Writer, researcher, translator, critic

The Faithful River


Stefan Żeromski, The Faithful River [Kraków; 1912]

So all I had to do to get back into reading books for this project was to tweet about it? I'd have done in much sooner if I'd known.

I've had a copy of The Faithful River for a couple of years now, and even brought it with me on several trips as something to dip into during downtime, but I never started reading it until last night. Once I started, I didn't stop until it was over. Which didn't take very long; it's a slim book, full of evocative imagery and a central plot tension which keeps you reading anxious to find out if the wounded soldier will be captured by the Russians.

The action of the novel takes place in 1863, during the January Uprising in which Polish nationalists took arms against the Russian Empire which ruled much of what is modern-day Poland (the rest was claimed by the Austrian empire to the south and Prussia to the north). Żeromski subtitled the book a "klechda," or folktale, although it very much uses the techniques of modern fiction: it opens on a grisly pile of corpses after a battle-turned-massacre, and although the bulk of the novel takes place indoors and in relative comfort, the threat of violence and gore represented by the opening pages never fully recedes.

Because although we begin with the wounded soldier, a Polish rebel hunted by the Russians, the novel really becomes the story of a woman, the daughter of the steward of an abandoned manor home, who takes him in, refuses to let him die as he begs, and eventually becomes his lover, a strikingly modern (for 1912) woman who sees clearly both the hope and the futility of the Polish nationalist cause (Poland was still partitioned when the novel was published, and only regained sovereignty in 1918), whose limited education but vast capability as a planner and strategist (in concert with the eldery cook who is the manor's only other occupant) keeps them one step ahead of the Russians; and only the slow return of civilization (in some ways the book is structured as a journey from savagery to opulence, opening with the hell of war and ending in the comfort of an arisocratic carriage) can doom her.

That she would be doomed, I never had any doubt: modern European fiction tends to be bleak. So I was surprised by the last pages, in which she has everything she wants stripped away from her by the inexorable hand of wealth (which refuses to take sides in a political dispute, and so ends up being more powerful than either nationalism or empire) but keeps her life. Perhaps. The ambiguity of the ending is also very modern.

Żeromski was a leader in the Young Poland literary movement at the turn of the century, which can be considered an equivalent to other European modernist movements of the period; but there’s little Decadence, Symbolism, or Impressionism here (or at least not that came through translation) — in essence, it’s a good yarn with things to say about human nature, not unlike the novel the translator compares it to in his introduction, The Red Badge of Courage.

September 14, 2019