‘The Waistcoat’ by Bolesław Prus, translated by Bill Johnston

A threadbare cousin to Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’, this Warsaw waistcoat circulates among shivering hands in the courtyard of a tenement building. The narrator, observing his neighbours like James Stewart through Hitchcock’s Rear Window, pieces together its heart-rending back-story. Prus’s social-realist tendencies collide with a more speculative and visionary mode of writing. The result blends the gritty and the ghostly: compassion for the poor and their burdens, combined with an unearthly sense of the inanimate existence that underpins, and outlasts, our frail human striving.

First published 1882; collected in The Sins of Childhood, and Other Stories, Northwestern University Press, 1997