The four volumes of Kristina Sabaliauskaitė's historical saga Silva Rerum (2008–2016) have sold more than a quarter million copies in her native Lithuania. They have also become popular internationally, with translations in Polish and Latvian. Why has the series resonated with readers? Because it is deeply connected with the Lithuanian identity and character and reflects back to Lithuanians from whence they came. But the saga is also timely, and it is no coincidence that people have felt the need to look to the past to understand the present. —Ed Nawotka
It took me nearly 10 years to muster the courage to write Silva Rerum, published between 2008 and 2016. I had trained as an art historian and worked as a foreign correspondent, so the writing wasn't what was intimidating. Instead, it was the thought of how to do such a big, beautiful story justice.
The inspiration was the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the great empire that lasted from the 16th to the 18th century. It was one of the biggest in Europe, yet it was wiped from the map in 1795, partitioned by Prussia, Austria, and Russia. As I was doing research for my PhD dissertation, I found documents, letters, and memoirs from that period, work that embodied a wide variety of cultures, ideas, passions, and extraordinary lives, and it became clear that this material would be great for a contemporary historical novel. Suddenly several things in our history that I was used to taking for granted—such as our location at the cultural border where the West meets the East, the coexistence of different religions and communities, and the relatively strong legal position of Lithuanian women in comparison to that in Western Europe (and hence the extraordinary, strong female historical characters)—appeared in context. All this felt worth writing about and showing to a wider audience. I also wanted to share the exotic, meVsmerizing beauty of this part of the past.
I spent a decade researching, letting the idea mature, and fermenting my idea about how to develop what I call the contemporary historical novel, one that would be different from the traditional historical novel, which usually depicts the great characters and great events of textbook history. Instead, I would focus on the microhistories of those who usually fall outside of the historian's view: women and children, national minorities, tradespeople and city folk, all ranks, high and low. I wanted to depict history as seen from different perspectives, an epoch's life experienced on different levels, all without compromising literary quality. There was probably some zeitgeist at play, for it was just a year after the first volume of Silva Rerum was published, in 2008, that Hilary Mantel's historical novel Wolf Hall was published, which went on to win the Man Booker Prize and brought the historical genre back into the realm of high literature. Other great, contemporary historical novels originated in the past decade in France, Italy, and Poland.
And so was born the Silva Rerum quartet of novels, set between 1659 and 1795 in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and depicting the lives of four generations of one minor noble family, the Milkont-Narwoyszes. It is named for a type of handwritten family chronicle popular in Lithuania and Poland, a silva rerum—a forest of things—that might contain miscellaneous texts, from poetry and pamphlets to philosophical musings and advice on housekeeping. My quartet is organized in four parts around the Baroque concept of the four elements: part I is earth and focuses on rural Arcadia; part II is air and is set during the Great Plague; part III is fire and takes the great fires of Vilnius as its subject; and part IV is water, which relates to the main character's sea travels.
While the tetralogy aims to depict and capture daily life in and the essence of the multicultural Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it also offers a glimpse of the wider world at that time. The characters, typical for the epoch, traveled a lot. One of them, among my favorites, is an erring Jesuit, a professor of philosophy and mathematics, who studied in Nancy, France, visited Amsterdam, Paris, and Vienna, and spent five years in London. Another character, an 18th-century adventuress (with an extraordinary voice) also, incidentally, ends up in theater- and pleasure-loving London. In this way, the books can describe Europe as seen through the eyes of several different 18th-century travelers. And though the novels may be set primarily during the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, they are not "local"—the wider narrative of European history and culture is recognizable.
The setting is historically accurate and authentic but by no means irrelevant to our time. We can recognize in it the ideas and dilemmas that worry us still: the seeds of feminism, the escapist impulse of consumerism and sensuality, the unpredictability of a blind accident, the confrontation with one's mortality. Each part of Silva Rerum describes one generation of the family, one period, leading the reader on a journey through the splendor of the Baroque, through the decadence of Rococo, through the optimism (and disillusion) of the Enlightenment, and through cities, universities, monastic cells, battlefields, plague pandemics, fires and famines, churches and markets, country manors amid dark Nordic woods, palaces, roadside inns, ballrooms, and bedrooms. There are characters who are Dutch, French, English, German, Jewish, Karaim, Muslim, and Scottish, and one who doesn't quite know who or what he is—a liberal? a failure? an idealist? a nonexistent subject of a state that has vanished from the map? He feels that he is simply a citizen of the world with no need of a passport. The Silva Rerum novels are researched with scientific precision and based on historical facts and characters, so they attempt to join the science of history with the art of literature. But first and foremost they attempt to tell the dramatic and amazing story of the country I am from.
Kristina Sabaliauskaitė is an art historian and author of the Silva Rerum novels.