Is (published) literature depicting the real life of human beings, like a detailed and documented report would do ? Or is it speaking about itself, playing within a closed formal system of productive rules, a set of recognizable conventions, references, forms, intertextuality and genres ?
This problematic was certainly already accurate during the times of Apuleius when this Numidian Berber and Latin-language author wrote his Golden Ass. Drifting between these two opposite poles, literature is certainly a media which makes highly obvious and sensitive to its readers how much humans, in their life, are confronted not more to the external and physical reality than to their own natural and (now) formal languages. And this thematic of a certain duality in the human life, already in the very early stages of our experience, appears to be a children’s concern as well as it has been claimed as an adult’s one.
Then, how to display it and make it accessible, in an “up-to-date” version, to both the children and their elders ? That’s the challenge that endorsed a new comer in the world of children’s literature, the American writer, and overall successful playwright, Irena Kowal.
Duality as an existential dimension
Though, to categorize Irena as an “American writer” is already depleting her assumed, highly dual (if not more) identity as a writer: let’s say it, her last book The Ballerina Who Lost Her Pointe Shoes was first published in Kyiv in its Ukrainian translation before being released in the original English version — English version which will be my text of reference here. None hazard of the circumstances here : Irena, even if she is American and has been, during a long career, a teacher of English abroad, specially on the Old Continent, claims her Cossack, therefore Ukrainian roots and turns this claim into a fact. After having lived in Frankfurt (Germany) and London (England), she decided to settle in Kyiv, the neuralgic centre of the Ukrainian life. A life between the (supposedly) “united” New World and the still deeply “divided” Old Europe ? Let’s guess that we found out a first key of reading for our book.
Irena’s two previous literary successes, for instance two plays, the Lion and the Lioness, then The Marinated Aristocrat have been successively performed during several years, since 2002, on one of the greatest national stage of Kyiv and acclaimed by the critics in Ukraine. Irena’s first play, which already reached the status of “classic” in the repertory of the Ukrainian theatre, problematizes the duality between life and literature in the life of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofia.
Definitely none surprise, so, if Irena, for sure, cultivates this dual approach. Once more, she demonstrates this attitude by calling her last fairy-tale “a literary fantasy for adults and children”. And, these words are not merely a slogan, rather a relevant clue since the entire book shows the same structural trend to duality. But why does she seek for, or maybe trail, the child in the adult ?
The chaos as an initial motor of progress
For sure, this Ballerina displays a good array of classic elements of freedom (regarding the physical, natural or social reality) in the narrative, which straightforwardly and unambiguously link the text to fantasy. Among other features of the generic unlikeliness, I shall mention the quick and dramatic shift in the heroin’s body (Part One) which, very oddly, leads to a sudden ability to get rid of the gravity when the young dancer is on stage ; the ability of humans and animals to speak to each other (Part Three) with the same verbal language ; and, eventually, the ban of the bad guys of the story (Monsieur and Madame Pavlovsky) to the limits of the universe (Part Nine).
Then, once we have brought these easily identifiable narrative elements back to their literary function — to settle the fiction in an imaginary space which allows to its creator an absolute control since the reader must agree to the contract of reading —, appears a deep and symbolic problematic.
When we meet Gabriela, the heroin, for the first time, she is the prominent member of a ballet as its soloist dancer. It can be seen, for an urban youngster, as a highly prestigious and privileged cultural and social status. Nevertheless, the young maid rapidly happens to be or to feel her-self as a specialized pawn. And, one day, she is clearly reminded by her superior that she is doomed to respect the orders coming from above and to repeat the instructions on stage, without any creative autonomy nor personal initiative — hard task for a sensitive and imaginative young woman.
This first shock leads her to see that she is reduced to live the unidimensional life of an obedient executant. And she doesn’t feel like being fully accomplished in this condition. But how to achieve her self to its full extent, if the ballet, as an identifiable institution, is not the right way to do it, just an external and tolerated rule ?
The day that the determining vexation occurs concerning the right to improvise and over the necessity to comply with technique and form, comes the decisive inner rebellion against the formal organization and specially, against the person who directly embodies it for her, her ballet master, Mr Pencil Legs. The affective link is broken. Technique and heart are split and opposed in a polar and irreconcilable duality instead of serving the one the other in the building of a legitimate admiration.
And, with the inner rebellion, come, as a primary reaction and construction, its unforeseeable excesses and their long-lived consequences. A non-planned dynamics is initiated. To a static and repetitive daily practice of diet is substituted a lust for pleasure. Of course, to an initial well-known, traditional stable model is substituted a non-less well-known but unstable series of quick changes, unpredictable in their aftermaths and, therefore, full of uncertainty and immeasurable risks. And there starts the story, a kind of quest for the self which will have to reach a new and less-probable equilibrium.
A story focused on the personal development of a young female character
To an endured slim fast, the youth in Gabriela prefers the immediate pleasures that the senses provide. Sinn of gourmandise or lack of discipline, you may interpret it according to the axiology to which you refer yourself. This irrepressible expansion of the ego, which sounds also like a dramatic regression rather than like a well-thought ambitious plan of self-development, when the formal discipline is always perceived as the only righteous path to elevation, is, strangely enough, not effectively nor efficiently repressed at first by the hierarchy nor logically punished by the facts.
Anyway, these excesses don’t bring any real improvement to Gabriela’s mind and relation with the others and the potential tension, within the young character as well as with her environment, increases, instead of diminishing. In this conflictual context, and in a paradoxical manner, Gabriela positively draws yet more and more the attention of the public on her and obtains a new fame on stage from her new curious state : an obese dancer who flies at will. Now, she is not even seriously reproached her self-indulgence since it is followed by success.
Instead of being relegated to a minor position or ousted from the stage, she finds a new place in the world of entertainment, this time in a role of attraction. A terrible if not a pitiful evolution, indeed. Certainly not what Gabriela intuitively envisaged for a self-achievement, noticeably because her relationship with her body deteriorates. And, most of all, she remains a slave and a prisoner of the theatre, of the ballet, of the artistic institution, situation which, at a certain point, appears to be the reverse of her dream. We come to a point of extreme tension, which can only be lessened by a dramatic transformation in her situation.
Fundamentally, this formal status of provider of a formal beauty maintains her far from touching to the reality, far from life to which she mentally gasps to reach. But none clear procedure seems to offer her the access to the plenitude she aspires to and a linkage between her common world and the greater world. What, in the impatience of youth, can become the trigger ?
A new dramatic event, featuring all the accidental qualities required for a fairy-tale and happening in connection with her new state, will bring her with the opportunity to complete her personality. For achieving this personal appetite, she will have to leave her usual world, to be projected in a completely different scenery, surrounded by a set of all new interlocutors and to be pushed and confronted in a straight (if not direct), non-filtered contact with the severe reality through what appears to be an other intermediation : the struggle, the multilateral confrontation and the worry for the others.
Conquering a fragile position between the tempting extremes
My aim is not to disclose the entire story in this post but to assess Irena’s thematic construction here. After Gabriela’s arrival in the countryside, out of the “city with the highest sky-crappers in the world” which sounds like being New York, she is the witness of events which call for her sense of Justice. Instead of being focused on her own little egoistic doom, she is captivated by what appears as an obvious con trick. Her will to put an immediate end to this horrible swindle put her in the necessity to obtain help in an environment for which she is completely a foreigner. And she has to take the initiative, to show “leadership”.
During this adventure, she is confronted to a all new language for her, the “corporate language” which immediately appears as the symmetric of the dance language. I just want to show that a very well structured thematic field organizes itself in a series of couples of notions. Once Gabriela gets out of her usual environment — the theatre —, once she reaches the forest, which works as a metaphor for the real life, she discovers how each decision, each choice, each commitment can be adventurous. Facing stakes which matter for her, she is also facing risk, a new notion for her who only evolved in a limited, hyper controlled and secure perimeter.
Then, after her very coherent environment in the ballet, she faces reality through the great variety of groups she meets. All these groups have their logics. The reality is confrontational and multidimensional but Gabriela experiences it positively. She draws an excitement from improvisation, unprepared situations…
In this new enchanted world, Gabriela eventually understands that she is looking for a balance between nature and civilization, technique and heart, a thin path between extremes. This is why Irena Kowal, in this illustrated, bilingual book, offers a multicultural proposal: a mix of languages and cultural references associating French and Slavic, corporate as well as dance sub-languages.
For all of that, the Ballerina is not the story of a friendship, nor the story of a couple, like, for example in Saint-Exupéry’s Prince. It’s a story focused on one character and on her experience, or her subjectivity, on her discovery of the Great Life. And this is why it contains a message for the adult for whom, the child, the potential is not yet complete consumed in conveniences, when the curiosity is still alive and active in the way to apprehend the complexity of human experience. Then, a great image of an endeavouring young woman who is not afraid of the multiplicity of the frames ruling the social life. A way to re-invent a morality told to the children and the others through a story full of magical incidents and other “coups de theatre”.
Cover picture : Irena Kowal presenting the cover of her illustrated book with the Ukrainian network of bookshops Knyharnya-Ye
source : by courtesy of the author