The Book That Made Me A Reader
Louis Begley on Henryk Sienkiewicz's historical trilogy
Between the age of nine and twelve, I read nonstop. Circumstances of my life in Poland during World War II were such that there was little else I could do safely. At that time Polish children of my age raised by educated parents were given grown-up books to read, though often in abridged editions; for instance, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, or Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. I read in Polish translation and loved all of the foregoing, as well as Karl May’s distinctly less literary but gloriously loony adventures of Old Shatterhand. But the work of fiction that most fully engaged my imagination and made me a life-long passionate reader of novels was the great historical trilogy by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), a Polish novelist and Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1905. The action unfolds in Poland, then a much larger country, from 1648 to 1668, a period of extraordinary turbulence. The first volume, With Fire and Sword, deals with the onslaught of Cossacks and Tatars at Poland’s eastern border; the second, The Deluge, concerns a Swedish invasion; and the third, Fire in the Steppe (more commonly known, I believe, as Pan Wołodyjowski) tells the story of Polish success in checking the Ottoman advance into Europe. Huge in scope, rich in historical detail, and inhabited by heroic personages under whose spell I have remained—Jan Skrzetuski, the embodiment, in love and war, of all knightly virtues, and his friend, Michał Wołodyjowski, a diminutive warrior and master duelist—as well as a horde of other superbly drawn characters, some good and some bad, but all remarkably well drawn, these novels were for my mother and me an inexhaustible subject of conversation. Gossip about literary characters is at all times an exquisite literary pleasure, with which I still reconnect when my wife and I review the news from the Faubourg St. Germain related in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or shake our heads over the latest schemes hatched by Bishop Proudie’s wife in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels. But when I first read Sienkiewicz’s trilogy it answered a more basic need: His realistic depiction of carnage, a subject that in real life had become familiar to me, lent authority to his resolutely optimistic view of history, and helped me believe that the good guys would win after all, although the cards were stacked against them.