Stefan Grabiński: In Sarah’s House

After enjoying two titles by CB Editions – Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl and Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch – I went on a spending splurge and bought three more of their buff-backed books. They are to me a wholly admirable small press, publishing such interesting stuff as words-and-pictures meditations on the recession, to this volume of stories by ‘the Polish Poe’. Publisher Charles Boyle also maintains a worthwhile blog.

In Sarah's House, with friends

Grabiński (1887-1936) suffered from tuberculosis all his relatively short life, and a heightened awareness of the corporeal and sensory is everywhere present in the stories selected here.  In the opening story ‘White Virak,’ children squeeze up sooty, claustrophobic chimneys, and people break out “in a peculiar rash, which covered our bodies with large white spots like pearly eruptions.”  Such is the heightened awareness of the characters that the sensory becomes neatly muddled with the extra-sensory, which is where the Poe comparisons come in.  When the narrator of ‘The Grey Room’ experiences disturbing visions, he suggests that they are simply dreams carried through into waking hours, normally blocked by “the misleading senses” and the “intellect in its arrogance. … For the stars exist in daytime too, though outshone by the mighty rays of the sun.”  (I was reminded a little here of Maupassant’s superlative The Horla.)

Whatever the source, there are some strange things going on here.  In the title story, the longest in the book at 36 pages, the sensory element is lethal.  The narrator, a doctor, suffers torments as he sees an old friend fall victim to sexual obsession with Sarah, a sort of succubus who appears to be – literally – draining the life out of him.

Impassively he let me examine him.  I put him into my Roentgen apparatus. The rays penetrated him fast, encountering abnormally low resistance.  The result went beyond any documented experiment.  His body had undergone some terrifying process of reduction: the bone structure showed signs of atrophy; whole layers of tissue had disappeared; entire clusters of cells withered.  His weight was that of a child; the iron hands of the scale showed a ridiculously small number.  The man was vanishing before my very eyes!

Grabiński has a nose for appropriate settings for his spooky stories: as well as factory chimneys and abandoned villages, two of the stories are set on disused railway lines. In ‘The Dead Run’, retired conductor Wawera cannot stand to see an old stretch of railway line fall into disrepair, so is permitted to take over its care.  All goes well until he hires an assistant, who tells him: “It seems to me you are only kidding yourself. There’s nothing to watch over.  It’s only a pastime, isn’t it?”  This cold blast of someone else’s reality causes Wawera to withdraw into a strange and sad reality of his own.

In the other railway story, ‘Szatera’s Engrams’, heightened awareness returns, this time for a man who “could never come to terms with the eternal passage of men, objects and events.”  A series of visions leads him to believe that “no event, even the most trivial, passes and dissolves into nothing.  On the contrary: everything is preserved and recorded.”  As with ‘The Dead Run’, this can’t end well.

The more straightforward stories here share with M.R. James the sort of dramatic irony which requires a balancing relationship between character and reader: the reader must be as expectant of supernatural activity as the character is ignorant, for the story to work.  When the narrator of ‘The Grey Room’ opens by wishing that in his new lodgings “I should be safe from that strange malaise which had forced me to abandon the other place,” the reader rolls his eyes: but simultaneously rolls up his sleeves and prepares to be teased and ultimately satisfied.  It’s the desire to find out the precise nature of the menace, and to see our expectations fulfilled, which keeps us reading. And thank heavens for CB Editions and their like: perhaps these are the places where everything worthwhile, however long forgotten, is preserved and recorded.


  1. Looks very interesting. For some reason, ‘The Dead Run’ alone compels me to seek this out. There’s something great in itself about the ‘hook’ of the story. I’ve got plenty of time for authors who deign to have a look at abandoned locales and ignored or forgotten parts of the world, not sure why. I think that’s why I like Le Clezio so much. I should probably blame Ballard. I even fancy the De Botton ‘airport’ thing. It’s probably some kind of voyeuristic deficiency…

  2. Wonderful! Not many people have ever heard of Grabinski, and I also believe he is worthwhile. I read a collection of his years ago (The Dark Domain) — I wonder if these are the same stories retranslated or a fresh batch? I remember reading that China Miéville held Grabinski in high regard and as an example of “weird” fiction.

  3. I’ve been looking at this collection in Waterstone’s for a while now. I think I like the book for just how plain the cover is. No rubbishy spooky shenanigans. It’s blankness is what makes it all the more intriguing.

  4. As you may have seen, Stewart, all the CB Editions covers are like that (well, apart from their new young adult publication, Knight Crew by Nicky Singer). They were inspired by London Magazines publications.

    Max, I did see that Caustic Cover Critic post – I’m looking forward to that series, particularly for the chance to read Thomas Bernhard at last (not that anyone has been stopping me before now, and I do have a copy of the current US edition of The Loser).

    Isabella, I’m delighted to hear you’ve read Grabinski. I believe this is a new translation, and I should add two other qualities of the book – a detailed introduction by the translator, and also a level of attention to detail which means that the typeface itself is chosen for the way it chimes with the ‘spooky’ content of the stories.

    Lee, I didn’t realise you’d been enjoying le Clezio – any particular titles? I bought Giant in the Vintage Classics edition last year, but haven’t so much as opened it. I wasn’t attracted to the Penguin Modern Classics, which I thought quite ugly in comparison (with my usual overdone attention to the cover design).

    And Sylwia, I think this is the first Polish author I’ve read, so I’m pleased to have done so at last, particularly with such an interesting set of stories.

  5. Yes, John. The Book Of Flights and Terra Amata being my introduction to Le Clezio. I imagine he’s a bit of an acquired taste (I think I described him as a kind of groovy Calvino/Kundera amalgam with a hint of Perec, Houllebecq and Borges maybe) but I definitely think everyone should give him a go as I was knocked over by those two books. I know what you mean about the editions: the Terra Amata has a rather Houllebecqian cover – guy in a bath looking very pop-art. The Book Of Flights I have is the Vintage Classics edition and is way better.

  6. A nice collection John, thanks for highlighting it. Some genuine tingly moments and some nice writing. Grabinski wasn’t much sold on the whole Industrial Revolution, was he? – disused chimney stacks, deserted railways, fantastical landscapes of coal and slag…
    “The Grey Room” reminded me of some of Hopper’s more intense paintings: people sitting in mundane rooms staring at the furniture but seeing something in or beyond their surroundings that terrifies or horrifies them. Seemed to tally with the mood of the story.

    I really liked the CB edition (you rightly mentioned the typescript) and I’d be tempted to try more: Lichtenberg & the Flower Girl might be next.

  7. I already have a list of CB titles which I want.

    Have you read another title by a Polish author they have published? – Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa.

    I highly recommend it.

    Out of Grabiński’s collection my favourite was ‘Black Hamlet’. I think mostly because this was the one I read aloud to someone and it really came to live. I even head a dream about shouting some of the quotes from it like : “What is a dream? What’s being awake? What is reality?…Tell me! Have mercy on my torment and tell me! Speak, free me from the terrible doubt.” – yes, in my dream I was shouting that while lying down on the sofa.

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