Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Face Book contra The Great Book

Amongst the more obtuse things Gombrowicz wrote in his diaries, few are as unjust as his opinion that the author of Quo Vadis was a "first rate second rate writer."

Rummaging through the internet, one happily comes upon two editorials, one in The New Yorker and one in the New York Times, where this prejudice is upheld, with the latter pointing to Quo Vadis as an example of a "dud" which won the Nobel prize in literature almost by accident.

Indeed, given the direction of the modern world, the New York Times is right: Sienkiewicz did win the Nobel prize by accident - he was a great writer who wrote Great Books at the dawn of the error of the narcissist writers who, like Gombrowicz, wrote only about themselves. Gombrowicz was emblematic of the direction which literature would take: all this self-portrayal, authenticity and glory of "my own reality" has given the world the Modern Novel: Facebook.

Facebook is the opposite of a Great Book. It was once called the Agora and there was nothing wrong with that, just as there was nothing wrong with the art of rhetoric. Yet there is no Socratic foil for Gorgias today, just as there is no Sienkiewiczean foil for Facebook today. How could there be?

Yet not all is lost. The incarnation and resurrection were likewise Sienkiewiczean accidents. In the turmoil of world affairs at the time, few could imagine that the fate of Rome - let alone the universe - was being decided by a man dying on a cross. The perseverance of Quo Vadis is no different.
Reading some online criticism and reviews of my favorite book, it becomes clear to me why I write a literary blog rather than a column on literature for The New Yorker: my taste is a violation of contemporary (non)sensibilities.

Sienkiewicz is praised for the setting of his novel, but his characters are called unrealistic. I say his characters are very realistic, it is simply we who have become such an ugly and illiterate reality as to no longer see ourselves in them.

Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis is two things above all: first it is the story of love incarnate, a love so beautiful as to make perfect sense to Theodore Roosevelt's friend and millions of ordinary American readers in that bygone age where there existed large numbers of ordinary Americans. Second, Quo Vadis is the best consolidation and demonstration of the tapestry of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture from which the contemporary Atlantic and Mediterranean civilizations sprang.

It is a children's book, of course, and fittingly it continues to make boys into men and girls into women in Poland. The power of its prose combined with the erudition of its author makes it an unforgettable joy for the liberally educated adult. The book can only be anachronistic for the alienated and uneducated. Or those unfortunate enough not to treat the initial English translation with great caution.

Like the Bible, Quo Vadis will remain a Great Book because it is a great book and Sienkiewicz will remain a great writer because he did not waste his talent writing about how he felt, only braved the arduous task of making moral judgments on page after page.


  1. What is a good contemporary tEnglish translation?

  2. I hope the Hippocrene edition is good. The company was founded by a Polish Russian so I trust they would know what they are doing - but I have not read it in English: