My Thoughts On Reading Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz #quovadisreadalong

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been participating in Nick Senger’s 2021 chapter a day readalong project. The second book in the series has been Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz and I have been reading the translation by W S Kuniczak.

From the blurb:

An epic saga of love, courage and devotion in Nero’s time, Quo Vadis portrays the degenerate days leading to the fall of the Roman empire and the glory and the agony of early Christianity. Set at a turning point in history (AD54-68), as Christianity replaces the era of corruption and gluttony that marked Nero’s Rome, Quo Vadis brims with life.

Sienkiewicz was Polish and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905 for his ‘outstanding merits as an epic writer’. Quo Vadis is his most well-known work. According to Wikipedia, this story of early Christianity in Rome, with protagonists struggling against the Emperor Nero’s regime, ‘draws parallels between repressed early Christians and contemporary Poles; and, due to its focus on Christianity, it became widely popular in the Christian West. The triumph of spiritual Christianity over materialist Rome was a critique of materialism and decadence, and was seen as an allegory for the strength of the Polish spirit’.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about this book. As someone without a religion, it was at times difficult to stick with the very relentless focus on Christian teaching. On the other hand, I find it fascinating to read about people with a strong faith. As such, it was interesting to read about how Christianity may have developed after the death of Christ. I also felt that the book did a good job of conveying the challenge of having one’s lifelong views and beliefs undermined, as was the case with one of the main characters, Vinicius. As a senior solider in the Roman army, and therefore of important rank in society generally, Vinicius was used to total obedience and subservience by those around him. His world order is, however, overturned when he starts to engage with Christians, leading him to question even his own sanity. This aspect of the book was particularly well handled.

It also helped that Sienkiewicz’s style, albeit in translation, is lyrical and very beautiful. Here’s an example:

The eastern sky was already tinged a misty, pale shade of green, framed at the base by a sharper boundary of saffron. Branches with silvered leaves, the white walls of nearing villages, and the tall arches of the viaducts that ran across the plain toward Rome could be seen in the shadows. Gold seeped into the greenish sky and filled it with brightness, and then a reddening rosy glow bloomed in the East behind the Alban hills, painting them lilac and making them seem spun wholly out of light.

Dawn’s pearly light trembled on the dew that clung to the leaves. The mists receded, opening a broader vista to the level plains, villas, cemeteries, small country towns and groves, and the white temple columns gleaming among the trees.

So overall, I am glad to have read this book. I am also pleased to have done so via the readalong; I might not have stuck with it otherwise. It’s definitely not a book for everyone (what book is?). But I found it to be an interesting take on a significant time in history.

Next up in Nick’s readalong series is Notre Dame de Paris, or more famously The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. You can join in or follow our progress with the hashtag #hunchbackreadalong.

And stay tuned for an announcement next week about my very own readalong (to run in parallel with Nick’s, and shamelessly cribbing his approach, sorry Nick!). If I tell you that the hashtag for this project is #karamazovreadalong, I’m sure you will be able to guess what it will be about. 😀

16 thoughts on “My Thoughts On Reading Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz #quovadisreadalong

      1. Indeed – such a challenge. I worked out that at the rate I read books (rather slowly) I might have time to read only another 800-1000 books in my lifetime. Eek! Given that nearly 200,000 books are published each year in the UK alone, it rather puts things into perspective and places a premium on choosing wisely. And then I forget about all of that and read the next thing that appeals!! 😂😳

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Your readalong series seems to be going well. From your review I think I may have found Quo Vadis difficult, although I am very interested in times of great transition in history. It will be fun to hear more about your own readalong project.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have never read Quo Vadis, Liz, and I can see why the readalong was a good way to experience the narrative. Writing about history and then placing links to a current reality is difficult for writers to give an objective account of either time period. I watched the movie, (produced in 1951) many years ago. Peter Ustinov was brilliant as Nero. You were right – the story lends itself to “epics” so enjoyed by movie goers. I hope you are able to see this link: https://youtu.be/BDNu76OJYX0. Looking forward to the unveiling of your readalong.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would think that a read-along would be a very good way of dealing with all those ‘difficult’ books that one feels one ought to read but just thinking about makes one sigh! I have got to the stage in life where I know that there is a limit on the amount of books I will be able to read and I only try to read those that I have a fair chance of finishing and enjoying. I’m not sure if Quo Vadis is for me though your review is very compelling indeed.

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    1. Thanks Clare. 💕 By coincidence, you will see that in a reply to Liz G’s comment on this post, I have said exactly the same thing about picking one’s books carefully these days!! X

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your comments regarding the “relentless focus on Christian teaching” reminded me of Life of Pi, which I reviewed for a book club back in 2003 or so. That book had a thorough-going focus on religion, although it was an amalgam of several religious traditions which comprised Pi’s vision. One of the charms of the book was that it depicted the various benefits of a life of faith, much as Quo Vadis does. Paradoxically, author Yann Martel’s previous works suggested that he himself did not have religion, and what I found fascinated me.

    In his 1996 novel, Self, the protagonist/narrator contemplates the essential elements of the novel she is preparing to write:

    “I also wanted to address this matter of God. In quiet moments I had
    sometimes noticed how, having dismissed God, we – you and I –
    were left not with the plenitude of life, as I expected, since a false
    being cannot take space, but a vacuum, a sucking emptiness. Could
    this false being be occupying a necessary space, one that demanded
    filling? It wasn’t often that I felt this, usually when I was thinking of my
    [dead] parents, but at such times life seemed little more than a meaningless
    shuffle over a short distance for a brief time. It lacked the spirit that would
    have turned each step into a dance step, with its proper measure, rhythm
    and grace. I had no real regrets over this – my life seemed a greater
    challenge for its spiritual orphanhood – but occasionally I could intuit how
    much grander the march of life would be if God were. At such moments
    the truth or falsity of God’s being seemed irrelevant. It was a fiction of such
    magnitude, why not believe it? What was gained by a truth that left one
    with an empty feeling? I could get by without God in the illusory infinity of
    my daily hours, but if I were in a plane about to crash, would I not miss
    Him? Would I not create Him? And if I survived, would I want to dismiss
    Him a second time? I wanted to approach religious spirituality in my novel
    not with the intent of proving anything, but simply to see what it would be
    like to have faith, regardless of proof.”

    To me that seemed to be exactly what Martel actually went on to do in Life of Pi, which made me suspect something less than met the eye. When I got into his interviews, the nature of the book became clearer.

    Martel says the theme of the book is simply this: “Reality is a story and we can choose our story and so why not choose ‘the better story’?” His own story is a little more complicated. He worked on Life of Pi for four years, and the first two were strictly research, living in India visiting temples, churches, mosques, and zoos and reading religious texts and castaway stories. He began as an agnostic, he says, which is interesting in itself, because he reserves his harshest criticism in the book for agnostics: “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation,” says Pi. In a BBC interview, Martel is more plain spoken: “On certain key questions, you must make a decision. You can’t sit with a picket fence up your ass your whole life.” Whereas he used to dismiss spirituality and religion, he considers the process of writing Life of Pi to have been a “spiritual journey” which left him “more open to the idea of a greater force.”

    I assume that Sienkiewicz was a Christian believer, but it’s interesting that the agnostic Martel could write a book that many readers also took for an all-out endorsement of religion. In that sense, Life of Pi was something of a writing exercise for Martel. Quite a profitable one, as it turned out.

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