Henryk Sienkiewicz - So Runs the World
Polish Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz made his fame, his fortune, and his name on the strength of historical epics Quo Vadis and his Trilogy. These works, among the only of his writing known today in English, represent the culmination of his life's work, however, and not its entirety. Sienkiewicz's career may be crudely broken into three overlapping periods – the third, final and best, comprising his historical epics; the second and middle, which sees him adapt his earlier gift for psychological insight to the backdrop of Polish history; and the first, a youthful collection of short stories, plays, essays and miscellaneous writing. It is mostly from the first period that the majority of the works in So Runs the World are taken.
So Runs the World opens with a long introduction to Sienkiewicz by critic S. C. de Soissons. The introduction goes to some pains to provide context, an overview, and an appreciation of Sienkiewicz's work. This should prove quite valuable to the interested reader, as information on Sienkiewicz is, these days, somewhat scarce. Soissons' introduction is not exactly balanced in its examination of Sienkiewicz – while some measure of criticism is added to the mix, for the most part Soisson is wholly positive, expounding Sienkiewicz's many qualities in elegant, even sometimes exuberant, prose. What the introduction does best, however, is to firmly place Sienkiewicz within the literary context of his time. Sienkiewicz's stance on literature came, it seems, from his firm rejection of the Naturalism and Realism popular with French novelists at the time, particularly Emile Zola.
Soisson only touches on Sienkiewicz's arguments, leaving the burden of providing the majority of Sienkiewicz's views to the author himself. The first piece in the collection, Zola, has at its core an emphatic and strenuously argued rejection of Zola's methods, desired outcomes, and execution. Sienkiewicz's argument spreads from Zola-in-the-specific to Zola-in-the-general, examining his influence on the upcoming generation of French writers. Sienkiewicz believed that Naturalism, at base, was an interesting concept. By desiring to show the world as it occurs without hiding from darkness or avoiding the ills of society can, perhaps, portray the 'truth' of humanity better than an idealised, or romanticised version. Sienkiewicz admits that he is intrigued by this idea but not convinced, and laments that the French, with Zola in particular, have taken what could be an interesting method and turned it into something he viewed as 'a sickish liking for rotten things coming from two causes: in the first place from the corruption of the taste, then from greater facility of producing striking effects'. The potential truth to be discovered in Naturalism had instead become an excuse for authors to wallow in filth.
Sienkiewicz's examination of Naturalism is not without its flaws, however. While he is certainly correct that Zola preferred dirty, nasty people to those who were kind and nice, Sienkiewicz's proposed solution that all writers should turn to Christ is perhaps unpalatable to some. His arguments are strong up until his conclusion, which is especially weak nowadays. An author who used faith and Christianity as his deus ex machina would rightly be criticised – but Sienkiewicz is firm and serious when he suggests such a thing.
After Zola comes The Verdict, a short play about Leon, a famous painter, and Jadwiga Karlowiecka, his once-love. The verdict is quite good, and functions well as a concentrated study on how the opinion of a woman can sometimes be changed when a man shifts from being poor and a dreamer, to successful and wealthy. Leon is a wise and world-weary man, accustomed to his fame and even somewhat resentful of it, though it is clear he would never part with the perks that come attached to his success. Jadwiga is a spoiled woman, once a spoiled girl, but her motives aren't completely transparent and she is sympathetic in her own way. Sienkiewicz is treading well-worn territory here, but he handles that material well, and the length of the one-act play ensures it does not outstay its welcome.
The short story 'The Verdict' combines Greek Gods of mythology with the homely charm of the European peasantry. The story, while light in both content and tone, is rather wonderful composed, with consistently beautiful turns of phrases throughout. The story at times takes on a Homeric tone, with bold, large metaphors and references to heroism and daring deeds. This works to the advantage of the two main characters, Apollo and Hermes, as Sienkiewicz chronicles their admittedly minor adventure. Hermes has made a bet with Apollo, wagering that the god will be unable to seduce Eryfile, an ordinary, though beautiful, Greek woman. Apollo accepts the bet and decides to play his lyre while she slept. “Wishing to awake softly his beloved, he played at first as gently as swarms of mosquitoes singing on a summer evening on Illis. But the song became gradually stronger like a brook in the mountain after a rain; then more powerful, sweeter, more intoxicating, and it filled the air voluptuously.” When this fails Apollo sings, “And the voice of the God of Light was so beautiful that I performed a miracle, for, behold! in the ambrosian night the gold spear standing on the Acropolis of Athens trembled, and the marble head of the gigantic statue turned toward the Acropolis in order to hear better.” Sienkiewicz's language is strong and muscular as a flexed arm, though Apollo's singing proves incapable of stirring love within Eryfile's breast.
The final piece, another play, is the longest and weakest part of the collection. It is a fairly ho-hum affair, an upper-class drama cum farce detailing the wiles and manipulations of a certain Doctor Jozwowicz in his quest both to achieve an elected office and the hand of the Prince's daughter. 'Win or Lose' would not be drama without additional suitors; nor would it be a farce without tomfoolery and temporal mishaps. Sienkiewicz handles the material ably, but the play is a good twenty or thirty pages too long, and the final conversation between the diabolical doctor and Anton Zuk, the secretary of the county, is insufficient to redeem the perfunctory machinations of the previous scenes. It is as though the seeds of a great tragedy were planted, but somewhere along the way the harvest spoiled. Like a diligent farmer Sienkiewicz nonetheless harvested his crop, but the results are mostly weak.
In the end we have a collection that begins well and ends poorly. Considering that 'Win or Lose' takes up almost two thirds of the entire length of the work, it is recommended that someone interested in Sienkiewicz read only those works which appeal. 'Zola' should not be missed for it provides both an excoriation of the French author and a defence of Sienkiewicz's own methods, but Whose Fault? and The Verdict are both strong pieces, and Soissons' introduction is excellent. Worth the read, but be aware of the second play's shortcomings.
Works by Henryk Sienkiewicz under review include:
---Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian
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