Sunday, March 13, 2022

Fortnightly Book, March 13

 Henryk Sienkiewicz was born in 1846 in the Polish portion of the Russian Empire. He struggled in school but had some facility for language and literature, and became a tutor in those subjects. He slowly began publishing, and his fiction works in particular gave him a modest fame in literary circles in Warsaw, but his career really took off when in the 1870s he became a traveling correspondent for Polish newspapers, traveling the United States and sending back travel essays. When he returned in 1879, he began to shift from a focus on short fiction to a focus on detail historical novels. His first serious works in this genre, a trilogy on the Khmelnytsky Uprising, put him at the forefront of Polish authors; indeed, the historical epic is still often just known as The Trilogy in Poland today. The critics were not impressed, but the Polish public was, enough that the Russian censors started getting twitchy, and flatly told Sienkiewicz that he was not to publish anything on Polish history ever again. He experimented with various other things, but then in 1896 published a work that would make him not just famous in Poland but famous all the world over. That work was titled Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, and it is the next fortnightly book.

Quo Vadis, as its subtitle suggests, is a story about Christianity in the Roman Empire, and is about the battle of spiritual power against material power. It's usually thought to have undertones suggestive of the Polish struggle against Russian domination. The critics again seem to have not generally been impressed by it, but the public was, and dealing with a widely known period of history rather than a period of Polish history, which (however interesting it may be) is not widely known, it spread like wildfire out of Poland, and become one of the world's bestselling books. In a matter of years, people were making stage and screen adaptations. The book only got further publicity when Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905, and more screen adaptations were done. Then in 1951 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made an epic film in Technicolor, also called Quo Vadis, which became the highest- grossing film of the year, making the studio a large profit, and more than anything else touched off the Hollywood Golden Age fashion of big, epic Roman-era movies. Even so, Quo Vadis arguably remained the greatest example of the genre until it was overtopped by Ben-Hur.

All of this was well after Sienkiewicz's death, however; he had died in 1916. Nonetheless, the success of the novel even up to that point had been so great that he grew fairly wealthy because of it, even despite the fact that he got almost no royalties for translations of his works published outside of Russia. Remembering his own days of struggling as a writer, he used a significant portion of his earnings to support young writers and other charitable causes. This took up a lot of his time, and none of his later works did well with the critics, so he soon became almost as famous in Poland for philanthropy as he was for literature. After his death, while his global popularity has undergone a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, he has remained perhaps one of the greatest Polish authors of the modern period.