Pharaoh (Polish: Faraon) is the fourth and last of the major novels by Bolesław Prus. (Two subsequent ones, Children [Polish: Dzieci] and the unfinished Changes [Polish: Przemiany], are largely disregarded.) Pharaoh was written over a year's time in 1894-1895 and was the sole historical novel by a writer who had earlier, as a matter of principle, disapproved of such novels.
Pharaoh, like Prus' previous novels, originally appeared in newspaper serialization (1895-1896); unlike them, however, it had first been composed in its entirety, rather than being written in chapters from issue to issue. The first book edition, in three volumes (still minus the remarkable epilog, which would be restored later), appeared in 1897. Except in wartime, the book has never been out of print.
Pharaoh's story covers a two-year period ending in 1085 B.C.E. with the demise of the Egyptian Twentieth Dynasty and New Kingdom.
The late Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz wrote of Pharaoh:
"The daring conception of [Prus'] novel Pharaoh [...] is matched by its excellent artistic composition. It [may] be [described] as a novel on [...] mechanism[s] of state power and, as such, is probably unique in world literature of the nineteenth century. [...] Prus, [in] selecting the reign of "Pharaoh Ramses XIII" [the last Ramesside was actually Ramses XI] in the eleventh century [B.C.E.], sought a perspective that was detached from [...] pressures of [topicality] and censorship. Through his analysis of the dynamics of an ancient Egyptian society, he [...] suggest[s] an archetype of the struggle for power that goes on within any state. [Prus] convey[s] certain views [regarding] the health and illness of civilizations. [...] Pharaoh [...] is a work worthy of Prus' intellect and [is] one of the best Polish novels."
As a political novel, Pharaoh became a favorite of Joseph Stalin's. Its English translator, Christopher Kasparek, has recounted presciently wondering, well in advance of the event, whether President John F. Kennedy would meet with a fate like that of the book's young protagonist, Ramses.
A preliminary sketch for Pharaoh was Prus' first historical short story, "A Legend of Old Egypt" (Polish: "Z legend dawnego Egiptu," first published on New Year's Day, 1888). This remarkable story shows clear parallels with the later novel in setting, theme and denouement. The "Legend" in its turn had taken inspiration from contemporaneous events: the fatal illnesses of Germany's warlike Kaiser Wilhelm I and of his reform-minded successor, Friedrich III who, then unbeknownst to Prus, would survive Wilhelm but only by ninety-nine days.
In preparation for composing Pharaoh, Prus made a thorough study of Egyptological sources and actually incorporated ancient texts into his novel like tesserae into a mosaic. Drawn from one such text was a major character, Ennana.
For certain of the novel's prominent features, Prus — conscientious journalist and scholar that he was — seems to have insisted on having two sources. Thus, the historical Egyptian Labyrinth was described in the fifth century B.C.E. in The Histories of Herodotus by the Father of History, Herodotus, who visited Egypt's entirely stone-built administrative center, pronounced it more impressive than the pyramids, declared it "beyond my power to describe," then proceeded to give a striking description that Prus incorporated bodily into his novel. The Labyrinth was made palpably real for Prus, however, by an 1878 visit he made to the famous ancient labyrinthine salt mine at Wieliczka, near Kraków in southern Poland. According to the foremost Prus scholar, Zygmunt Szweykowski, "The power of the Labyrinth scenes stems, among other things, from the fact that they echo Prus' own experiences when visiting Wieliczka."
Another dually-determined feature of the novel is the "Suez Canal" that the Phoenician Prince Hiram proposes digging. The modern Suez Canal had been completed by Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1869, a quarter-century before Prus commenced writing Pharaoh. But, as Prus was aware in chapter one, it had had a predecessor in a canal connecting the Nile River with the Red Sea (during Egypt's Middle Kingdom, centuries before the period of the novel).
A third dually-determined feature was inspired by a solar eclipse that Prus had witnessed at Mława, a hundred kilometers north-northwest of Warsaw, on August 19, 1887, the day before his fortieth birthday. Prus likely was also aware of Christopher Columbus' manipulative use of a lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504 — while marooned for a year on Jamaica — in an incident which strikingly resembles the exploitation of a solar eclipse by Ramses' chief antagonist, Herhor, high priest of Amon.
Finally, a fourth dually-determined feature relates to Egyptian beliefs about an afterlife. In 1893, the year before beginning his novel, Prus had started taking an intense interest in Spiritualist mediumism, attending many Warsaw seances. Modern Spiritualism had been initiated in 1848 in Hydeville, New York, by the Fox sisters, Katie and Margaret, aged 11 and 15, and had survived even their 1888 confession that forty years earlier they had caused the "spirits'" telegraph-like tapping sounds by snapping their toe joints. Spiritualist "mediums" in America and Europe claimed to communicate through tapping sounds with spirits of the dead, eliciting their secrets and conjuring up voices, music, noises and other antics, and occasionally working "miracles" such as levitation. Contemporary Spiritualism inspired several of Pharaoh's most striking scenes, especially the secret meeting at the Temple of Seth in Memphis between three Egyptian priests — Herhor, Mefres, Pentuer — and the Chaldean magus-priest Berossus.
Prus was clearly aware of Eratosthenes' remarkably accurate calculation of the earth's circumference, and the invention of a steam engine by Heron of Alexandria, centuries later, in Alexandrian Egypt. In chapter 60 of Pharaoh, he fictitiously credits these to the priest Menes (one of three individuals of the identical name who are mentioned or depicted in the novel: Prus was not always fastidious about characters' names).
As a "political novel," Pharaoh since 1895 has continued to gain relevance with each decade. The book's undiminished popularity with readers, however, is as much due to more universal qualities: to a critical but sympathetic view of man as individual and collective, and to the author's very modern emphasis on the cultivation of knowledge as a means to mankind's spiritual and material betterment. Prus' keen observation of human nature leavens his novel with humor while suffusing it with poetry.
Pharaoh has been translated into a score of languages, and in 1966 was produced as a Polish feature film.
Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature, New York, Macmillan, 1969.
Zygmunt Szweykowski, Nie tylko o Prusie: szkice (Not Only about Prus: Sketches), Poznań, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1967.
Zygmunt Szweykowski, Twórczość Bolesława Prusa (The Art of Bolesław Prus), 2nd edition, Warsaw, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1972.
Herodotus, The Histories, Newly translated and with an Introduction by Aubrey de Selincourt, Harmondsworth, England, Penguin Books, 1965.
Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh: the Creation of a Historical Novel," The Polish Review, 1994, no. 1, pp. 45-50.
Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' Pharaoh and the Solar Eclipse," The Polish Review, 1997, no. 4, pp. 471-78.
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46