Re: Lem fans?

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Sat Oct 28 2000 - 19:47:01 MDT

At 07:57 AM 28/10/00 -0700, Daniel Ust wrote:

>I just would like to know if there are any Stanislaw Lem fans on this list.
>If so, what are your favorite works by him?

Why, I'm glad you asked that question.

>From TRANSREALIST FICTION (Greenwood, 2000):


A novel, orthodoxy once instructed us, is a long invented story, told in a
clear prose, that describes what we are to see in prompted imagination,
transcribes what we are to hear, evokes the thoughts and memories of
characters who do not exist in reality, and sometimes comments upon and
evaluates these invented lives.
        Actually, no. Of course that is not it.
        For Vladimir Nabokov, a novel might be a longish poem attended by ever
more bizarre footnotes (Pale Fire, 1962). Italo Calvino made one out of
fragments of barely-begun novels allegedly by other people (If On a
Winter's Night a Traveller, 1981). James Joyce wrote one all of dreams, in
a glossolalia that tempts even as it repels (Finnegans Wake, 1939). Martin
Amis tracked his Nazi doctor backward through time to his innocent
redemption (Time's Arrow, or The Nature of the Offence, 1991).
Postmodernists generally scatter the literary landscape with oddities and
triumphs of form, imagination working on language as a confectioner whips
sugar and egg white.
        Many stolid souls, yearning for a good 19th century read, or even for a
good Doris Lessing before she turned to turgid allegory, will agree with
these demurrals. Yes, those are all novels, too--alas.
        While not all departures from the canonical format are automatically
slipstream, or transrealist in the sense I use in this book, some plainly
stand at the boundary. Consider Stanislaw Lem's Hospital of the
Transfiguration (1989), which at first glance seems a strikingly realistic
account of occupation life shortly after the German invasion of Poland but
is nothing so simple.


Stanislaw Lem is the pre-eminent European sf writer, standing somewhere
between the technical dazzle of Alfred Bester and the speculative sociology
of Isaac Asimov. Better, perhaps, he is the Polish equivalent of Italo
Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, a fabulist whose invented worlds seem at once
more opulent and clarified than the world of experience. His approach to
fiction has grown more uncompromisingly intellectual with every book, so
that his piercing melancholy seems unassuageable by anything warm, kind,
generous in human life. A terrible Olympian laughter goes with the cool
assessment, however, so that it is hard to know if Lem is a Martian adrift
among people or a human lost among absurd aliens. His reputation and
world-wide fame is founded on a kind of sf derived directly from Verne and
Wells, by-passing commercial western models. In his first published novel,
Hospital of the Transfiguration, Lem's beautifully observed vignettes fold
together, with exquisite placement, like the elements of a ritual, perhaps
an exorcism, holding the past even as it purges its unbearable grief. This
is territory trodden more recently, of course, by such writers as D. M.
Thomas and Martin Amis, using much the same transgressive apparatus.
        Stefan Trzyiecki, like Lem himself at the time a student doctor (though
slightly older, so that he begins his practice in wartime), attends an
uncle's funeral in a village where his family have been minor notables for
centuries. As distant and alienated from his kin as Joyce's Stephen
Dedalus, Stefan watches the obsequies with a certain distaste: all this
confused bustle of life, family politics, evasion and warmth. By the
novel's end, Stefan is lying in the arms of a cool, lovely woman whose name
he does not know, in the hay of a stable, `as blank and empty as the moment
of his birth' (ibid, p. 207). That journey to nativity is Poland's funeral
rites as well, his nation's uncertain re-birth into a condition of internal
exile that it is only now, fifty years later, finally able to challenge.
        Although Hospital of the Transfiguration was completed in 1948, it was not
published until 1955--victim of the hegemony of `socialist realism'--nor
translated into English until the late 1980s with the fall of the Soviet
system. Yet it is not easy for us to see what the Polish communist
authorities found technically offensive in the book, which evades realism
only in its structure, and then only to the attuned eye. Even in his
twenties, though, Lem was clearly struggling with those questions of form
and narrative strategy which were to turn him away from the quotidian and
into landscapes of the cognitive imagination. More recently he has written:

        Those days have pulverised and exploded all narrative conventions that had
previously been used in literature. The unfathomable futility of human life
under the sway of mass murder cannot be conveyed by literary techniques in
which individuals or small groups form the core of the narrative.

If Thomas Mann found a tuberculosis clinic and apt metaphor for the decline
of the west, many writers since have looked to a more extreme figure: the
lunatic asylum, the cuckoo's nest. Almost by accident Stefan takes a job in
a mental hospital named, with grotesque irony, for Christ in his
transfigured state after the resurrection. There is little enough hope of
rebirth for these poor souls. In the era before sophisticated psychoactive
medication, Lem's site is the customary Bedlam of heedless, untrained
orderlies and medical staff themselves on the verge of craziness. Each is
sketched with precision and wit as Lem puts his carnival through its paces
before the authentic madness begins, when the SS arrive to murder the
doctors' charges, those supposedly less-than-human victims of disease,
stress and the accidents of genetics.
        At the heart of the novel is a truly horrifying Foucauldian rebus of the
whole, a clinically described operation to remove a tumour from the brain
of a patient who has been deteriorating under the enthralled gaze of his
surgeon. Kauters (a suitable emblematic name) is the sole German physician
among these Poles, destined to cower and blubber before his triumphant
countrymen. At the operating table he delves and tears into the naked brain
like a mining engineer dredging a sacred site, scorching tissue when an
artery is cut, scooping out the cancer until, to his exasperation, the
patient lies dead. Beyond the walls of the asylum, in a local power
station, Polish patriots smuggle arms to partisans and brood upon the
bodies of suicides charred black by electricity. Lem's world in this
apparently realist first novel is at once pitiless and aching with pity, a
small gem of a book gleaming across the decades like a drop of blood caught
in a spotlight.


Damien Broderick

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