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House of Day, House of Night by Olga…

House of Day, House of Night (1998)

by Olga Tokarczuk

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The musings of a woman who moves into a town in Eastern Poland, telling of her neighbors, the town’s history, and various other folklore. Seems like a great premise and the author does have great promise, because there were sections I really liked, but there were just not enough of these to recommend the book.

The highpoints for me? I loved the sections on mushrooms, including the recipes, and the section “On being a mushroom”, where the narrator takes the point of view of a mushroom. The recipes explain why the author advises, ‘Don’t try this at home!’ in the preface, since she bravely picks wild mushrooms, some of which are dangerous. I loved the sections that related to Eastern Poland having been part of Germany, and then given to Poland after the war, including “To the Lord God from the Poles”, which described shared residency with German families in houses during the transition, and “Peter Dieter”, where an aging German returned years later to see what became of his town. I also loved the section on the husband and wife who begin affairs when the passion in their marriage wanes, each with an elusive “Agni”.

I struggled with the rest of it. Most of the sections with Marta, her elderly neighbor, are quite dry, with observations on life that I found often banal. There is a story told over many chapters about a saint from the distant past and the person who told her story; I found it tedious, and really wish it had been excised from the book altogether. It adds to what is the book’s biggest problem, which in my opinion is lack of cohesion.

With that said, through the disjoint images an overall impression does emerge, and it’s a book that others may appreciate more. I may consider other books by Tokarczuk if I can find English translations.

On affairs:
“To her, the relationship wasn’t to do with sex, rushed intercourse while imagining a thousand times over that just then her husband would appear in the doorway with his briefcase, like in a farce. She felt that Agni was healing her. His gentle caresses were like a cool compress, his kisses were like a hot drink; thanks to him her body was getting stronger, and not yielding to decay.”

On expressing oneself, unbottling:
“These conversations in bed, as they lay exhausted by sex, were an alternative sort of lovemaking, even a more exquisite one. They didn’t require any flirting, tactical manoeuvres or courtship, just the opening of a sort of floodgate inside himself; it was like unblocking a dam and letting the words pour out.”

On love, unrequited:
“How does the world look when your life is filled with longing? It looks artificial, it crumbles and falls apart in your hands. Every single movement, every thought is watching itself, each emotion starts but never finishes, and finally even the object of your longing becomes artificial and unreal. Only the longing is real, imposing conditions on you – that you must be somewhere else, that you must have something you don’t possess, or touch someone who doesn’t exist. This state of being is self-contradictory – it is the quintessence of life, and at the same time it is opposed to life.”

On old age:
“I’d like to be old like Marta. Old age seems to be the same everywhere, consisting of long mornings, pleasantly protracted afternoons spent watching a sluggish TV serial with the blinds drawn down while the sun stands still above the rooftops. An expedition to the shop is a major event still being commented on over dinner. Being old means washing the plates carefully, and collecting crumbs from the table in nylon bags for twice-weekly outings to feed the pigeons in the park.

Then I realized that it’s not that I want to be old – it’s not a particular age I’m longing for, but a certain way of life, one that’s reserved for old age, perhaps. It involves not taking actions, but if you do, doing it slowly, as if it’s not the result of the action that matters, but the actual movement, the rhythm and melody of the movement.”

On opinions:
“…whenever people say ‘everything’, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘every’, you should watch out, because they’re really only talking about themselves – in the real world such generalities don’t exist.”

On women:
“…only a metre away stood beds, and on each one lay a woman’s body, a soft, broken, perishable machine designed to transfer the generations through time, a flimsy little boat that sails from one shore of the night to the other, as people spill out of it.” ( )
2 vote gbill | Mar 30, 2014 |
Another certain-to-be favorite book of the year.

One of the most original books as well. The story is loosely based around a rural site in southern Poland and focused upon a pair of small scale farmers. There are diversions into historical events, other villagers and the lives of saints. The stories are deep in metaphor, in "magical realism" and in Milosz-esque ruminations about the spiritual relationships between humans, the environment and God. The scope of the book was pretty tremendous but I'd recommend it even as a light read.

The biggest regret I had was not being able to renew or finish the book before the library's deadline. ( )
  palaverofbirds | Mar 29, 2013 |
Olga Tokarczuk's House of Day, House of Night is a dreamlike journey through the seasons in a Polish village near the German border. In turn, the narrator and her elderly neighbor Marta shell peas, hunt mushrooms and pick chamomile. Their conversations ground the narrator who otherwise watches village life from the edges of fields and forest and fends off strange intrusions from the present. In a series of vignettes, the reader is introduced to the inhabitants of a village seemingly frozen in time. A woodcutter makes the narrator uneasy, pedestrian infidelities leave the narrator bored and a schoolmaster turned werewolf disappointingly ends up as a farmhand. Intertwined is a recounting of ancient tales that swell up from the land, undeterred from the shifting borders and changing place names of the present. The lives of Kummernis and the saintly Brother Paschalis contrast in their solemnity with the narrator's fanciful conversations about the animals god forgot to create. A highly recommended lyric break from the tyranny of plot and characterization. ( )
  tracyfox | Jul 3, 2010 |
I so much wanted to like this book. It is from my part of the world. It is a best-seller in Poland and comes highly recommended as a delight, comic, tragic and wise. And yet…

It offers a kaleidoscopic view of life in a small Silesian village, intended no doubt as a microcosm of the world. Everyone and everything has a story. History is limitless and universal. The plot weaves over a large timescape. And that in fact is the problem. Some of the life-stories I found engaging. One of the opening ones is that of Marek Marek who in early childhood feels great pain and learns to cry without tears. Later, discovering alcohol, he finds that with its help everything inside, including all the pain, stops suddenly. He becomes convinced that he has a bird inside him, which increases his pain. So he has to drink. Eventually he attempts suicide, and finally succeeds. This episode with its elements of dark humour is affecting. Many others, though, are not. Neither the narrator, nor Marta, the other key figure, are particularly interesting, and neither are their stories. An incredibly long section dealing with Saint Kummernis, also known as Wilgefortis, is an excruciating piece of hagiography related very tangentially to plot or theme. The fabulous Agni episode thrusts the book squarely into the territory of magic realism, without any originality. We build to a final crescendo with “For some reason people have developed a liking for only one sort of transformation. They are fond of increase and development, but not decrease and disintegration. They prefer ripening to decay….People like what’s new and has never existed before. The new! The new!” The final image is of a man hoping to put all the pictures of the sky together like a jigsaw puzzle. In the end the book succeeds neither on a storytelling level, nor a thematic one.

Additionally, I had issues with some translation decisions. Most characters and places have, of course, Polish names. But we also have a character named Whatsisname and the Frost family. For the Polish speaker it is obviously significant that the name of the town, revealed at the beginning, is Nowa Ruda, meaning New Clearing. The non-speaker only finds out the name’s significance in the final pages.

A most disappointing book. ( )
5 vote polutropos | Jun 19, 2009 |
I loved House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk (beautifully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones). Reading it was like sipping brandy -- heady, dreamy, and deserving of slow savoring. The narrator, a contemporary young woman, is a new resident of the old village of Nowa Ruda (formerly Neurude) in the Silesian region of Poland. Over a period of a spring, summer and autumn, with the companionship of her neighbor, Marta, an ancient wigmaker with a deep connection to the natural world, she slowly unfolds the stories of the villagers, their history and their interconnectedness. It's a gorgeous meditation on nature and humanity that rather defies description -- as much poetry as fiction.

This is the first paragraph:

"The first night I had a dream. I dreamed I was pure sight, without a body or a name. I was suspended high above a valley at some undefined point from which I could see everything. I could move around my field of vision, yet remain in the same place. It seemed as if the world below was yielding to me as I look at it, constantly moving toward me, and then away so first I could see everything, then only tiny details."

. ( )
2 vote janeajones | May 16, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0810118920, Paperback)

The English translation of the prize-winning international bestseller

Nowa Ruda is a small town in Silesia, an area that has been a part of Poland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia in the past. When the narrator moves into the area, she and discovers everyone-and everything-has its own story. With the help of Marta, her enigmatic neighbor, the narrator accumulates these stories, tracing the history of Nowa Ruda from the founding of the town to the lives of its saints, from the caller who wins the radio quiz every day to the tale of the man who causes international tension when he dies on the border, one leg on the Polish side, the other on the Czech side. Each of the stories represents a brick and they interlock to reveal the immense monument that is the town. What emerges is the message that the history of any place--no matter how humble--is limitless, that by describing or digging at the roots of a life, a house, or a neighborhood, one can see all the connections, not only with one's self and one's dreams but also with all of the universe.

Richly imagined, weaving in anecdote with recipes and gossip, Tokarczuk's novel is an epic of a small place. Since its original publication in 1998 it has remained a bestseller in Poland. House of Day, House of Night is the English-language debut of one of Europe's best young writers.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:05 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"The town of Nowa Ruda and its surrounding countryside is a place of shifting identities. Polish now, it has been German, Czech and Austro-Hungarian among other nationalities in the past. Here, at the heart of Europe, where borders move and languages and their speakers come and go, ordinary lives are not as simple as they appear. When the narrator and her husband settle in the area, she soon discovers that the locals all have their secrets. With the help of Marta, her enigmatic elderly neighbour, she gathers their stories, moving back and forth in time and between truth and myth, disentangling the events of their days from the dreams of their nights." "A farmer is tormented by a mournful bird inside him that struggles to be free; a bank clerk sets out to find the owner of the voice that declares love to her in her dreams; the gentle classics scholar grapples with his monthly metamorphosis into a werewolf; and a monk comes to terms with his own sexual ambiguity. Sprinkled between these and other stories are entries from a website that collects people's dreams, and recipes for the many varieties of local mushrooms, from sweet puffball dessert to stuffed amanitas (for those who dare)."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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