Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In Vain by Henryk Sienkiewicz

An inauspicious debut
According to the brief introduction by translator Jeremiah Curtin, In Vain was the first published novel by Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, written when he was only 18 years old. Originally published in 1876 under the Polish title of Na marne, Curtin’s English edition did not come out until 1899, after Sienkiewicz had achieved some worldwide renown as the author of romantic epics like Quo Vadis and “The Trilogy” (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Wolodyjowski). In Vain is no epic, but it is definitely romantic, in the 19th-century sense of the word. Curtin describes the book as a portrait of student life, and that’s certainly how it starts out, but not how it ends.

A young man named Yosef Shvarts (Curtin always opts for phonetic spellings of Polish proper nouns) arrives in Kiev to attend school. He runs into an old hometown friend, Gustav, and the two decide to room together. Yosef is the son of a blacksmith, so although he is lucky to be able to attend school, money is scarce and he must live frugally. The two friends hang out at a student club with a group of schoolmates who share their bohemian lifestyle. Gustav is in love with Helena, an attractive widow who has been traumatized by the death of her husband and child. Upon meeting Yosef, however, she immediately becomes obsessed with him because he reminds her of her deceased husband. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with Gustav and causes a great deal of tension between the two roommates.

Meanwhile, Yosef falls in love with science and studies to become a doctor, but that element of the narrative is neglected in favor of the love story. The novel harkens back to an earlier and far more conservative age when kissing a woman was as good as a marriage proposal (although at times it’s hinted, ever so subtly, that there’s more than just kissing going on). Men of a certain class were expected to conduct themselves honorably in all things, like the knights of old. To play games with a woman’s virtue would spell the end of one’s reputation as a gentleman. Under such restrictive conventions of romance, Yosef finds himself in a quandary between love and duty.

The first half of the book is very engaging. The depiction of student life in Kiev is interesting, and the characters and their relationships are intriguing. Eventually, however, the novel regresses into a rather formulaic he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not story, reminiscent of some of the fairy tale romances that are more at home in Sienkiewicz’s historical epics. The character of Augustinovich, a friend and confidant of Yosef’s, even resembles The Trilogy’s Falstaffian character Pan Zagloba in his sense of humor, his gregariousness, and his propensity for meddling in others’ love lives.

In Vain is not a terrible book, but it may be the worst piece of work I’ve ever read from this excellent author. Only diehard fans of Sienkiewicz should give this one a try.
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