Friday, June 23, 2017

Hania by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Assorted selections from the master’s sketchbook
Hania is the title of an 1876 novella by Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. It is also the name of a collection of short fiction by Sienkiewicz published in English in 1897. As is usually the case with Sienkiewicz’s works, the ten short stories included in the collection were translated by Jeremiah Curtin. The selections are a mixed bag featuring subject matter that readers of Sienkiewicz’s better-known novels will find familiar. In fact, in some cases the pieces included here served as preliminary sketches for the author’s greatest novels.

The title selection, “Hania,” is an autobiographical story, although likely embellished with Sienkiewicz’s Romantic flair. When an old family servant dies, Sienkiewicz assumes responsibility for the man’s granddaughter by welcoming her as a sister into the family. As time goes on, however, his feelings for her become more than brotherly. This story starts out as a very interesting glimpse into the privileges and obligations of a Polish nobleman. As the plot progresses, however, Sienkiewicz’s picture of himself becomes more unflattering as he behaves in stupid and petty ways. The story ends on an unsatisfying note of blunt realism uncharacteristic of the author.

A more successful effort is “Tartar Captivity,” a violent piece of historical fiction about a 17th-century impoverished noble who goes off to fight the Tartars in the Ukraine. This piece is a worthy precursor to Sienkiewicz’s famous trilogy of With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael. Another good selection is the short story “The Organist of Ponikla” which eschews historical grandeur in favor of a more personal, intimate focus. “Lux in Tenebris Lucet” is another pretty good offering with a solemn atmosphere and poignant plot, but it settles for a rather easy religious ending. The volume closes with “That Third Woman,” an enjoyable comic piece about an artist who finds fame and fortune overnight, and the effect his newfound notoriety has on his love life.

The less successful entries include “Let Us Follow Him,” a rather dull retelling of the crucifixion of Christ that can be seen as a preliminary work to Sienkiewicz’s religious opus Quo Vadis. “Be Thou Blessed” is a blessedly brief Hindu fable that gratifies the Romantic’s taste for the exotic. “At the Source” and “On the Bright Shore” are both dreary romances which annoy with their unlikable characters and overdramatic touches. Lastly, in “Charcoal Sketches,” a municipal functionary schemes to force a rival into military conscription in order to make advances to the man’s wife. Though Sienkiewicz tries to be funny by satirizing corruption at various levels of government, the broad humor never gels with the unpleasant events, and the whole thing just comes across as mean-spirited and overdone.

Though the tone of these works varies from dreary fatalism to lighthearted comedy, Sienkiewicz’s devotion to Romanticism is evident throughout, sometimes to the point of detriment to the stories he’s telling. This is a long book, and over its course you start to feel bogged down with the pomposity of classical literary references, tortured artists, and inflexible codes of honor. When he starts to make fun of such pretensions in “That Third Woman,” it’s quite a relief, but that’s the last stop on an exhausting trip. Overall, there’s no denying that these short pieces are not as strong as Sienkiewicz’s long-form masterpieces. Only the most diehard of Sienkiewicz fans, seeking to consume his complete works, need bother with this collection.

Stories in this collection
Hania (includes a Prologue to Hania: The Old Servant) 
Tartar Captivity 
Let Us Follow Him
Be Thou Blessed 
At the Source 
Charcoal Sketches 
The Organist of Ponikla
Lux in Tenebris Lucet 
On the Bright Shore 
That Third Woman

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