On Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window

A strikingly crafted window into how our lives are a mosaic of the things that happened before us.

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London, England: MacLehose Press, 2017. 240 pages. £12.99.

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 is a fiction writer and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Passages North, the Southeast Review, and The Adroit Journal. She currently lives in Poland, translating literature on a Fulbright fellowship.


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