Book review: Dancing with Kings by Eva Stachniak (HarperCollins)
(Also first published at www.hagsharlotsheroines.com in 2006)
The Countess Potocka lies stricken in a Berlin palace, her strength ebbing away as an orchestra plays. “I cannot offer you any hope,” the doctor tells her. “Thank you,” she says, “for telling me the truth.” It is a transaction of honesty with a man, for which she is grateful. Other such encounters in her life have not gone so well. As her last days dwindle, the Countess will remember them all.
It is a dark fantasy that some of us have; our deathbed scene where last thoughts, we know, will be of those we loved. If you’ve never entertained a reverie of those final, mortal moments, Dancing with Kings, with its light poetic prose andphilosophical asides, should make you reconsider.
There once was a Countess Sophie Potocka who died in Berlin on November 12, 1822. Her biography was published in 1970, entitled The Story of a Beautiful Bythinienne. It is a book that recounts how a Greek girl born in 1760, becomes a courtesan, and then a Polish countess. It sets out the facts and the mechanics of fate for this remarkable woman. It was fate that thrust the book into the hands of the Polish born writer Eva Stachniak. Living as an émigré in Canada, she discovered it ‘by chance’ in a library. Stachniak was fascinated by the story of an immigrant to Poland and found Sophie herself ‘irresistible’: “I wondered what her secret was.”
In Dancing with Kings, a novel, Stachniak strives to reveal the secret. She has combined what she knows with what she believes about Sophie Potocka, née Glavini. What she knows she has gleaned from the work of Jerzy Łojek, who wrote the Countess’s biography (Stachniak’s ‘greatest debt’) and from her own extensive historical research. This was no desk-bound enterprise: “I held Sophie’s letters in my hands, I examined her handwriting. In museums, I chose her dresses, her furniture, and her jewels. I read the books she could have read.”
It is perhaps this realm of the senses, the touching of silks, the sight of a signature that governs what Stachniak came to believe about Sophie’s character and personality. It is an interpretation she admits ‘differs significantly’ from that of the Countess’s biographer.
Dancing with Kings is a cornucopia of detail although it is never offered gratuitously. Whether it is description of Greek festive fare (“Big jugs of country wine stand in the corner…like fat dwarves. Strings of quinces and pomegranates, sage, mint, rosemary and savory hang from the beams”) or the embalming of the dead Countess in fine brandy, it is always exactly what we needed to know, but no more.
Of course, what we most want to know, to come to understand, is how Sophie Glavini began life in the town of Bursa, near Mount Olympus and ended her days as the Countess Potocka in a Berlin palace.
It is a chain of events that begins not long after Sophie and her family feast on the quinces and pomegranates. The young Sophie tells her lover, Diamandi, his skin ‘smooth as a fresh fig’, “I love you more than my own soul.” Then they lie down together in an olive grove. It is a first love with a high price, for in her family’s eyes this entanglement in the grass has made her a whore and ‘damaged goods’. Her mother screams, her father beats her. For this disgrace, the family must leave their home. From this humiliation, Sophie will travel towards her fate.
But it is a future that must be bought by Sophie’s beauty and bedchamber favours. The price is sometimes pain as she discovers in an Istanbul palace where an Ottoman princess demands passion. “Kiss me” says the Princess and Sophie must, though the Princess bites and bruises. Sophie flees. From this moment, all the beds she will ever lie in will belong to men and those she hopes can help her. She becomes a mistress, and then manipulates herself into marriage. Twice. Sophie Glavini becomes Madame de Witt, a general’s wife and then finally the Countess Potocka. Such social elevation enables sisterly gossip with Marie Antoinette and pillow talk with the King of Poland. And all around are the flutterings of flirtation, a Prince here, an Emperor there. Love occasionally breaks through, like sunlight in a thunderous sky, but Sophie will never again love a man as much as her soul. “I may have renters,” she writes to a friend,” but I’ll have no owners.” It is a decision no longer left to fate. It is certitude set against the political upheaval that surrounds her: Poland on the edge of dissolution, France in revolutionary turmoil. Stachniak’s sense of political history is acute and her timelines true but they never overpower this tale of individual destiny.
But it is a destiny the Countess Potocka must finally abandon. Behind a dark red velvet curtain, she lies dying on a large empire bed. The doctor has ministered with laudanum, opium, and finally morphine. It is medication that has lightened the pain and released her final memories. Now as the musicians play Marais’ pieces de violes she remembers no more.
Dancing with Kings is Eva Stachniak’s second novel. Her first, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000.