Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian
Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian, is an oddly named collection, and one that suffers at times from uneven choices, both in range and quality. The collection includes one story from each country except for Belgium, which has two; and two Nobel laureates, Maeterlink and Sienkiewicz, provide fiction.
The Light-House Keeper of Aspinwall by Henryk Sienkiewicz and Saint Nicholas Eve by Camille Lemonnier are the highlights of the collection. Sienkiewicz' story concerns Skavinski, an old Pole who “had been a gold-miner in Australia, a diamond-digger in Africa, a rifleman in public service in the East Indies. He established a ranch in California,--the drought ruined him; he tried trading with wild tribes in the interior of Brazil,--his raft was wrecked on the Amazon...” And so on, and so on. Skavinski is one of those tireless men who have seen everything there is in the world, and want not riches, not pleasure, not fame, not fortune, but peace. Skavinski becomes the operator of a lonely light-house in Aspinwall, near Panama. The United States consul is impressed with Skavinski's attitude, but concerned that the life of a light-house operator is too much for a man with his background. Skavinski is quick to assure him that what he wants now is solitude, an escape. He loves the life: “He was in truth like a ship whose masts, ropes, and sails had been broken and rent by a tempest, and cast from the clouds to the bottom of the sea,--a ship on which the tempest had hurled waves and spat foam, but which still wound its way to the harbor. ”
Sienkiewicz, who became the first Polish Nobel Laureate in 1905, writes Skavinski with equal strokes of practicality and beauty. The story devotes itself to Skavinski's inner peace, reflecting the churning spray of sea water in the growing tranquility of Skavinski's quiet life. It turns out he had never expected such a peace to come to him – his life, it had seemed, was to be one upheaval after another, newness without end. This second act of the story is perhaps the best single piece of writing within the entire collection, with its magnificent dual portrayal of the ocean and Skavinski. But a third act is necessary for a plot's resolution, and it begins with a package from America. Inside is contained a number of important works of Polish literature, writings Skavinski has not seen for many years. Here the story dispenses with the beauty of the sea and turns to a strange dream-land inside Skavinski, as he recollects the course of his life. Satisfaction at his peaceful life becomes outrage that he has spent forty years away from Poland, and the story ends of a note that is both unsatisfactory and pleasing. Sienkiewicz' The Light-House Keeper of Aspinwall is a deeply wonderful piece of writing, much removed from the epics that won him his Nobel.
The other very strong piece is Camille Lemonnier's Saint Nicholas Eve, a story that begins in banality and ends with a serious discussion on the painful process of redemption. Dolf and Riekje are a happy couple, a fact which is shown in tedious pleasurable detail during Saint Nicholas Eve. The story continues along in an idyllic tone until it is almost unbearable, showing how truly ordinary and truly boring happily married life can be.
Lemonnier skirts along the edge of falling irrevocably into magazine-style literature, and for some the first half of the story will be too off-putting to continue. Things change, however, when Riekje goes into labour and Dolf is forced to find a doctor. He runs through the streets like a madman, stopping only when he sees a group of men standing beside the river. A man is drowning, but none of them are confident enough to enter the waters to rescue him. Dolf at first refuses to help but eventually comes round. He rescues the man after a long struggle; when they have reached the bank he recognises the drowning man as the very same person who had dishonoured Riekje, causing her pregnancy. Certain comments from Riekje and Dolf's mother become clearer as we recollect the now ambiguous statements made during dinner. Dolf, his thoughts confused, pushes the man away from him, back into the river, and the scene ends as the drowning man clamps his grip onto Dolf and pulls them both underwater.
Riekje has her baby and the night drags on. Dolf's fate is left uncertain until finally he appears again, but now he is troubled. We learn later that the man has died, but that Dolf rescued him once more. Dolf feels responsibility for his death – but did he actually cause it? Rescuing the man a second time was Dolf's act of forgiveness, and from what he can remember the man would probably have died even after the first rescue. But the ambiguity of the evening casts a long shadow, and Dolf's manner changes. He attends the man's funeral and watches, eyes burning into the casket, wondering. He leaves and is hailed by the townsfolk as a heroic man, no less heroic in that the drowning man died. Lemonnier avoids providing an answer to Dolf's predicament because there is, in truth, no answer at all. The story finishes with Dolf conflicted, with Lemonnier shifting the role of absolver from Dolf himself on to us. It is made very clear that Dolf has forgiven Riekje's assaulter, but less clear is whether he forgives himself. Do we? Can we? It is hard not to sympathise with his relief, and equally difficult to wonder whether it was the second drowning that killed him, or the first.
Sandwiched between these two stories is The Plain Sister by Demetrios Vikelas (Sometimes written as Bikelas), and The Massacre of the Innocents by Belgian Nobel Laureate Maurice Maeterlinck. The Plain Sister is a comedy of sorts, but it lacks much in comedy and is overlong besides. The story is thirty-five pages long, and would have just as easily sufficed at twenty. Plateas is a chubby professor and is something of a windbag, given to quoting Homer in Greek at any occasion, appropriate or not. His friend, Liakos, has fallen in love with a beautiful young girl whose father will not allow her to be married until her older, plainer, sister is married as well. Liakos convinces Plateas to marry the elder sister sight unseen, and it is clear that the author considered the entire situation funny beyond words. Indeed, there are some parts which are genuinely humerous, such as when Plateas visits the girls' father: "What little girl? My suit is not for the younger sister; I ask you for the hand of Miss--" He meant to call her by her name, but found he did not know it. "I ask you for the hand of--your elder daughter." This is comedy, yes, but comedy of a mostly nasty sort.
Plateas, Liakos and the author himself are all unashamedly laughing at the stupidity and overall superfluity of women throughout the story. These girls are not women but ciphers, plot points given breasts to keep everything on track and running smoothly. This could have easily worked in a shorter story, perhaps, but because it is so long the one-note joke quickly becomes tiresome. It is also somewhat distasteful to read that the 'plain sister' is overall quite a wonderful girl, except the she is unfortunately not beautiful. Both Liakos and Plateas explicitly reject her good qualities (personality, sensitivity, practicality, education, etc) simply because she is unattractive. One hundred years or so after the story was written this type of attitude is out of favour, which makes the story too archaic to be enjoyable, and too long to be profitably read. As something of an interesting sidenote, Demetrios Vikelas, besides being a popular Greek author was also the first president of the International Olympic Committee. I remain unaware whether the quality of his writing reflected an equal level of ability in the capacity of IOC president.
Maurice Maeterlinck's story, The Massacre of the Innocent, coming after Sienkiewicz's story of the lighthouse, and before Vikelas' story of a bumbling professor, is misplaced within the collection. It is also one of the more unsettling stories I have read. In it, a group of villagers avenge a farmer whose wife and daughters were murdered by Spaniard, and are then themselves revenged upon by a different group of Spanish soldiers, who kill all of the children in the village. This story is brutal in its clear, matter-of-fact tone of describing horrific violence and death: When the soldiers came to their white-bearded leader, they placed the children at the foot of an elm, where the little ones remained seated on the snow in their Sunday clothes. But one of them, in a yellow frock, got up and toddled unsteadily towards the sheep. A soldier followed, with bare sword; and the child died with his face in the grass, while the others were killed around the tree. ” And on it continues, with children dying in all manner of horrible ways. Maeterlinck is suggesting something very powerful here – the supreme ineffectiveness of common citizens when their land is stricken with war. Often, it is not the common village-folk (or, in our day, ordinary citizens, I suppose) who wage war, or who decide to go ahead with military action. No, it is the politicians – but they are rarely held to task in the manner in which these villagers meet their fate. Maeterlinck writes paragraph after paragraph of coolly observed child-killing. The villagers are helpless, their pitchforks no match against the superior weapons of professional soldiers. At the close of the story all they can do is wail and beat their breasts, their lives forever changed thanks to the machinations of nation-states.
The last story is Mór Jókai's In Love with the Czarina. I will admit that I have had my eye on this Hungarian author for some time, which is what initially attracted me to the collection. Unfortunately, In Love with the Czarina is by far the weakest of the five stories, and unfortunately it is also the second longest. The story is an interminable recount of a rebellion in Russia, with such dead narrative choices as this paragraph, which is in no way unrepresentative of the entirety:
“The General ordered his entire line to advance with a rush, while with the reserve he sharply attacked the enemy in flank, totally defeating them. His cavalry started with drawn swords towards the fire-spurting space. Amongst the 1,500 horsemen there were only 300 Cossacks, and in the heat of battle these deserted to the enemy.”
Listing numbers does not a battle scene make. Russia is large, and so are the battles, but they are told in numbers and flatly, as though the story were really a summary taken from a history book. It is clear that we are supposed to care about the rebellion leader, but Jókai has done very little by way of characterisation to prompt any form of emotional connection. Page after page goes by with flat, ordinary paragraphs of nothing but numbers and the broad strokes of battle after battle. I cannot speak for the rest of his (astonishingly prolific) output, but this story is to be avoided.
The collection as a whole suffers from the immense range in subject material. To place a funny story alongside Maeterlinck's horrible war tale is a bizarre choice, and one that takes away from both stories. Short story collections are always difficult to read because the shift in tone, characterisation and style can be so jolting, and nowhere is that more apparent in this collection. What it does provide, however, is a nice spread of European authors that are perhaps not read today as much as they once were; and in the case of Sienkiewicz, who has written simply huge novels, the collection allows a sample of his magnificent skill. Recommended, except for Jókai.
Works by Henryk Sienkiewicz under review include:
---So Runs the World
List of Polish authors under review
List of Greek authors under review
List of Belgian Belgian authors under review
List of Hungarian authors under review
Project Gutenberg - free online text
Wikipedia - Henryk Sienkiewicz
Wikipedia - Demetrios Vikelas
Wikipedia - Maurice Maeterlinck
Wikipedia - Camille Lemonnier
Wikipedia - Mór Jókai