Friday, 15 January 2016

Pan Tadeusz

Gerwazy, the Warden of the Castle
Pan Tadeusz  ("Sir Thaddeus") is Poland's national epic, comprising twelve books of verse, written entirely in the Polish Alexandrine form--thirteen syllable couplets--in the early 1830s. Its author, a Polish-Lithuanian patriot named Adam Mickiewicz, wrote it for fun and relaxation, a light-hearted escape from his more pointed political writings. He had no notion that Pan Tadeusz would become to the Poles what Henry V is to the English.

Pan Tadeusz is set in a village called Soplicowo in what was Polish Lithuania in 1811 and 1812. Soplicowo simmers under Russian rule, the Polish gentry--which basically means everyone not a peasant or a Jew--longing to throw off the shackles of the Tsar, restore the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and kill a lot of Russians in the process. They are hopeful that this will soon happen, for Napoleon Bonaparte has gathered whole regiments of Poles under his banner and if anyone can defeat the Tsar, it will be Napoleon.

Meanwhile, the gentry quarrel endlessly among each other, go hunting, carry out lawsuits, have raucous dinner parties, court women, get married and have babies. Whenever a gentleman is overwhelmed by dreams of freedom from Russian rule, or gets into trouble with the local Russian authorities, he rides off to the Duchy of Warsaw to volunteer for Napoleon.

What is always very amusing for the native English-speaker reading Polish historical works is the contrast between the Polish gentleman of the early 1800s, in his almost Turkish costume, and the English gentleman of the same era, in his proto-tuxedo. The literary Polish gentleman grows giant
moustaches, threatens, brags, yells, sings at the table, starts brawls, weeps with love for father, sweetheart or fatherland--even when there are ladies present. The English gentleman does not.

Ah, another brawl at supper. How droll.

One struggles to imagine Mr Darcy sitting at the table in the castle of Soplicowo when a riot breaks out around him. What would he do?  Deftly step out a window and admire the stars to the sound of glass smashing or with great presence of mind elect to sit under the table? Or would some tightly-bound spirit in his breast burst its buttons, seize a club and explode into the fray? After all, Mr Darcy would be on holiday. When in Polish Lithuania, do as the Lithuanian Polish gentlemen do. ("Sprinkle, sprinkle.")

The English prose translation, which preserves Mickiewicz's literal meaning, if neither his meter nor his rhymes, reveals a number of unforgettable characters, including  Gerwazy, the insanely loyal Warden of the Castle (whose rightful ownership is being contested between young Count Horeszko, cousin of its murdered owner, and the Soplica family), the mysterious and brilliant Bernardine monk Father Robak, young Tadeusz Soplica, who represents Polish Youth (and how), the very young Zofia Horeszko, who represents the ideal 19th century sweetheart and therefore is tragically lacking in colour, and her thirty-something aunt Telimena, who is a delightful female scoundrel, given to flirting with younger men at dinner parties.  As Zofia's primary activities are taking care of chickens and looking pretty (she's only fourteen), the women of Pan Tadeusz would very boring and pathetic without Aunt Telimena. It is true that she wears rouge, but who are we to judge?

The reason to read an English prose translation (e.g. the 1917 edition by George Rapall Noyes here) is to get as close to the mind and talent of Mickiewicz as possible and, while admiring the wonderful metaphors, descriptions, adventures and jokes, to marvel that the author did all this in verse. To appreciate the verse, you have to either know or learn Polish---although of course you can see if you like the efforts of English translator-poets.

Here is an actor reciting the "Inwokacja" (Invocation), which is the very epic-like beginning to Pan Tadeusz: the author addresses first his homeland of Polish Lithuania and then the Blessed Mother of God.

The famous Polish director Andrzej Wajda made a film version of Pan Tadeusz, to which subtitles have been added for the anglophone market. The fighting scenes must be amazing, but no doubt poor Auntie Telimena has been sexed up for late 20th century sensibilities.

All Poles in Poland have to read this book in school, so if you want some insight into the Polish psyche (at very least all Polish psyches born between 1800 and 1989), I suggest you read it.

No comments:

Post a Comment