Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Children of the Soil by Henryk Sienkiewicz

70 grueling chapters on love and marriage
Henryk Sienkiewicz
The novels of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, generally fall into two categories. First there are his historical epics, for which he is best known to English-language readers. Among these include Quo Vadis, set in ancient Rome, and his trilogy of Polish war novels: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael. Secondly, we have his novels of modern Poland, a category that includes Children of the Soil, published in 1894. Although I consider myself a fan of Sienkiewicz, this is the worst work of his that I’ve ever read. This grueling examination of love and marriage proceeds at a sluggish pace without delivering any profound insight to justify its overly protracted length.

Warsaw businessman Stanislav Polanyetski travels to a country estate in order to collect a debt from his distant relative, Pan Plavitski. Polanyetski, commonly referred to in the text as Pan Stas, vaguely remembers playing on this farm as a child with Plavitski’s daughter Marynia. When he meets Marynia again, he finds that she has grown into an attractive woman. He immediately realizes that he is at an age where he should be thinking about taking a wife, and that Marynia would make a fine one. Through a stupid miscommunication, however, Stas and Marynia end up offending rather than courting one another. Disgruntled at his thwarted romantic dreams, Stas then makes a bonehead business transaction that puts the Plavitskis’ estate in jeopardy, a mistake which he must then spend many chapters trying to rectify. This faux pas feels like a rom-com contrivance designed to put obstacles in the way of a couple that are inevitably meant to be together. Sienkiewicz then introduces a dying child into the story as another contrivance to bring the two closer. What’s worse, upon winning Marynia’s love, Stas immediately starts flirting with other women, making him a difficult protagonist to sympathize with. After a while, even Sienkiewicz seems to grow tired of Stas and Marynia and feels the need to introduce a younger couple whose tortured romance predominates the second half of the book. A large ensemble cast of characters, many of whom feel unnecessary, are on hand to represent varied attitudes toward marriage, adultery, bachelorhood, spinsterhood, widowhood, etc.

One of the most disappointing things about this novel is its title. “Children of the Soil,” coupled with the book’s extensive length, would lead one to believe that this is an agricultural epic, like Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, for example, or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. There is nary a peasant in sight here, however. The characters in this book may own country homes and buy and sell fields and forests, but none of them have ever picked up a shovel in their lives. This is strictly a book about rich people’s problems. Over the course of the novel it becomes exhausting to listen to these characters complain about their fluctuating incomes when their idea of destitution is being excluded from a certain social circle.

In English translation, this novel amounts to about 675 tightly packed pages, comprising 70 mostly lengthy chapters. I’ve read very long books before, including a few by Sienkiewicz. He may have seen this as his Anna Karenina, but there is nothing in the story to merit the exorbitant length of this text. Every chapter is overly stretched out and padded with unnecessary filler, making it feel like a colossal waste of time. Those wishing to read one of Sienkiewicz’s works on modern Poland would be better off going with In Vain or Without Dogma. The latter is pretty good, while the former is rather mediocre but certainly better than Children of the Soil.

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