Wednesday, May 7, 2014

So Runs the World by Henryk Sienkiewicz

What’s wrong with Romanticism
Henryk Sienkiewicz
So Runs the World, a collection of odds and ends from Polish Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, was first published in English translation in 1898. It contains four short works—an essay of literary criticism, a one-act play, a short story, and a five-act play. The book opens with an introduction by translator S. C. de Soissons that’s heaping with praise. De Soissons singles out Sienkiewicz’s Christianity as one of his work’s most positive qualities. For the most part, the introduction is nearly unintelligible, as if written by someone for whom English is a second language. That’s a problem that plagues the entire book. The translations could be described as at best antiquated and at worst clumsy.

The main reason I wanted to read this collection is for Sienkiewicz’s essay on French novelist Emile Zola, simply entitled “Zola”. I’m a big fan of both authors, but Sienkiewicz does not share my enthusiasm for Zola. The essay is vehemently negative. Sienkiewicz attacks Zola’s lack of godliness and his concentration on the dirty, immoral side of life. He also criticizes Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels, asserting that the theories of heredity that Zola employs in the series simply defy logic. While there may be some validity to that point, and that portion of the essay is well-argued, for the most part Sienkiewicz comes across as a prudish and intolerant enemy of any realist work that doesn’t strive to depict the ideal. He admits that Germinal and The Debacle are good books, but considers La Terre to be filth, presumably because it discusses manure, vomit, and farts (although Sienkiewicz only mentions the first of the three). Personally, I think there’s room for both Naturalism and Romanticism in the literary pantheon, and both writers were excellent novelists within their own stylistic spheres.

“Whose Fault?” is a one-act play about two former lovers who reunite after two years apart. They have both gone on with their lives, but still have unresolved issues between them. It’s a mediocre scene that seems disembodied and pointless, as if arbitrarily plucked from a larger work. “The Verdict” is a short story in which Apollo and Hermes bet on whether the former can seduce an Athenian baker’s wife. As the story goes on, it seems to be building into a joke or a fable, but the punchline/moral is so lame and disappointing it doesn’t succeed as either.

The last and longest piece in the book is its best, though that’s faint praise indeed. Win or Lose is a play of substantial length that is pretty entertaining throughout. It’s about a Polish princess who has recently become engaged, yet there’s still three other suitors vying for her hand. Two favorites soon rise to the top, but it’s difficult to tell which of them Sienkiewicz favors until the very end. Matters are made more interesting by a parliamentary election in which two of the men are candidates. One is a wealthy son of blue-blooded nobility, while the other is an uppity member of the lower classes who has elevated his station in life through hard work and determination. The play has promise, and makes some good points in its fifth act, but it’s ruined by an abrupt and underwhelming ending.

Sienkiewicz is a great novelist whose epics, like those of Victor Hugo, epitomize the power and glory of Romanticism. Yet, as is all too evident here, Romanticism also has its downside. There’s a pretentiousness and an irrelevance to these short works that doesn’t reflect well on their author. Even the title of the book, which bears no relation to its contents, is unnecessarily pompous. If Zola were to employ such a title, at least we could take comfort in knowing he was being sarcastic.

Works in this collection
Introduction by S. C. de Soissons 
Whose Fault? 
The Verdict 
Win or Lose 

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