If I had to compare Andrzej Bart with any western writer, I’d go for Thomas Pynchon. Both writers have at least three features in common: their books come out extremely rarely; they exemplify sophisticated post-modernist fiction, full of crazy plot ideas and numerous cultural references; and finally, almost nothing is known about either of them.
If on the other hand I had to look for the inspiration behind Andrzej Bart’s fiction (and especially Rien ne va plus) within the output of the greatest Polish authors, I would mention the works of Teodor Parnicki, the great magus of the historical novel. While at the time when Rien ne va plus came out the critics focused mainly on the book’s deconstruction of some Polish myths and on seeking out its allusions to literature and art, today we can boldly say that first and foremost Andrzej Bart’s novel displays the subjectivity of any sort of historical tale. With elegant irony – the narrator is the Duke d’Arzipazzi, who by force of a peculiar pact is imprisoned for all eternity within his own portrait – Bart depicts the history of Poland (by a twist of fate the painting ends up in this country) from the eighteenth century up to and including the communist era, from the perspective of the extremely modest opportunities provided by hanging on the walls of the portrait’s successive owners. By the same token the story the duke tells is full of inaccuracies, patent errors and comical misunderstandings – we must remember that as an Italian, d’Arzipazzi does not necessarily have to understand the nuances of the Polish soul, hence his interpretations often argue with what the Poles regard as obvious. In this way Bart really does take a stand against the Polish myths, criticising and making fun of the way they are repeated without reflection. However, the most essential theme involves the writing of history or historical descriptions that, as Bart seems to be saying, are not an expression of the objective truth, but a private view with a limited field of vision, and which is also subordinate to subjective interpretation.
But it is hard not to notice that, like every well-cut post-modernist novel, Rien ne va plus is characterised as much by serious content as by well written history dressed in a robe of irony, something that has the power to delight even the fussiest of avid readers.
- Igor Stokfiszewski
Shortly after the French Revolution an unusual company sets off on a journey from the land of Italy to Poland: an ascetic cleric Pietro Baudi, charged by Pope Pius VI with a secret mission; a rather dubious Polish Countess Sophie Crookedfingers, whose talent for tale-telling rivals Baron von Münchhausen's; as well as a certain Italian nobleman, adventurer, and ladies' man. This latter is not only the novel's narrator, but is actually also dead - for a quarter-century already. His life beyond the grave is owed to the diabolic painter Solterini, whose painting of him before his death recorded on the canvas not only his likeness, but his consciousness as well. Thereafter, the portrait-narrator looks out from the walls of each successive residence as if from the loge of a theater onto almost two centuries of Polish (and European) history. From this unusual perspective, he witnesses the third partition of Poland, the Polish insurrections of the nineteenth century, both World Wars, and the post-War years under Stalin. In the intermissions between tempests of history, he whiles away the time with reminiscences of his first, adventurous life, and observes and eavesdrops on the lives of his owners. This somewhat overweening Italian aristocrat is not always in a position to understand and evaluate what he happens to see and hear over the course of the years; and his consciousness can't keep pace with social and political changes. But it is precisely this funhouse mirror of irony that lends such charm to this historical novel by Andrzej Bart, who narrates in the same, suspense-building manner both History writ large and the little histories woven into it. The novel is written in light, playful language, and is packed at the same time with astonishing turns of action. Rien ne va plus My finding myself in such a distant country was thanks to Maestro Solterini. Yes, the very same who, several hundred years ago, when he still went under the name of Bonifacio Bembo, provided Prince Francesco Sforza with the supreme virility of the day - in exchange for his soul. That sought-after painter, who was also a magus and the teacher of many, permitted my consciousness to live on in a portrait presenting me en trois quart. I posed on my deathbed, in an old batiste shirt and covered by two blankets. The Maestro depicted me in a richly braided robe of green velvet, wearing white silk trousers and a shirt with frills and cuffs of the finest lace. The green silk was no accident. Green and umber colors dominated the palette, and it is precisely these colors, according to Giorgio Mancini in his Treatise on the Art of Representing People, Animals, and Things, that constitute a carpet fit for the feet of God. And yet the description does not quite fit, for Solterini was the last man in the world who would want to have anything to do with God. In fact, he devoted all his talents to maintaining the closest possible ties with the Great Adversary. Andrea Bartolomeo Solterini was, then, an exceptional man. Like all men, however, including even those who are in collusion with the forces that people call impure, he made his mistakes. Through a mistake caused by distraction or the use of a brush with the wrong bristles, he left me without hearing in this new incarnation of mine, so different from the first. When I died after the last touch of the brush, my consciousness migrated to the canvas and stuck like a leech among the Neapolitan yellow, lead white, and burnt umber. Unfortunately, this consciousness turned out to be imperfect. My way of thinking remained on the level of the years preceding my death - and not, as the Maestro had promised, of the best years of my manhood. Even worse, I went deaf. This is all the more inexcusable in view of the fact that I had wonderful hearing, and was listening even as I died to a quarrel between two footmen in a distant wing of the palace. Truth requires me to admit that the swine were screaming at the top of their lungs, incapable of paying any respect to a master who, at least as far as they were concerned, was departing forever. I gave up the ghost at last. Solterini packed the tools of his trade in his paint box, took with him - and this was not part of the contract - the splendid apparel that he had copied onto the canvas, and bowed to the corpse, near which the servants were just lighting candles. He bowed even more deeply to the portrait he had just finished and, it seemed, winked. It was too late for any complaints. Indeed, in the course of that transmigration about which I entertained some doubts, I was too happy to have any complaints. Having always hankered to see more than there was to see, I was boundlessly delighted, even when I was forced to watch the tedious procedures of the mourning women and the gesticulating family, who commenced a distasteful quarrel about the inheritance.
Translated by William Brand
Only in 1991 did Andrzej BART manage to publish the novel Rien ne va plus, which he had finished six years earlier. The work won accolades from Polish and French critics and won the Koscielski Prize. In 1999 he published the novel Pociag do podrozy (The Travel Bug). Bart also writes screenplays and directs documentary films. c/o Oficyna Literacka NOIR SUR BLANC Andrzej Bart Rien ne va plus