The Peasants

by Ladislas Reymont. Translated by Professor Michael H. Dziewicki. Volume I: Autumn. Volume II: Winter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1924. 12mo. x+261+284 pp. $2.50 the volume.
WHY Reymont rather than Hardy? Everyone is asking this question concerning the last winner of the Nobel Prize. And naturally: the pictures of peasant life given by the two have many points in common. But even the most ardent enthusiast for the revealer of Wessex must concede certain advantages to the revealer of rustic Poland; not so much from the point of view of art as from that of the life depicted. Reymont shows an existence richer and broader; the call from ancient race-life is equally profound in both authors, but to the Pole the background of the Catholic Church supplies a poetic and decorative quality; ceremonies and customs abound more in romantic appeal; the interwoven folklore is more fascinating, and the delightful proverbs, always natural to the folk, are more numerous if not more racy. On the other hand, it may he claimed that Hardy, who has certainly more humor, has better caught the authentic peasant-accent. But this is hard to say; for a translation, even sO flowing as Professor Dziewicki s, cannot have the full flavor of the original.
A truce to comparisons. Here is a noble book, a panorama of whole aspects of civilization. One can imagine readers hundreds of years hence, grateful to the author for a work which enables them to re-create forgotten phases of social life better than Homer enables us to recreate Greece. The book is less noteworthy for individual portraiture than for catching great communal rhythms. The drama of the village is brought into unison with surrounding nature, and Reymonl’s people tend to be lost in his landscape. Two tendencies mark modern fiction, one toward a vast leisure, the other toward a nervous compression; it is in the mood of leisure, which is Nature’s mood, that Reymont writes. The protagonist is the community; the impressive thing is the movement of the mass, conforming harmoniously, like a solemn pageant, with the slow cycle of the year. Throughout, the labor of man is felt, a part of earth’s very breathing. One rarely meets a book which has so much weather in it. To real people, who have escaped the abnormal life of cities, nothing is more important than weather; and the story here is all involved with the silent changes of the seasons. It shares the quality of the great days — the weird sadness of All Souls’, the tender festivity of Yule; it is entwined with the events of the village — the spinning party, the great Fair, the stripping of the cabbage leaves.
To say that the individuals are part of a larger life is not to be unmoved by them. They live before us, these peasants, with their piety, their shrewdness, their liking for litigation. The minor figures of the book are admirable and fresh: Kuba, the honest and devout servant, with his shooting, his tenderness for boys and beasts, and with the horror of hospitals which leads him to hack off his own leg; Roch, the good old teacher; Yaguslynka, the old woman with the evil tongue; the bombastic Voyt; the lovable priest; and not least the animals — the poor cow that died, the pet stork, the dog, Lapa. There is a double drama, which emerges more clearly and gains in intensity as the book proceeds. First, the feud between the old peasant Boryna and his children, especially the son whose sweetheart he has married and whose inheritance in land he has thereby cut off; then the broader story, constantly in the background, arising from the land situation — the conflict of the peasants and the manor folk concerning forestrights. The two strands come together effectively at the end. The suppressed tragedy breaks in a really magnificent scene, with an unexpected turn of emotion, most touching and most human. We are left eager for the sequel: Spring and Summer are yet to come.