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Henryk Sienkiewicz

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), distinguished Polish late-nineteenth-century novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905 for his historical novel 'Quo Vadis' (1895) on the early Christians and their persecution in Rome under the Emperor Nero. Sienkiewicz was born at Wola Okrzejska in the Russian partitional zone, into a family with deeply ingrained patriotic traditions and an involvement in the uprisings. When he was an adolescent he discovered a collection of Old Polish books and manuscripts in the loft of his family house, which were to provide the linguistic foundation for his future historical novels. He made a career in journalism, and much of his literary work was originally published as stories and novels in instalments in contemporary newspapers. In 1879 he travelled to America and published his travelogue letters in the press at home. He also met his future translator, Jeremiah Curtin, during this period. On his return to Poland he settled down to his epic Trilogy on the seventeenth century in Poland, 'Ogniem i mieczem' (With Fire and Sword, 1884), 'Potop' (The Deluge, 1886), and 'Pan Wołodyjowski' (Fire in the Steppe, or Sir Michael, 1888). The other historical subject he addressed was the medieval period and the early fifteenth-century war between Poland-Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights, in the novel 'Krzyżacy' (The Teutonic Knights, 1900). His remaining novels were on contemporary subjects. 'Quo Vadis', for which he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905, is perhaps his most frequently translated and best-known work worldwide, the basis of several films, including the 1943 Hollywood movie by Mervyn LeRoy starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Carr, and Peter Ustinov,and the recent Polish production (2001) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. 'The Trilogy' and 'The Teutonic Knights' have also attracted film-makers, Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Hoffman in the 1960's and 70's, and a return to the subject by Jerzy Hoffman in the 1990s. Henryk Sienkiewicz gained tremendous popularity with his contemporaries, who valued him for his contribution to the national struggle for independence ('the warming of hearts') and in 1900 showed their appreciation by raising a public fund to buy a 'dwór' (i.e. country house) for him at Oblęgorek (now a commemorative museum). Sienkiewicz's works are available in English translations by his contemporary Jeremiah Curtin, Monica Gardiner (a few of his short stories), and recently (the 1990s) by W. S. Kuniczak.

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