Madame

Antoni Libera, Author, Agnieszka Kolakowska, Translator
Antoni Libera, Author, Agnieszka Kolakowska, Translator Farrar Straus Giroux $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-20006-0
Hardcover - 392 pages - 978-83-7006-916-2
Paperback - 438 pages - 978-1-84195-520-9
Hardcover - 448 pages - 978-1-84195-227-7
Hardcover - 448 pages - 978-1-84195-098-3
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A teenage boy's doomed love for his glamorous French instructor in 1960s Poland informs the masterfully constructed debut of Warsaw critic and drama director Libera. When a beautiful 32-year-old teacher, known primarily as ""Madame,"" takes over the narrator's high school French class, he is entranced by her combination of austere intelligence and immaculate beauty. He soon begins following her and researching her life to feed his obsession. When he flirtatiously taunts her in class with covert references to her past, she seems only mildly indignant. Finally, he discovers that she is the daughter of a man who left Poland for political reasons during the 1940s, and that she has felt uncertain of her own identity for much of her adult life; this revelation fills him with empathy for her. The unlikely chemistry between the immature pupil and his adult teacher is electrifying, and the tantalizing pace builds to a mystifying and heart-wrenching climax. Libera paints the narrator's obsession with Madame with a wit worthy of Nabokov (in a crystalline translation by Kolakowska) as his satire of the youth's reckless romantic impulse mixes with heated romantic intrigue. In the course of researching his amour, the narrator sees Picasso's The Human Comedy drawings and Lelouch's film A Man and a Woman, both new at the time; the attitude toward physical and psychological love expressed in both adds a complex and fitting symbolism to the intense politics and passion in the narrative. The layers of the student's obsession unravel with impressive measure as well, even if Libera occasionally gives too much attention to the inner workings of his hero's mind or the history of Poland's oppression by Communist forces. This epic fantasy is deeply satisfying, heartbreaking and enthralling. (Apr.)
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