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The Greatest Writer of Historical Novels Ever

Teodor Parnicki, 1908-1988, was an unusual writer with an unusual biography. Born in Berlin to German-speaking parents of Polish descent, and interned along with them in Russia during the First World War as enemy civilian (his father had been posted there as a railroad engineer by a German company), he was resettled in Siberia. To escape internment, his parents declared themselves Polish. During the upheavals of the Revolution which soon swept across Russia, young Parnicki, estranged from his widowed and remarried father, joined the stream of refugees which poured into China. It was in this way that Teodor eventually completed his high school education in a Polish gymnasium in… Harbin, Manchuria. It was there, while reading Sienkiewicz, that young Teodor resolved to become a Polish novelist. And it was thus that he resolved to repatriate to the newly reestablished Poland. You see, he had decided to become a writer of Polish historical novels before he was Polish.

His third novel, "Aetius, the Last Roman" (1937), met with considerable critical success, but the outbreak of the Second World War interrupted his publishing career. Parnicki joined another great wave of wartime emigration, and eventually settled in Mexico, where he continued to write historical novels, in Polish, at first destined for his drawer, and later for extremely limited editions of the semi-independent Catholic press back home. (Late in his career, a large edition of Parnicki would run a miniscule 10,000 copies). He moved back to Poland only in 1967, probably pressed by financial need.

This isolation from his readers has taken Parnicki’s craft in the direction of ever-increasing arcanity and density.

Its arcanity manifests itself in several ways, for example in his unusual choice of historical settings – Greek Bactria in the 2nd century BC, Alexandria in the second century AD, 5th Century Byzantium, Vinland (the Viking settlement in New England). The novels often set out, ostensibly, to solve a historical riddle, such as: whether two different (authentic) historical figures may really have been the same person or what could have been the real motives (or causes) of some historical action or event. His later novels often take the form of an investigation into a conspiracy theory of some kind. The riddles are often based on recondite historical facts supported by a great deal of archival research. The sense of mystery is intentionally manipulated by the use of mystery-novel techniques. Yet, unlike most mystery novels, Parnicki’s riddles usually remain unsolved in the end–and, if anything, they become even more hopelessly entangled, leaving us with a sense of the overwhelming complexity of the world we live in.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his personal history, Parnicki often turns to investigation of personal and cultural identity. His 1955 novel, The End Of The Harmony of Nations, is set among the Greek rulers of Bactria, outnumbered by their Iranian subjects, cut off from the rest of the Greek world by the recent Parthian conquest of Persia, and, while desperately trying to hang onto their Greekness, confounded by the problems raised by their king’s unexpected – and fabulous – conquests in India. The central story concerns an investigation by the Greek secret police of a young Greek man arriving from the east, from China, whom they suspect of being a spy. The investigation becomes a debate on the nature of Greekhood when the young man criticizes them of having become barbarians but takes a more bewildering turn when he himself turns out to be half-Jewish and--frantic to deny his Jewishness. Intellectual attitudes are thrown in complete disarray when the investigation is taken over by a special agent sent by Greek king Demetrios from across the Indus--a darkskinned untouchable Indian, and a renegade Buddhist monk, who disputes the Greek exception, both on critical grounds (“we, too, have our Homer, our Euripides, our Plato”) and practical considerations (“at first there were 500 Indians for every Greek soldier, then 5,000, then 50,000, then a million”). Large parts of the novel read like philosophical dialogues, interspersed with private rumination and dreams. And they all are aimed to answer the question: who am I? Who are we?

It is not a novel for the action-oriented.

In Parnicki’s novels, the question of personal identity often assumes the form of search for one’s antecedents.

And so, in the 1962 novel, "Only Beatrice," papal investigators in Avignon follow the hero’s search to discover his paternity. He stands before the Pope John XXII (1249-1334) seeking acquittal for the crime of having led a group of peasants in burning alive of some Cistercian monks in Poland, monks who had raised him as an orphan, and several of whom he suspects in turn of having fathered him. The novel takes the form of a series of transcripts of interrogations of the hero by papal inquisitors (and, on one occasion, by the Pope himself).

The sensational element of the novel lies elsewhere: the pope takes an interest in the case because the hero, a deacon, claims to have confessed the monks before having turned them over to the mob to burn. One of the monks, he claims, confessed that he had once been a member of a sea expedition which had set out in the 1290’s from Lisbon and sailed due west until it reached, according to him, an island surprisingly similar in description to Dante’s "Purgatorio."

The Pope’s interest in this is connected with his views (never expressed as official dogma, and possibly something he changed his mind about sometime during his pontificate) that those who died in the faith did not see the presence of God until the Last Judgment. (The point is important to Catholics, since if the dead are not in the presence of God, then the whole idea of prayers to the saints would seem to be undermined). The novel thus offers an explanation of how that change of mind may have happened: the Pope may have heard evidence that the Purgatory (though in actual fact, only America) actually did exist.

More than a sensational mystery drama, the novel is also a psychological thriller with the inquisitors trying to understand the man’s motivation (and thus likelihood of his veracity) by investigating his convoluted past. As a young boy he had failed to deliver a message from the monks to King Przemysl II of Poland, the message being the question “Is tomorrow the Ides of March?” — a coded warning to the king of an imminent attempt on his life. Against instructions, the boy had asked the question before entering the house where the king was staying, thus warning the plotters that their conspiracy had been compromised, and hastening the assassination.

He thus becomes burdened with responsibility for the shedding of royal blood, and the failure of the project to revive the Polish monarchy, a sense of failure, shame, and guilt, which turns into hate against his fathers who had entrusted him with the task; and which turns the boy, and later man, into a faithful executor of various cloak-and-dagger tasks on behalf of the king’s daughter, Elzbieta Ryksa, later queen of Bohemia (and an important player on the European stage as the chief opponent of the Anjou claim to the Czech throne).

Queen Ryksa, seen in the novel ruthlessly manipulating the hero’s blind love and dedication for her, is a type of character which returns in Parnicki’s novels again and again, the great woman: powerful, intelligent, educated, manipulative, cunning, ruthless, loved blindly and utterly and hopelessly by the hero, and – completely unattainable. The motto of the novel, taken from Polish poetry, introduces her:

There is no heaven, no hell, no void, no abyss,

There is only – Beatrice,

And she, precisely, isn’t.

To this great woman Parnicki returns again in his 1958 novel, The "Word and The Flesh," which consists of two series of letters. One series is from Khesroes, a Parthian prince held by Romans as a hostage in Alexandria, to his childhood’s unrequited love, turned by years of yearning into the love of his life, Marcia, the former mistress of the Roman Emperor Commodus, and – probably – instigator of the Emperor’s assassination; whom he tries by turns to convince, compel, and blackmail into marrying him. The other series of letters, the novel’s volume 2, is from Marcia to the Roman chief of Egyptian security services with whom she is negotiating for her acquittal in return for state secrets she is deftly extracting from Chesroes.

Parnicki’s heroes and heroines are intelligent, educated people with a lively interest in the intellectual currents of their epoch, and significant participation in the intellectual and political events of their times, with the effect that a great deal of scholarship and historical research informs his novels. (In this they are also the sort of people one always dreams of associating with and his novels make this possible).

There is a strong fantastic and counter-factual current in his literature. One of the novels, for example, assumes that Julian the Apostate did not die in AD363, but continued to live and rule for another 20 years. It investigates ways in which already numerically dominant Christianity may have interacted with a hostile ruler.

Through several other of his novels there meanders a kind of conspiracy theory of history which claims that the existence of America was well known to European elites since the 9th century, and kept a secret against some future time when the world was “ready”. The purpose here is, I think, to investigate how the idea of a promised land plays out in our minds.

Another novel reveals that the defeat of the Arab invasion by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours (a victory credited with the “salvation” of Europe) was really a result of a plot by an economic consortium who controlled the production of parchment (and felt threatened by Chinese paper, used by the Arabs). The novel is a transcript of a secret conference of the plotters, set in a secret location somewhere in the Caucasus, in which various members of the imagined consortium, concealed behind masks and ciphers in a setting reminiscent of the black mass scene in Eyes Wide Shut (or Mozart’s Magic Flute), conduct their debates regarding the pros and cons of the great religious conflict between Christianity and Islam. (This was several decades before the present hoopla regarding the supposed war between civilizations, and significantly more sophisticated).

Gradually, his novels become interconnected – with various protagonists of some turning out to be the ancestors of the heroes of others, or the object of their investigation, or discussion, or envy. Later, heroes and heroines of other novels – by Sienkiewicz and Dumas for example – enter and interact with Parnicki’s creations – and each other.

Parnicki uses novel and surprising literary structures: interview (or rather, an interrogation), informer’s reports, police reports, confessions, dream-journals, and letters (often fragmentary). He writes in extraordinarily long, dense, complicated sentences using odd grammatical constructions (past perfect, for example, the use of which in Polish he single-handedly revives) and unusual vocabulary. He adds intentionally to the confusion of the text by referring to certain individuals by a number of different names or to different individuals by the same name. Often, not all clues to the mystery of the particular novel can be found in it – one has to turn to encyclopedias and scholarly works to understand some aspects of the plot or some of the ideas of the heroes. With each successive novel, the complexity and opacity of the text increases. The novels become elaborate labyrinths in which the reader is constantly searching for clues and interpretations. For all his novels following "The Word and the Flesh," I find myself having to take notes and make sketches to keep track of all the questions raised and clues offered. Perhaps it was inevitable that Stefan Szymutko, in his book on Parnicki, should ask the inevitable question: “Parnicki: a madman or a genius?”Small wonder his readership remains limited to a small circle of his worshippers.

In exile, Parnicki married a Polish woman 18 years his junior. They had a very close, perhaps because childless, marriage, in which they shared a great deal of intellectual and artistic interests as well as several languages. It is reported that Parnicki’s touch with reality was not all that great, that he often forgot things and became lost and that his survival in the world much depended on his wife’s dedicated care of him. An officer of a ship on which Parnicki once traveled reports how alarmed Parnicki would grow if his wife ever left him while he was writing. Suddenly he would notice that she was gone from the cabin and set out on a frantic search for her all over the ship, alarming the entire crew by his insistence that she must have fallen overboard. She made the publication of his novels possible by typing up his illegible manuscripts.

In 1967 Parnicki confessed to the same naval officer: “I will never find what I am looking for. It keeps slipping out of my hands. I don’t know myself what it is. It has no color and no shape, it has no known dimensions. I only know that it is somewhere very near, here, within arm’s reach. That’s why all my moves are illusory. And all my novels also.” That is very much the sensation one gets from reading his novels: a sense of unattainable mystery, unsolvable problem, like the search for personal identity, something incredibly important, yet – if we are truly honest with ourselves – hopelessly out of reach.

I have found it impossible to read any Parnicki novel (except his "Aetius, the Last Roman," written when Parnicki was just getting started) from cover to cover. The linguistic, structural, semantic and psychological complexity is simply too overwhelming for even the most determined reader. But it is possible to read in any one of his novels endlessly. I do this with several of them, which have lived in my suitcase, and on the night stand, for over two decades now.

My favorite is "The Word And The Flesh" which always lies within reach. Every now and then I pick up the book and read a few pages in it, now here now there. I have read everything in this book several times already, but have never been able to get from beginning to end without putting it down for some time – days, or weeks, or months — to digest it, and to let it put out delicate and transparent, but strangely durable sprouts in my heart.

Ron Shuler’s post on Tomas Pynchon encouraged me to write this post on Teodor Parnicki, for I espy a certain similarity between the two authors: a certain arcane density, a labyrinthine structure, a penchant for intellectual mystery. I like Parnicki better not only because I enjoy the language more, but also because I prefer his old world mind-set, because I love his historical settings and the obscure, recondite, arcane subject matter, and perhaps also because I, too, am in love with an intelligent and strong-headed woman who manipulates me to her own purposes.


Perhaps there is room in this essay for a coda: six sentences on the ways in which Parnicki’s work has affected my life. There is something one learns from minute investigation of historical events, and it is that they invariably escape simple characterizations. Our school textbooks – invariably part of an apparatus of ideological indoctrination, whether intended to say that we Poles were always just or we Americans were always fair – teach us that an event – a war, a revolution, a promulgation of new laws – was just or noble or at any rate good, or else, on the contrary, ignoble and selfish and on the whole bad. But closer inspection always reveals how incredibly complex these events are, how they are the outcome of millions of decisions made by millions of individuals, each for his own reasons. And a closer inspection of individual actions reveals how complex, and often confused, or unaware, our individual reasons are and how often we ourselves are in the dark as to just why we do what we do. The upshot of a closer look at the whys and wherefores often leads to the Parnicki condition: the sense that the exact shape of things somehow escapes us; and that learning more often amounts to learning just how little we really understand.

And there is another thought: that we love in order to love and that whether our lovers really love us back or simply use us for their ends is really neither here nor there.

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