Five times that I can remember I’ve fallen for a novel so hard I’ve inadvertently prayed for its characters. The first was T.H. White’s sprawling, maudlin Arthurian epic The Once and Future King.
The next two were both Tolstoy: War and Peace and Anna Karenina—whose final scene, where Anna enters the train station, I still associate with the sharp sinking feeling of watching a child sucked over a waterfall.
Then came Rohinton Mistry’s A Difficult Balance, which in its own final scene pays near-explicit homage to Anna.
The fifth and most recent novel to make me feel this strongly was Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone.
I began reading Stone Upon Stone in early 2012. I’ve moved twice since then, picking it up first in Florida, next in Oklahoma, chopping the narrative into segments; then finally finishing it a month ago in Thailand, the final chapters flying by in the kind of excitement I last experienced when a budding flirtation bloomed into hesitant love.
Stone Upon Stone is a glorious thing of language, a fountain of stream-of-consciousness speech, its formal playfulness comparable to James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but in a resolutely agrarian setting.
It inhabits the mind and manners of Szymek Pietruzka, a Polish resistance hero, marriage registrar, barber, farmer, and possessor of a truly prodigious gift of gab. The book that pours out of this character’s voice may well be the best post-war agrarian novel available in English (it was capably translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston in 2010), and strangely enough, it bears significant resemblance in plot and themes to another contender for that title, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Both novels observe a rural town from the years preceding World War II up to the present through the eyes of an aging narrator irresistibly drawn back to his home-place. Both narrators are barbers. Both comment extensively on the transformative power of roads, the temptation of cash crops, and the dislocation associated with extensive urbanization. Both experience unfulfilled romance. The two books cover much of the same thematic ground as well, with mortality and the land central to both author’s preoccupations. But, despite the esteem in which I hold Wendell Berry, I am convinced that Mysliwski’s is by far the better novel.
From the very first chapter, Stone Upon Stone achieves with a flourish what few novels are capable of: a flawlessly embodied voice. Szymek begins and ends his narration with his tomb—a topic on which he holds forth with equal parts gallows humor and raconteur’s relish. The book begins: “Having a tomb built. It’s easy enough to say. But if you’ve never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs.” So Szymek embarks on his rambling, circular tale, which meanders, in the course of one chapter, through the pros and cons of growing flax, the benefits of heifer ownership, the advantages of thatched roofing, his grandfather’s lost land title, and the perils of a soldier’s untimely itch while hiding from the Nazis in an empty mausoleum.
Every chapter is like this, treading lightly around a central theme, with the totality of Szymek’s life available as material for rabbit trails. Or almost the totality. There are certain things that Szymek’s narration takes in peripherally, but never stares at. The source of his brother Michal’s unbreakable silence, for example—a mystery which the novel leaves unexplained.
The chapters chart their elliptical courses through Szymek’s life, with titles like “The Cemetery,” “Brothers,” and “Weeping,” until the end when the thematic conceits are driven home in Szymek’s final monologue, where death and the land are joined by the other underlying theme central to the novel: words, their power and necessity. Words for Szymek are sacred. They impart, if not create, individuality. “God tells us to pray in words because without words he wouldn’t know one person from the next,” he says. In Szymek’s insistence on the centrality of words Mysliwski the novelist can be heard talking up his own art. And he’s got a point. Novels are about human nature in a way no other art form is. They depict the human as a singular being in a way no art form did before the novel’s invention, and they watch this being change. To read a novel is to experience another entity, unitary but diverse over time, driven by desire (after all plot is just desire plus time). When we’ve gone through a novel we’ve admitted that others have the same nature we claim for ourselves—and the same right to change, reinvent, love, pursue, despair, triumph. This admission begins the moment we open a book’s cover, that act itself offering to the other the most potent of rights: the right to use words. In Stone Upon Stone, Michal’s refusal to exercise this right is an affront to Szymek’s infinite volubility. Szymek berates his brother’s silence, exhorting him to begin with the most basic words: “Mother, home, earth…You know what earth is. Where do you spit?” he says.
This is the novel at its best. Affecting because it is unsentimental. It is a work of love where other books with agrarian concerns like Jayber Crow are works of nostalgia. Wendell Berry’s characters too often seem to have sprung from the womb endowed with preternatural amounts of integrity and common sense. Jayber at least gets to wander a bit in his youth, but he too is given a voice with little opportunity to err. He is not full and fleshy enough. When he is angry, it is righteous; when he is sad, it is somber and befitting. Szymek on the other hand, is one of us mortals. He’s a drunken oaf one minute, boasting of his martial and sexual conquests, then next minute he’s weeping in his cup. And there is desperation in his final speech, spoken under the shadow of 500 pages worth of poverty, world war, dictatorship, dead parents, lost love, and broken faith. Szymek seems to be angrily fighting off the idea that Michal’s silence may really be the best response to the world’s dirty face. But he doesn’t stop talking. “Words don’t know death,” he says, “they’re like see-through birds, once they’ve spoken they circle over us forever.”
And the book keeps circling too. It ends where it began, with the half-built tomb. Like Finnegan’s Wake, it invites the reader to keep the words flowing, to read and re-read and never stop reading, to rebuild the Polish village that is the novel’s world over and over again—this is the work that author and reader accomplish together. As with many challenging works of literature, it can be taxing work indeed. But it is a labor leavened by delight.
And yes, mid-way through the novel, in a half-conscious movement of empathy, I prayed for Szymek. God bless him and his endless chatter. If Stone Upon Stone gains the reputation it deserves maybe he’ll never have to stop.