THE LAUREATE: Henryk Sienkiewicz was born in Poland in 1846. He was descended from several wealthy families, but was born into genteel poverty. He was pushed into medicine, but ended up starting his career as a journalist. Later, his fiction was published serially in newspapers. Sienkiewicz was firmly an author of historical fiction; the Polish know him best for what they just call The Trilogy- three books about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The rest of the world knows about him because of Quo Vadis, and some got the idea that the latter is what won him the award (not true!) Sienkiewicz had a long career, including several extended visits to America, and then, after the outbreak of World War One, moved to Switzerland where he started a group to help those injured in the war. It didn’t last long, and he died in 1916
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT HIM?: Not a whole lot. I am sort of familiar with Quo Vadis, though. I took a class in college called “Pagans and Christians,” which was all about the rise of Christianity and how the dominant world of the time was assimilated into it and changed it to meet its whims. My professors (a married couple who are also easily the smartest people I’ve ever met: the husband was a native German who studied Greek philosophy in Greek at Oxford(!!!), the wife was an alumna of my college who studied the Byzantine Empire at Oxford) used the 1951 film of Quo Vadis to illustrate various points that we studied in our sources. Quo Vadis is a great gem of a movie, with gloriously Shatnerian overacting.
WHAT ARE YOU READING?: Quo Vadis, obviously.
REVIEW: I’m only halfway through at this writing, but I need to get this off my chest because it is really distracting. So, Sienkiewicz wrote Quo Vadis with the most thorough research and learning available in his day. His day, of course, was 1896, when there were still journals publishing papers about what color Nausicaa’s ball was and what game she and her friends were playing (this is in the Odyssey). There is a whole world of critical tools that no one had conceived of: feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, the unreliable narrator, etc. His main sources for Roman life in the time of Nero were Petronius and Suetonius. The best way to explain why this is terrible methodology is by analogy. Imagine in the future that you were writing a book set in the late 20th century, and the best sources you had were transcripts of Louis Black routines and the collected back issues of US Magazine. Classical historiography was not nearly as worried about factual accuracy as we are now, and were generally much more interested in exposing the underlying truth of a person. Think of George Washington and the cherry tree. You know that story. George Washington would never have actually touched an ax when he was a kid. There were cherry trees on Mount Vernon, but they were far too valuable to chop down for funsies. But the important element of the story is that George Washington takes the harder course when it will reflect badly on him. In brief, he is honest, and this honesty repeated itself when, for instance, he stepped down from the presidency. In the same way, Nero was crazy, but that doesn’t mean he actually demanded that people praise his singing and acting, or that he actually played the lyre while Rome burned, or that he actually impaled Romans and set them on fire for funsies. More importantly, Romans never actually hated Christians, except in poorly transmitted texts with badly concealed tampering (Here’s looking at you, Tacitus). Look at the saints’ lives and martyrologies: the Romans were terrified by Christians’ rampant atheism and creeped out by their willingness to be killed over something as unimportant as religion.
Okay, I’m done. Real review soonish.
So, this was really tiresome. Like, really, really tiresome. I figured out the day after I wrote the above rant what my real problem with Quo Vadis is. Henryk Sienkiewicz forgot the most basic rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell, and this realization redeemed the second half of the book for me a little bit. See, it has to do with Film Crit Hulk’s theory of Tangible Details; you should read the article, but if you can’t be bothered to have a Hulk-sized slab of knowledge laid on you, here is the summary: Almost everyone who takes in works of art has a sort of instinctual aesthetic sense, and they can tell good from bad. However, most people can’t articulate the deep structural and tonal observations they make, so they cling to the things they can see or hear. The most obvious example that Hulk uses is Daniel Craig’s James Bond. When the trailer for Casino Royale hit the internet, there was a slavering, kneejerk hatred of it before anyone had really seen any of it. But after Craig rocked as James Bond, no one complained about how he was blonde anymore. I realized that I had the same problem with Quo Vadis. Before really thinking about it, I was predisposed to hate it because of poor historiography or insistent and banal apologetics.
The plot is essentially that a young Roman tribune raised and living in Nero’s court meets a bangin hot barbarian girl who also happens to be a Christian. He attempts to tap dat, and as time goes on and he continues to pursue her, he slowly (Oh god, so slowly) finds himself rejecting Roman culture and becoming a Christian. Okay, fine. Whatever. That obviously happened to non-fictional people in one way or another. What really bothered me was how much Sienkiewicz resorted to horrifically generic apologetic vocabulary to describe the transition. Seriously, buddy sounds like a really awful chapter in Tolstoy.
That said, there were definitely some amazing passages. Sienkiewicz’s description of the fire is beautiful and terrible at the same time, and some of the ways he shows the early Christians clashing with Roman society are incredible. It’s unfortunate that Sienkiewicz does not get to the heart of the ancient clash of cultures, and that he only couldn’t because of his own cultural biases.
DO YOU RECOMMEND IT?: I would love to cut out about two hundred pages of it. There really is an amazing novel buried in the apologetic screed, I swear. I think the best we’re going to get, though, is the film. It is impossible to spend ten pages at a time describing how characters feel about each other in film, and thus it cuts out the most awful part of the book. Plus, in the version from the 50s, Peter Ustinov chews the scenery up something fierce. His Nero is truly a sight to behold. Just rent the movie.
WHAT’S NEXT?: I’ve been reading some Dario Fo, and he will be a bit complicated.