Żanna Słoniowska - On the day of her death, her voice rang out, drowning many others, rancous sounds. Yet death, her death, was not a sound, but a colour.
Żanna Słoniowska, The House with the Stained Glass Window,
Trans. by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London, MacLehose Press, 2017.
In 1989, Marianna, the beautiful star soprano at the Lviv opera, is shot dead in the street as she leads the Ukrainian citizens in their protest against Soviet power. Only eleven years old at the time, her daughter tells the story of their family before and after that critical moment - including, ten years later, her own passionate affair with an older, married man. Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl's emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening as she matures under the influence of her relatives, her mother's former lover, her city and its fortunes.
"The House with the Stained-Glass Window is remarkable, a gripping, Lvivian evocation of a city and a family across a long and painful century, at once personal and political, a novel of life and survival across the ages" - PHILIPPE SANDS
"This story could only have happened in Ukraine. And then again it could have happened anywhere, because the blood on the blue-and-yellow flag is just the beginning of an intimate tale about four generations of women" - ZOFIA FABJANOWSKA-MICYK
"A moving, incisive saga about women entangled by historical events" - ANNA SZULC
"Sloniowska is a fascinating story-teller who also gives insight into the reality of life in Ukraine. This is an astonishing literary discovery" - JUSTYNA SOBOLEWSKA
"A city of women's mysteries, and History, which the author constantly re-interprets. Zanna Sloniowska surprises and seduces" -JAROSLAW CZECHOWICZ
"This novel was written as a challenge to crushing, cruel history; it arose from a desire to give a voice to the individual experiences of women. But at a certain point it turns in a direction contrary to its original ambitions, and the counter-history disappears in the fog of exploding smoke grenades" - DARIUSZ NOWACKI
Toward the middle of The House with the Stained Glass Window, the Ukrainian-Polish writer Żanna Słoniowska’s debut novel, the unnamed narrator tells us that her great-grandmother occasionally falls into fits of hysterical sobbing, which her grandmother explains as having to do with “the past.” “I imagined ‘the past’ as an uncontrolled intermittent blubbering,” the narrator says. This definition is not a far cry from the idea of the past portrayed in The House with the Stained Glass Window: not blubbering, but certainly not controlled by human forces, intermittently entering the present day until it infiltrates it, saturates it, and finally becomes indistinguishable from it.
The novel centers around four generations of women who live under the same roof in Lviv, in a house noted for its enormous stained glass window. The window sets the present-day plot in motion: it is because of the window that the novel’s narrator, who we only know as Marianna’s daughter, meets Mykola, her mother’s former lover, and begins an affair with him herself. A relationship like that would provide enough internal and external conflict to fill a novel to its brim, but Słoniowska does not dedicate much page space to it. Instead, if anything, the affair serves as a springboard to the past, to exploring the irresistible pull of it.
Through the stories Mykola tells Marianna’s daughter and the memories they stir up in her, we learn that Marianna was an opera singer and Ukrainian nationalist who was shot and killed when her daughter was eleven. Marianna’s commitment to singing is slowly overshadowed by her commitment to the fight for an independent Ukraine—a turn of events that surprises her family, who place a high value on art, and who are of Polish, not Ukrainian, descent. Marianna’s daughter craves to know what Mykola can tell her, while at the same time recoils from the painful reminder of her mother’s absence. Memories beget more memories: Marianna’s daughter recalls her childhood in Soviet-controlled Ukraine as well as the stories her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother would tell her about themselves, each other, and their cities, until we cannot avoid noticing how uncannily the patterns in the lives of the four women repeat themselves.
Readers witness these personal and public histories by following the logic of the narrator’s memory, leapfrogging between analogous events and images. A chapter ends with characters walking home after watching a statue of Lenin come down and the next chapter opens with characters crossing a street. Within a few lines, however, we realize we are following different characters now, years later, on their way to a more domestic scene. Or a chapter ends with someone walking through the snow, and the next begins with our narrator telling us the snow has melted by now; soon it turns out we have not skipped to spring, but gone back in time, to different characters, to a different situation.
It is no surprise that the past draws Marianna’s daughter so intensely; she is a product of Lviv, and the city has the past embedded in its streets and buildings as much as Marianna’s daughter has it embedded in herself. As Mykola is a professor of art and Marianna’s daughter is an art student at the university, they spend their brief moments together walking through the city and talking about its history and architecture. The prose shines brightest when Słoniowksa illuminates the connection between the city and its people, as when Marianna’s daughter shows us how she and Mykola are products of the city: “…we had hatched out of its streets and were inscribed into them: he was the spiked halo of the Pensive Christ on top of the Boim Chapel, I was the head of a lion carved on its base, he was the cracked steps leading into the Dominican church, I was the polished, pine-cone shaped knob on the door of a Renaissance house.” Their connection to Lviv is inevitable, a fixed and fundamental embodiment.
Present-day politics loom as large as the politics of the past for the characters, a fact that comes across most poignantly when Słoniowska signals them in unassuming moments, often set against a domestic background. After Marianna’s daughter is told to make a wish, for example, she considers the fate of her country alongside her closer-to-home concerns: “Just one wish—it would have to be something big. For Aba to be well again? To be lucky in love? For the fall of the Soviet Union?” The bonds of family, the pull of love, Ukrainian independence: having grown up under the influence of these forces, Marianna’s daughter naturally offers them equal consideration.
A novel like this one, in which place so concretely shapes character and plot, asks a translator to find a way to convey a hidden layer of unspoken information. The House with the Stained Glass Window assumes a Polish reader’s knowledge of the geographic region; you can get through the book without it, but the action might feel muddled and only half-explained, characters’ motives or pasts might make less sense. Anticipating this problem, translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones offers a brief overview of Lviv and Ukraine’s history in a translator’s note to give readers a sense of how often borders were won, lost, and redrawn.
A Polish reader would also know that Lviv comes up quite a bit in Polish literature, largely because the city was under the control of the Kingdom of Poland for centuries, when it was called Lwów. After over a century of being known as Lemberg under Austro-Hungarian rule, it reverted to Polish-controlled Lwów again between the end of World War I and the end of World War II, at which point it became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It is unsurprising, then, that Lviv often symbolizes a lost homeland in Polish letters. One of Poland’s best-known contemporary poets, Adam Zagajewski, was one of Lviv’s many Poles who were forcibly relocated west when the borders were redrawn after World War II; his poem “Going to Lvov” is a beautiful example of the longing and nostalgia the city can evoke.
However affecting and sincere this emotion may be, a different side to the story—not an opposing one, necessarily, but a vision of the events refracted from a different angle, with a different focus—is always a welcome development in a country’s literature. The House with the Stained Glass Window is unique in that it is a book about Ukrainians fighting for their independence written in Polish, as opposed to a book about Ukrainians fighting for independence written in Ukrainian, or a book about Poles yearning for lost land written in Polish. This is a book about a family that is both Polish and Ukrainian, that lives in a city that is at once Ukrainian, Polish, and Soviet, and about what that looks like and means. Creating links such as these between nations that have a long history of contested borders is no insignificant literary feat.
The translation also reflects the history of shifting powers in Lviv through the very name of the city itself. In the original Polish of the novel, Słoniowska exclusively calls Lviv by its Polish name, Lwów, which is how the city is typically still referred to in Polish speech and literature. Few Polish readers would think twice about it, though the repeated refrain does perhaps create a subconscious feeling of continuity in a reader’s mind—a sense of stability amidst the changes. In her translation, Lloyd-Jones translates the city’s name as its various incarnations of Lwów, Lvov, and Lviv depending on whether Poland, the Soviet Union, or Ukraine is the ruling power. On the one hand, seeing the city called by its different names reads as naturally to an English speaker as seeing the city consistently called Lwów would to a Polish speaker. But it also serves a couple additional purposes: first, it helpfully reminds the reader of Lviv’s tumultuous history, and second, it marks the different points in time that the book recreates, which is especially helpful in light of the book’s nonlinear sense of time.
Though the nonlinearity may occasionally confuse a reader, the book’s project isn’t to make certain a reader remembers exactly which event happened when, but rather to bring out patterns, to show history repeating itself. A year matters less when an event could have happened, and did, in any number of them. The House with the Stained Glass Window offers a strikingly crafted window into how our lives are a mosaic of the things that happened before us, which is not to say our lives or the world stand still. Lviv is living proof; Lviv, which isn’t only Lviv, but palimpsests of Lwów and Lvov. - Victoria Miluch
Set across a difficult century, The House with the Stained-Glass Window depicts the changing face of Lviv (also known by the names Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg and others) as it is claimed by different political powers—Austria-Hungary, Poland, the Soviet Union, Ukraine. The novel closes in 2014 with the Euromaidan Protests.
Entangled in these currents are four women—Marianna the opera singer, Marianna’s daughter (a painter), Marianna’s mother and Marianna’s grandmother. They hardly come across as being terrifically brave or pure. They are messy, often struggling with relationships and attachments that go nowhere; they frequently fail to communicate with and convince each other of their passions and deepest desires. But running through the tumult—domestic and social—is the artistic impulse, passing from one generation to another. It is an activity that injects some order into the chaos. And the shining and glittering stained-glass window that hangs in the house of the women of this story becomes something of a redeeming force, pointing out to a sort of transcendence, a state of being that is greater and higher than the surrounding situation.
I would highly recommend this novel to those interested in Central and Eastern Europe—for it is thorough (and over that, luminously poetic) in its examination of the history and culture of this region.
Read a few excerpts:
...My great-granma was an unsuccessful opera singer, my granma was an unsuccessful painter, my mother was a successful opera singer, I would be a successful painter, my daughter would be an unsuccessful opera singer or a successful painter, her daughter, depending what my daughter chose, would be either a successful opera singer or a successful painter, lack of success times lack of success equals success, like in mathematics. We are like Russian dolls, one in the belly of another, it’s not entirely clear who is inside whom, all that’s apparent is who is alive, and who is not, we are like Russian dolls transpierced by a single shot, but I used to think Great-Granma wasn’t in this chain. She was an unsuccessful opera singer, so my grandmother is an unsuccessful painter, but my mother, although she was a prima donna, is now dead.
...The art school was located in a large residential building; at the time nobody knew that a few years later it would fall into ruin, and everything would be evacuated from it, including the shabby cinema on the ground floor, which would mean it could be quite officially demolished. Soon it would be joined by the Soviet Union, and they’d fall apart in parallel, in a race – nothing could save them from a hideous death right at the heart of the city, though the building would outlive the empire. Just before its demise, the young people would cover it in colourful slogans; later on, the city would miss it, like somebody missing a front tooth, except that no-one would know if the gap it had left was a sad, senile one, or a temporary one between milk and permanent teeth.
...The topography of our flat was fixed for good: just as the seas, mountains and deserts never change their position on the map, so the position of the furniture, fittings and domestic appliances was immovable in our house. This permanence of objects was probably a response to the instability of human fate. - onartandaesthetics.com/2017/10/26/the-house-with-the-stained-glass-window-by-zanna-sloniowska-on-the-changing-city-of-lviv-a-family-and-art/
This is another from Maclehose new collection of press editions of books from around the world. This book is by one of the rising stars of Polish fiction. Żanna Słoniowska she won the Conrad prize a prize for a debut novel and also the Znak prize which had over a thousand books in contention for it. She was born In Lviv in Ukraine but now lives in Krakow. She works as a Journalist and Translator.
On the day of her death, her voice rang out, drowning many others, rancous sounds. Yet death, her death, was not a sound, but a colour. They brought her body home wtrapped in a large, blue and yellow flag – the slag of a country that did not yet exist on any map of the was tightly shrouded in it, like an Egyptian mummy, thoug in one spot on the surface a dark, blood-red stain was breaking through. As i stood and starred at that stain, I was strucj by the feeling someone had made a mistake.
The opening and her mothers death and the first mentio of Blue and Yellow .
This book is set in the town of Lviv, in fact in a way it is as much as a character in the book as the people that live in the House with Stain glass. The story is told through the three woman who all live in the house and really cover the whole of the last century. The house in Lviv in Ukraine is home to Great Grandma grandma Aba and Mother Marianna and her Daughter. All live in the house the books open as Marianna is killed, she is a famous Opera star and leader of the movement to free Ukraine from the Soviets. The story is told from the daughter’s point of view she tells of her grandmother’s struggles and during the wars. The loss of the fathers in history. Also, the grandmother could have been a painter and due to circumstances missed out. The daughter herself many years later start an affair with an older man as we see how the fight to get the blue and yellow flag was flown has affected all those living behind the stained glass window in Lviv four woman and hundred years of history.
That winter in the mid -1990’s , Balconnies started falling on peoples heads and walking close to the houses became dangerous.
“Mind your head!”wnet the refrain to anyone who ventured outside.
“Yesterday, on So and Son Street, balcony mouldings from tje second floor of house number six collapsed onto the head of a woman walking below” I read in the newspaper “Although the pieces of plaster were not heavy, she was seriously injured and taken to hospital.#
This made me thing of those advert” have you had a balcony hit you !! ” as the kept falling on people .
The other great female writer about Ukraine Svetlana Alexievich this book shows the true spirit of females in the Soviet Era. Also the constant struggle of the sleeping giant that was Ukraine. This is a portrait of family but also on a great scale of the country. from the grandmothers war time and exile from the original homeland through the mother’s struggle to lead the first movement to freedom, To the present day told from the daughter and those recent years we also saw on the news where the country kept going one way to another. The other character in this book is Lviv one of those great towns full of ghosts and touch so much by the history of the 20th century. An amazingly confident book for a debut novel. -