Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian by Henryk Sienkiewicz, et al.

The underdogs of European literature
Maurice Maeterlinck
This book is part of the Stories by Foreign Authors series, a ten-volume collection of European short fiction in English translation published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898. While previous volumes in the series were devoted to French, German, Spanish, Russian, Scandinavian, and Italian authors, this book is a mixed bag of stories from the “leftover” nations of Europe. While the countries represented here may not be as renowned for their literature as some of the aforementioned nationalities, these writers prove that they certainly deserve to be regarded alongside their A-list counterparts.

Poland’s Henryk Sienkiewicz is the first of two Nobel laureates featured in the book. His story “The Light-House Keeper of Aspinwall” takes place in a coastal locale near the Panama Canal. When the local light-house keeper dies, a fitting replacement is found in the form of an aged Pole who has adventured far and wide in the world and now longs for a place of repose. The main character is intriguing and appealing, and Sienkiewicz’s prose has rarely been more elegant. The story is very good, though it does fall prey to over-sentimentality towards the end.

Next up is Greek author Demetrios Bikélas with “The Plain Sister.” Out of gratitude for a friend, a bachelor professor considers marrying the eldest daughter of a merchant, thereby clearing the way for his friend to marry her younger sister. This is a light-hearted story that’s pretty predictable from beginning to end, but the reader will be charmed by the likeable characters and touching moments of humor.

Belgium is represented by two authors, the first of which is Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck. Nicknamed “the Belgian Shakespeare,” Maeterlinck is known as a poet and dramatist, but here he proves to be an excellent fiction writer as well. His story “The Massacre of the Innocents” is by far the most powerful in the book. In the Flemish village of Nazareth, a cycle of violence and retaliation escalates between the Belgian villagers and their Spanish conquerors. It’s a brutally realistic and heartbreakingly tragic tale of terrorism in the age of sword, pike, and torch. In the second Belgian entry, “Saint Nicholas Eve” by Camille Lemonnier, a poor Flemish boatman and his family celebrate the titular holiday. The scene is so blissful and picturesque the reader can’t help but suspect that an unexpected tragedy will darken the mood. This has the makings of a good story, but something seems to have been lost in the translation, as scenes that should feel emotionally charged end up coming across as awkward and clumsy.

The book concludes with “In Love with the Czarina,” by Hungarian author Maurice Jokai (or Mór Jókai, in his native tongue). It is based on the true story of Jemeljan Pugasceff (a.k.a. Yemelyan Pugachev), a Cossack who falls in love with Catherine the Great. After her husband Czar Peter III dies, Pugasceff ignites a rebellion in an attempt to capture the crown of Russia and take her for his bride. This story is reminiscent of the military epics of Sienkiewicz, such as With Fire and Sword. Though it starts and ends well, in between it grows a bit tedious with the minutiae of troop movements.

Stories by Foreign Authors is a great series that brings to light quite a few authors of a century ago that are largely forgotten today. While the classic fiction of France and Russia still enjoys a large English-language audience, this volume reminds us that there are treasures of European literature to be discovered off the beaten path as well.

Stories in this collection
The Light-House Keeper of Aspinwall by Henryk Sienkiewicz 
The Plain Sister by Demetrios Bikélas 
The Massacre of the Innocents by Maurice Maeterlinck 
Saint Nicholas Eve by Camille Lemonnier 
In Love with the Czarina by Maurice Jokai 

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