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Not everyone can be Alexandre Dumas.

July 25, 2010 3 comments

Quo vadis ? By Henryk Sienkiewicz. Translated by Ely Halpérine-Kaminski.

 I don’t plan what I read, I leap from idea to idea, like the real Frog I am. This time I jumped from Fred Vargas and her triumvirate of Julio-Claudian emperors to Ovid and then to Quo Vadis? and fell head over feet…of boredom and exasperation.  

Quo Vadis? was published in 1896 and tells the love story between a Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius and a Lygian hostage, Lygia. He’s the typical Roman aristocrat and she’s a Christian. It takes place in 44, under the rule of Nero. Historical characters are included in the novel, such as Nero and several persons of his court, Petronius, St Paul, St Peter. The latters are in Rome to spread Christianity. Sienkiewiscz did a lot of research to write this book, reading Ancient writers (Suetone, Tacitus…) and visiting Rome to better know the geography of the city.

 In fact, I did not finish reading it. I dropped it after the fire in Rome, started or not by Nero. I thought that it was a little too black and white for me. Real life is full of grey tones, and Sienkiewiscz forgot that. The Christians are all good. The Romans are depraved and cruel. Nero is crazy. Vinicius becomes Mr Allgood after being touched by Christian grace. Predictable. Boring. Propaganda for the Catholic Church.

The plot is obvious and its pattern seems to come directly from my literature manual. The descriptions of Roman banquets or of Nero going to Antium include so many details that it prevents the reader from capturing the whole scenery. And let’s not speak about the scenes of religious ecstasy when St Peter preaches.

I cannot believe that this novel got Sienkiewicz the Nobel Prize in 1905. While reading, I was thinking that not everybody can be Alexandre Dumas and I was wondering what he would have done with such a pitch.

Then I read the foreword included in my book – I usually read forewords after reading the novel because I do not want to be influenced by the thoughts exposed in the preface or have my pleasure ruined by spoilers.

That was interesting.

First, it explained the genesis Quo Vadis? and I learnt that Sienkiewicz wrote it in reaction to Zola’s literature. He thought it too depressing, too rooted in reality and too far from religion. He hated it. I’m sorry but I cannot like someone who despises Zola. Sienkiewicz thought literature should only be distracting, and I do not agree with that.

Second, I learned that French writers accused Sienkiewicz of plagiarism. Actually Alexandre Dumas had written a novel on the same subject (Acté) and Chateaubriand too. (Les Martyrs). So had several English writers. Not a very original idea, in fact.

Third, I was intrigued by the ups and downs that eventually lead to the French translation. Some passages were cut in the first translation. The one I have dates back to 1901 and includes the entire book.

To conclude, if you want to know the story, watching one of film versions will probably suffice. If you are curious about Ancient Rome, try Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, it wonderfully succeeds in both telling a good story and bringing to life the Roman’s way of life.  

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