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Quo Vadis? ()


Nobel Prize Winners (1905)

I had honestly never heard of Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz--though I was aware of the title of this novel--until I picked up an interesting looking book at the Dartmouth Bookstore one day.  It had a cover painting of a Cossack or someone wielding a saber and an introduction by James Michener.  Either Michener or a cover blurb referred to the book, With Fire and Sword, as the great novel of Poland.  So I figured what the hey, and I bought it.  Well, suffice it to say, Henryk Sienkiewicz is now one of my all-time favorite authors.

Basically, Sienkiewicz was a victim of a trap that I had never previously given much thought to; he simply had no great modern translator to render his work accessible to us.  With Fire and Sword and the volumes that followed it to form a trilogy had not been translated into English since Jeremiah Curtin, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, did so on their publication.  Though there appears to be some scholarly dispute about the quality of Curtin's work, I tried reading his translation of the middle volume, The Deluge, because the new translation is almost impossible to find, and I have to say that as desperately as I wanted to read it, I could not get into the flow of his text.  The Polish names make for tough sledding anyway, but combined with his fairly archaic English, I just couldn't take it.

Quo Vadis? has actually remained more popular over the years, in fact it is one of the best selling novels of all time, so there have been decent translations available all along, but you really should seek out the W. S. Kuniczak version if you can find it.  Kuniczak, himself a novelist, devoted at least six years to updating Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and his dedication to the author's work paid off brilliantly.  Though still recognizably written in the style and language of a hundred years ago, the books now read with a much more natural flow.  His background as a novelist seems to have served him well, because rather than reading like someone converted Polish to English verbatim, they read like an English retelling of the Polish tale.  That obviously could be cause for concern to folks who have a thorough grounding in the original, particularly if he took great license with the author's work, but as a reader, all I really care about is that his versions are terrific books.

The novel--which will particularly appeal to anyone who enjoyed Ben-Hur (see Orrin's review) or The Robe--is set in Nero's Rome and is built around the stark contrast between the voluptuary decadent Romans and the ascetic Christians.   Vinitius is a patrician in good standing at Nero's court until he falls in love with the Christian girl Ligia.  At first somewhat reluctantly, but then with gathering fervor, Vinitius is drawn out of the moral depths of his prior life and himself becomes a Christian.  By the time that Nero burns down Rome and blames the Christians, Vinitius has become a believer and is prepared to sacrifice his position and even his life to save Ligia from the Coliseum and the Games where Nero sacrifices Christians to distract the restless populace of Rome.

In addition to Bread and Circuses and the romantic tale, there are scenes of surpassing beauty centered on Christian faith.  One such is Vinitius's baptism scene; after he tries futilely to convince the Apostle Peter to flee to Sicily with him and Ligia, Peter responds:

    "The Lord will bless you for your kind heart and noble feeling, but you do not realize that the
    Master Himself thrice repeated to me the words, 'Feed my sheep.'"

    Vinitius became silent not knowing what to respond.

    Peter continued, "I cannot leave my flock in the day of disaster.  When there was a storm on the
    lake and we were all terrified in the boat, the Lord did not desert us.  Why should I, His servant,
    desert my flock, those whom He has given me?"

    Then Linus raised up his emaciated head and said weakly, "O Peter, Christ's appointed shepherd,
    why should I not follow your example?"

    Vinitius rubbed his forehead as if struggling with his thoughts, then taking Ligia by the hand spoke
    to all present: "Hear me, Peter, Linus and you, Ligia.  I only spoke as my own human intellect
    dictated.  However all of you reason according to Christ and His teaching.  I don't fully understand
    that yet and my inclination and my thinking is still different from yours.  But since I love Christ
    and want to be His servant, I here kneel before you and swear to you that I too will not leave my
    brethren in the days of trouble."  Then he raised his eyes and with religious fervor exclaimed, "Do I
    understand You at last, O Christ?  Am I now worthy of You?"

    His hands trembled, his eyes glistened with tears, his whole body shook with faith and love.  Peter
    took an earthen vessel filled with water and, pouring the water over the head of Vinitius said
    solemnly, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen."
 

Another such scene explains the title of the book.  "Quo Vadis?", means "where are you going?" and derives from a New Testament verse (John 13:36).  As Sienkiewicz renders it, Peter is finally leaving Rome, at the behest of Paul and the remaining Christians, when:

    Suddenly, up ahead a vision struck the eyes of the Apostle.  It seemed to him that the golden circle
    of the sun, instead of rising in the sky, moved down from the heights and was advancing on the
    road toward them.  Peter stopped and asked Nazarius, "Do you see the brightness up ahead
    approaching us?"

    "I See nothing," replied Nazarius.

    Peter shaded his eyes with one hand and said after a while, "Someone is coming toward us amid the
    gleam of the sun."

    But no approaching footsteps could be heard.  All was quiet around them.  Nazarius however
    noticed that the trees were quivering in the distance as if someone was shaking them.  The light too
    was spreading in a broad vista over the plain.  He looked in amazement at the Apostle.

    "Teacher, what is the matter?" he cried out in alarm.

    The staff fell from Peter's hand to the ground.  He stood motionless looking intently ahead of him;
    his mouth was open; on his face Nazarius could see surprise and rapture.

    Then Peter threw himself on his knees, his arms outstretched and cried out, "O Christ! O Christ!"
    He prostrated himself kissing someone's feet.

    The silence continued long.  Then the words of Peter could be heard by Nazarius, with mingled
    sobs coming from the old fisherman, "Quo Vadis, Domine?" (Where are You going, Lord?)

    Nazarius did not hear the answer but to Peter's ears came a sad but sweet voice saying, "When you
    desert my people, I am going back to Rome to be crucified a second time."

    The Apostle lay on the ground, his face in the dust without motion or speech.  It seemed to
    Nazarius that he might have fainted or even died, but he finally rose, picked up his staff with
    trembling hands and without a word turned back towards Rome.

    The boy, seeing this, asked, "Quo vadis, domine?" (Where are you going, sir?)

    "To Rome," answered the Apostle in a low voice.  And he returned.

It is sequences like this that make this not merely an action packed historical melodrama but also a genuine novel of ideas.  At the core of the story lies the miracle of how an obscure religion embraced by the people at the very fringes of this society, literally hiding in catacombs to escape persecution, could rise up, conquer the Empire and reshape the world.  On either plane, the physical or the metaphysical, this is an exciting story and is sure to send you scurrying to find the rest of Sienkiewicz's work.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Guide to the Nobel Prizes: Sienkiewicz, Henryk,
    -Henry Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) - psydonym Litwos (kirjasto)
    -Henryk Sienkiewicz: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1905 (Nobel Prize Site)
    -Henryk Sienkiewicz Winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature (Nobel Internet Archive)
    -Henryk Sienkiewicz Home Page
    -TIMELINE: Biography
    -MUZEUM HENRYKA SIENKIEWICZA W OBLÊGORKU
    -QUO VADIS? (ThinkQuest)
    -Lecture on "Quo Vadis"  (Guest Lecture by Prof. Vasily Rudich, UCLA Classics 42)
    -ESSAY: Books: Grant's classic picks Christian readers should discover Henryk Sienkiewicz (David Aikman, World Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).  A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open.  1916
    -ESSAY: When Writers Turn Translators:   Notes on W. S. Kuniczak's translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy (James R. Thompson, Sarmatian Review)
    -ESSAY: 'Mein Kampf' and the Plays of Szekspir: Adventures in the Polish Book Trade (Anna Husarska, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: 'THE ROBE' AND I: THE MAKING OF A CHRISTIAN STORYTELLER (Andrew M. Greely, NY times Book Review)
    -ARTICLE: Hoffman's Red Hot Cuts: Magnificent and majestic: In bringing Sienkiewicz's epic to the silver screen, Hoffman takes us back to glories past. (John Edmondson, Warsaw Voice)
    -ARTICLE: A Downsized Epic: A new stage version of Henryk Sienkiewicz's epic Quo Vadis will be presented as part of the anniversary celebration of one of Warsaw's leading musical theaters (Mika Przyby3owicz, Warsaw Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Quo Vadis? (Atlantic Monthly, May 1897)
    -REVIEW: of Quo Vadis? By Henryk Sienkiewicz. (Kevin Hannan, Sarmatian Review)
    -REVIEW: of Quo Vadis? by Henry Sienkiewicz (Stirling Bridge Book Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of WITH FIRE AND SWORD By Henryk Sienkiewicz. Translated by W. S. Kuniczak (Norman Davies, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: IN SHORT: FICTION  THE DELUGE By Henryk Sienkiewicz (D. J. R. BRUCKNER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: IN SHORT: FICTION  FIRE IN THE STEPPE By Henryk Sienkiewicz (Lauren Belfer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Chasing Sienkiewicz by Michal Jacek Mikos (Bozena Shallcross, Sarmatian Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. By Charlotte Allen (Luke Timothy Johnson, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of In America by Susan Sontag ( David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle)
 

W.S. KUNICZAK
    -REVIEW: THE CZAR'S MADMAN By Jaan Kross. Translated by Anselm Hollo (W. S. Kuniczak, NY Times Book Review)
 

FILM:
    -ESSAY: Ancient Rome and the traditions of film history (Maria Wyke, Screening the Past)
    -REVIEW: of Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History. (Marianne McDonald, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
    -ESSAY: "HISTORY IN COLOR" Color, Spectacle and History in Epic Film (Hannu Salmi)

POLISH LITERATURE:
    -The Sarmatian Review was conceived by a group of American Polish scholars who observed a dearth of scholarly journals that would allow Polish American points of view to be heard. The journal is designed to allow the discourse on Central and Eastern Europe to develop in a scholarly publication that reflects Central European and Polish American identity
    -ESSAY: Sarmatism or the Enlightenment: The Dilemma of Polish Culture  (Andrzej Wasko, Sarmatian Review)
    -LINKS: Eastern European Authors: Before and After the Fall of the Iron Curtain (About.com)
    -PAN: Polish Heritage
    - Gallery of Polish Painting Masterpieces

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