‘The Deluge’, H. Sienkiewicz

As promised, I wished to write some more about ‘The Deluge’. I am quite a fan of the writings of Henryk Sienkiewicz, and I do like this book some more than the others. ‘Pan Wolodyjowski’ is good as well, especially since the steppe landscape talks to me when I read those scenes. But for now, of the second book.

So the Swedes have arrived, and let us pray to the gods that someone would be good and gracious enough to re-enact a Kircholm. But it is not to happen (or if it is, then not yet!), and the Swedes, Russians, Prussians, Hungarians, Tartars, and even internal traitors are all forcing their claws into the Commonwealth. What we see is an immense breakdown of discipline and order, only reversed when the people turn back to their faith.

It is the Christian and Catholic aspect of the book that I don’t entirely appreciate, but I can see why Sienkiewicz wrote it in that fashion. His did write in a Romantic era where nationalism was on the rise, and this very same religion helped foster a sense of Polishness.

In many ways though, the author also transcended that plain narrative by bringing in a sense of the future. It is very similar to what Ryotaro Shiba does in his books, although Shiba’s style is better and the tangents that the narrative takes are less controlled. Yet, Sienkiewicz succeeds in what he tries — especially powerful for me is the moment where he describes how the Marshal Lubomirski was to decide what to do with his men and armies.

That indeed, I believe, is one of the finest things to come through to the reader. The power and might of a Polish magnate, and yet how in essence they are no different from any other nobleman. Jeremi Wisniowecki was the magnate in the first book, and he was terrifying in essence. A good leader, a gracious lord, and a vicious enemy. Now we have the Radziwills, the Sapiehas,  the Lubomirskis, Czarnieckis, and so forth — all of these with their own agendas and wishes. It is clear to me at least that what the author laments is a lacking sense of unity.

But how could unity be found if everyone aspires towards their own personal glory? Could it be that this unity is as much a part of everyone but only needs a chance to gather around something, someone… the something being Catholicism and the someone their good and gracious King Jan II Kazimirz.

In the end though, we return to the argument that Lubomirski made in this book with his head. How about taking two glasses made of crystal, filling them with wine & vodka, and drinking to the bottom only to break those glasses against one’s own head? I can see that scene play out in my mind, and I think that it would have been a moment to behold. Allegiance is there in the hearts of everyone, and money — if for a moment — is not a factor to be considered.

‘With Fire and Sword’

I know that there has been a small gap in my writings here, and they will probably be less frequent than the two months I managed from April to June, but I will do my best to have at least some regularity here.  This return of mine is also signified by me watching ‘With Fire and Sword’, the movie by Jerzy Hoffman of the similarly named book by Henryk Sienkiewicz, for the third time in as many months.

The first time of these was just a plain session, the second one I was slightly drunk and fell asleep before the end, and now I have an extended version (with one oddity as well). So, overall, three quite different experiences.

I’ll just point out that the oddity with the extended version (which is on two DVDs) is that some scenes which were originally in different languages have been dubbed with Polish so that the lines are more or less said twice (since at least to my ears the original language sounds Russian, but I could be well wrong with this).

In any case, the good and the bad?

I have to say I am very much a fan of the music in this movie. It is just so befitting — especially the songs (‘Hey hey, Tuhay-bey’) and the charges by the hussars… The music is definitely befitting for the role it was to play. It is a pity though that translators have passed them by (I always think verses should be translated — no matter how badly — to give an indication of the emotion that the words should convey).

There are a few scenes cut that appeared in the books. I have always been a fan of the moment where the German infantry is surrounded and refuses to surrender. There’s far less of the so-to-say glorification of sacrifice which was supposedly one of Mr Hoffman’s goals. There’s a very good sentence in the end of the movie which summarizes this feeling entirely. However, it is not yet the time for that.

I find it very interesting to just see how Mr Hoffman presented the different characters. It is not something easy to describe, but I know when looking at it that it is a veritable representation of people in general. There’s someone similar to any one of us that can be found within the repertoire of characters here — a Jan Skrzetuski, Zagloba, Bohun, Hmielnicki, Jarema Wisniowiecki, Rzedzian, Michal Wolodyjowski, and so forth.

That indeed for me is one of the great charms of the story. It speaks of human frailty, and it speaks of that in the clearest words possible. But it also gives hope, with a fair dose of reality. No victory will come without cost, and even the victors have their faults.

You’ll find us, we’ll be on everyone’s lips in the Ukraine.

The scene, for example, where Hmielnicki releases Skrzetuski to go back to the Prince Wisniowecki (and, yes, I thoroughly disagree with the poor English translation which has made a princely title into Dukes) is in many ways devastating. I can understand what all of them are thinking, and yet it was the only way to act.

Jarema who came off so much cleaner in the book has his faults here. But he is also a loving husband and a father. I would think that this actor was one of the best casting choices — the role is portrayed with such precision. This indeed is a man who cures rebellions with both fire and sword.

One further thing I would like to comment on is the historical accuracy of it all — I am now specialized enough to give comment on the battles and campaigns, but I do like the effort that has gone into creating a believable culture that we can observe. The uniforms, armour, tactics, and way of speech. The hussars! What else can I say… I would really like someone to make a movie out of Kircholm. But I think I would appreciate it more if it was in the spirit of this movie here.

And finally, to come back to the story we’re being told…

‘Hatred poisoned the hearts of two brother nations.’

“Whose entire body of work is worth reading?”

Reading Marginal Revolution brings up interesting questions every now and then. Tyler Cowen is a person with a very wide range of interests, and these are well reflected in the wide spectra of posts that can be found on MR. So, with interest I opened up a post with the same title as above, thinking: “What has Tyler written now?”

That original post can be found over here, ‘Whose entire body of work is worth reading?’. It might be interesting to acquaint oneself with what Mr Cowen has said for I think I wish to differ in my opinion.

Yes, I’ll grant that historians are an easy pick. Or, at least, an easier pick than any fiction writer. But there’s a reason for that and I am not entirely confident that the reason is that high quality history is always substantiated by top research. And, even if it is, it is not the research but the author’s readability which is the important part in reading a historical book. And, being very good at research means very little in immediate writing skills gains so there must be more to the puzzle.

My theory on the historians would be that historians who have the knack for writing come out better in the general readability of their tomes. If they know how to write well instinctively, they have an easier time writing for having to worry less about making the story into a single cohesive unit. And, yet, I would dare not name any names. I don’t think I am familiar enough with the works of any single historian to bring him/her out in full.

Overall, then, this question comes down to style for me. But, if I concentrate on the problem, is it possible that any writer has kept their style from the very beginning to the end without pause so that it is uniformly strong and infallible?

I don’t think so.

In effect, I would go so far as to say that all of the names that Mr Cowen brought up in his post are names that I would not dare mention. In which case, what names would I bring up?

That’s a trickier one to answer, partly because I feel like I would want to name a few people, but I am afraid that their originals read worse than the translations that I have read. It might be a fortuitous event that I’ve probably read Arthur C. Clarke most extensively, probably covering the majority of his published works, but even that list is a few titles short of a full collection. And no matter how good the ideas present in the books I’ve read, Mr Clarke has had a few weaker books.

Henryk Sienkiewicz would probably come second, and again the question of translations has to be present. Assuming that Sienkiewicz’s style in Polish is just as clear and strong as it was when I read it in English and Estonian, I would be happy to say that all of his work is worth reading. If, however, some parts of it were a fluke of chance or an edit of the translator, then maybe the reader has been deceived. [Note that a lot of the sentiment present in Mr Sienkiewicz’s works is something I might consider worthy of reading to understand the past rather than the present.]

Of other names, I would bet on Ryotaro Shiba. Again, I have only read him in translation, some of which was not the top quality work I was expecting, I do say myself, but I think that his style in the original is likely to be so much better. So, there’s another unsubstantiated claim that I cannot prove.

On the philosophers: why would I cross off Plato and the rest mentioned in Tyler’s post above?

I am not certain that their works carry the worth of reading throughout. The thoughts of philosophers naturally vary over time and space, and I would not find it difficult to believe that the heavy style we have attributed to Plato and Nietzsche is stronger in some of the books than in the others. And if that is the case, then with the style of the author faltering how can the author himself be consistently skillful?

Indeed, if I were to guess of a type of people who would have put down the most to paper that is all worth reading, I think I would lean towards a playwright or a poet. Maybe Pedro Calderón de la Barca is a good guess, but I’ve only read one title by him so I cannot comment in full. Yet, Calderón de la Barca sounded as if he had something to say. Likewise, I would probably prop J.R.R. Tolkien up there if only for all of his poems, although that is shirking the question slightly again…

So, those are the names that I would put forward. I didn’t think much on where to get them from, nor did I spend an inordinate amount of time on them, but I think that’s something for a start (I’d be interested to see what any of my readers say). I dare add that this is probably one of those questions which are better left unasked in general, although it is also always fun to throw names around and see which ones stay in the air. But, for now, I’ll keep to the poets…

‘With Fire and Sword’, H. Sienkiewicz

Henryk Sienkiewicz’s books are a wonder to read. Having recently concluded (once again) his ‘With Fire and Sword’, I can reaffirm that there are books that are better but few that equal the scope, sense and emotion that he wrote into his works.

But better than me in the description of the book, are quotes from it (that I much enjoyed).

The year 1647 was that wonderful year in which manifold signs in the heavens and on the earth announced misfortunes of some kind and unusual events.

And that terrible lion laid himself down on the threshold of a rebellious land and rested. He was gathering his strength.

It is better for a knightly nation to perish than to become low-lived and rouse the contempt of the whole world for themselves.

Kindness may be shown to the conquered alone.

Since death is predestined to a man, it is better on the field of glory than in bed.

It was not without reason then that a cloud covered the royal face, for there is no greater pain for a king than a feeling of weakness.

But the Commonwealth had risen from its lethargy, had broken with the past policy of the chancellor, with treaties and negotiations. It was seen at last that the sword alone could win enduring peace.

In a sense, this was a very quick summary but it displays near-perfectly what it speaks of, and why I can enjoy it so very much.

H. Sienkiewicz, ‘Trylogia’

Just finished the masterpiece of Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Trylogia (composed of three books, ‘With Fire and Sword’, ‘The Deluge’, and ‘Fire in the Steppe, or Pan Wolodyjowski’), a grand total of 1781 pages in the Estonian translation (since the original was written in Polish, it made sense to read the Estonian translation which would likely be more truthful than an English one).

I do believe that Sienkiewicz, by writing this book, has managed to capture the spirit of patriotism as well as anyone ever could. I can’t really very well describe what it is about the book (or rather, the series of books) that’s so captivating, but there is something in it. Some commentator described the book as capturing the Polish spirit — perhaps this would be true (when we are speaking of the historical Poland, which would encompass modern Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belorussia, Kaliningrad, the majority of Latvia, and other territories), especially when we consider what the great nation actually had to go through — a century of war unlike any other European power, and yet it managed to retain it’s greatness and momentum.

Would it perhaps be that the liberties so valued by the szlachta (election of a king, and liberum veto to name a few) are the very essence of a democratic nation, making Poland (after United Provinces of the Netherlands, or whatever it’s official name was) the first democratic nation (especially considering the large number of szlachtices in the realm)? It might indeed be so, especially since no modern democracy manages to (at least from what I have read and experienced) — possibly with the exception of the autocratic democracy present in Singapore — portray to their own citizens what these szlachtices see as their God-given rights that can not be taken away by anyone wishing to rule without the power of law.

It can only be imagined where Poland would be now, if the spirit of patriotism had continued, and Austria, Prussia and Russia had not intervened constantly in its affairs…

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