments: