Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Quo Vadis
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Translated from the Polish by Jeremiah Curtin
Little, Brown and Company, 1943


Quo Vadis is an interesting book. It is first interesting as a case in book history. Although it has fallen out of favor in the present day, it was sensationally popular in the United States in 1896 at the time of its publication in English, selling over a million copies. It remained a best seller for at least the next twenty five years. The film version, produced approximately fifty years after the print publication, was one of the most expensive films made up to that date. The film was also quite popular when it was released, and years later it had frequent showings on late night or Sunday afternoon movie slots. Even now the Curtin translation is reprinted by some publisher every couple of years. So the question is what about this novel causes its continued popularity. Probably not the language of the Curtin translation which is stiff and formal in modern ears and not notably beautiful. The characters are not complex nor do they have great emotional depth. However, this is not necessarily a criticism for characters in many broad, sweeping, epic 19th century novels are not particularly complex or multi-faceted (think Dickens), but that does not mean they are not well drawn and interesting. Many of the secondary character – Nero, Petronius, Chilo – engage both reader interest and emotions. The plot centers on the love story of a Roman soldier Vinicius and Lygia, a beautiful daughter of a conquered Polish ruler who, unfortunately for him, is Christian. Nero’s increasing hatred of Christians parallels their story. But Sienkiewicz’s major gift in Quo Vadis is his ability to bring alive scene after scene through physical and sensual description – particularly the decadence of Ancient Rome. If a reader prefers character driven novels, this book might be a tough read. But once one gets used to the unfamiliar style of language, those of us who enjoy becoming part of story by being immersed in sensuous detail will enjoy the sweep and scope of Quo Vadis.


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The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
Perennial Classics, 2003

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a modest yet clever book and, for me at least, a genuine lost treasure.  In other words, I knew nothing about the book and had never heard of it until I read it at a Fides et Ratio seminar put on by the Faith and Reason Institute even though as an American Literature scholar I had done some study of Thornton Wilder.  Most of what I knew concerned Our Town, of course, and I was also vaguely aware that his The Merchant of Yonkers (later revised as The Matchmaker) was made into the musical Hello, Dolly.  Imagine my surprise to find this sweet, little gem of Catholic fiction.  The Bridge of San Luis Rey (and that’s “of” not “over” as in “Bridge over Troubled Waters” or The Bridge over the River Kwai) is set in Peru in the 18th century; the bridge was real but its collapse was invented by the author.  Wilder’s tale begins in July of 1714 as the bridge over a cavernous gap in the cliffs above the Apurimac River outside of Lima collapses.  Five people plummet to their deaths.  Their intertwining stories of how they came to be on that bridge are told through the eyes of a well-meaning, if somewhat naïve monk.  This kind of event makes people question either God’s existence or God’s goodness, and Brother Juniper is determined to prove that not only did God intend for the bridge to collapse, He causes it for the good of all, especially the five who die.  The book is an easy, quick read and highly entertaining.  However, as one begins to think about the narration of the tales which are filtered through the participants and then through witnesses and then through Brother Jerome, the complexity of the work and the artistry of Wilder become plainly apparent.  And the easy interpretation of the book becomes as shaky as walking across a rope suspension bridge high above a raging river.

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