Woman in Bronze by Antanas Sileika (Random House of Canada 2004)
Antanas Sileika’s third novel, Woman in Bronze, is an archetypical bildungsroman, and bears comparison with many other classics in the genre, such as Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Dreiser’s The Genius, or more recently, The Cloud Sketcher by American author Richard Rayner. And like all of these classics, Woman in Bronze is epic in its scope with enough staying power as to endure and itself become a classic in the Canadian canon.
Tomas Stumbras, a young artist, flees the ravages of his worn-torn Lithuania in search of fame and fortune in the streets of mercurial Paris in the 1920s. He brushes elbows with the famous and the infamous from the Polish war hero Marshal Josef Pilsudski to the American sensation Josephine Baker, and fellow Lithuanian sculptor Lipchitz. He struggles with his art, falls in love with a chorus girl from Les Folies Bergère, and in the end suffers betrayal at the hands of his best friends, which threatens to destroy everything he has worked for.
If this sounds familiar, it is. But the secret is all in the telling.
Sileika opens the novel with an almost mythical prologue that describes a nation "the local people called ...the rainy land, as if they still remembered some sunnier country their ancestors had come from." The mythical quality is a conceit that remains with the reader, resurfacing throughout the story, elevating the individual’s struggle to something more universal in scale.
Sileika has also created a strong protagonist who even in his tenderness and naivety can wreak terrible havoc on those around him through the selfishness and egocentrism inherent (and perhaps necessary) in any great artist. It is this single-mindedness that both attracts and repels the reader to Tomas, and eventually heightens the dramatic tension in the novel’s final scene.
In fact, if there is any fault in this novel, it comes in the epilogue. While this device does wrap up the story plausibly, the bow is just a little too pretty – deflating the power of the previous scene. The literary reader while find this addendum unessential and perhaps even dissatisfying after the much stronger conclusion in the novel’s final installment.
This, however, is a small complaint. Woman in Bronze is an otherwise gripping narrative, magical at turns, and highly evocative in its recreation of a time and a place.