Stephen Wade looks at the work of Jaroslav Hašek, whose first assembling of the Švejk stories reaches its centenary in February 2021.
By STEPHEN WADE.
THERE ARE MANY reasons why ç needs an introduction today. His outstanding achievement – the creation of The Good Soldier Švejk1 – made his name and established his standing as a writer who conceived of a very special ‘Everyman’ protagonist. The consensus on this landmark novel is that Švejk himself stands comparison with a handful of other great fictional creations, and these are the figures who became much more than a character in a book. They became Ur-beings, foundational types behind so many other characters. We might rank Švejk with Pantagruel, Don Quixote or Candide— or even Yossarian. Such is the singular achievement of the enigmatic Czech who started as an itinerant jobbing writer and became a massive presence in European literature.
A long silence has emerged in the English-speaking world, regarding Hašek’s status within European writing generally. It is as if a founding figure has been eclipsed in all but the critical locations in university scholarship or in learned journals.
For the last several decades his name has faded from most biographical and critical discussions when we look at what is centre-stage in our interests now in Eastern European writing. It is as if he is there, an inescapable shadow over the works of his countrymen but also behind so many other Modernist practitioners.
That is, for me, the central reason for introducing this truly original writer is clear: to bring the man and his work back into focus, to acknowledge that presence and to open up his work to new writers, to a new generation of writers and critics.
Another reason for writing this is that I felt that there was a need for a writerly approach to Hašek, rather than any theory-based, analytical work. The works under discussion have influenced my own fiction, and it is apparent that many other writers and artists have felt the impulse of anarchic fun behind Hašek’s work. My thoughts here are based on evaluations produced from within the structures of the writing itself, and with the intended readership in mind.
This leads to the question about for whom Hašek wrote? He is a template example of the writer who exists among and inside the imagined reader he sees when putting words together. The countless periodicals he wrote for, and the changing political stances he assumed, provide a very rare instance of a wordsmith who could change, adapt, focus and edit according to where he was, who employed him, and what was the transient ideology he had to absorb in order to write each piece.
Here we have a writer who needs explication and examination in English — and for another more universal reason: the intellectual distance of his work from the average English reader. When the writers and poets from Eastern Europe were first translated and their work mediated through English language print sources, the new readers urgently required a mass of footnotes, background details and political contexts in order to fully understand what was now in mass-market outlets. Quintessential in this respect is the advent of the Penguin Modern European Poets, published in the 1970s mostly. Here, in these pages, were poets from the Eastern Bloc, along with Spanish, Italian, Greek, Russian and French writers. Some were in bilingual editions.
The impact was profound. Simply reading any one of the slim volumes invited the reader to search for explanations of the worlds they came from. Švejk was reprinted three times by Penguin in the 1960s, deep in this context of awakening awareness of European writers across a wider spectrum than the norm.
Since then, readers have had the advantages of publishers such as the Pushkin Press and several journals, all prominently featuring European writers and their contextual bases. Yet, one might argue, there is still — especially for readers and students coming to the work of writers down the Eastern frontiers, from Poland to Romania and the Balkans — a mass of intellectual material weighing heavily on the pleasures and profits of reading work from these cultures. It helps if, as is the case with Elias Canetti, there are voluminous autobiographical works to back up the creative texts. But usually, apart from in scholarly editions, the writings of so many writers and poets from these nations are almost ‘encoded’ by the labyrinthine tracks leading to the political and intellectual origins of thought and experience.
I’m trying to distil much of these contextual matters; the estrangement which tends to occur when reading the works themselves comes from a mix of historical material, memoir sources and social circles, along with linguistic matters. Hence, forty years ago, in Sir Cecil Parrott’s biography of Hašek, The Bad Bohemian, though he worked hard to keep the trappings of explanatory material to a minimum, he still needed a glossary, a guide to Czech pronunciation and the inclusion of the subtleties of nomenclature, such as the Czech word for ‘clown’ – šašek – which of course, gives a certain dimension to the understanding of this complex and puzzling writer.
THEN THERE IS the trajectory of Hašek’s writing life to consider. Even this is fraught with the requirements of explanation for English readers. A typical example is his production of what were known as feuilletons. A plain dictionary definition does not really explain what it was that Hašek was writing: ‘In French and other newspapers, a part ruled off the bottom of a page for a serial story, critical article etc.’ (Chambers’ English Dictionary.) This definition does not, however, hint at the politics of the concept: when Hašek was demoted at some points in his life from ‘feature writer’ to the provision of feuilletons, he was very likely pleased to have the work, but he also was aware that he was writing ‘fillers.’
Despite the existence of printed studies from symposia and conferences, Hašek himself — and debates on his work — have not filtered through to general media as many other Czech writers’ productions have done. We need a new study to fill in that gap and to give an account of the writer’s life which will make sense of what is, on the surface, nothing more than a narrative of drifting, living on his wits and working on the move, writing to survive and to put food on the table.
This brings the discussion to the topic of Jaroslav Hašek’s life. Never was such a life of chaotic wandering and deprivation so prominent in a writer’s career path. Some aspects of his life, such as the heavy drinking and the urge to entertain, to avoid a static middle-class life and to escape moral restraints, might compare to, say, François Villon or Dylan Thomas, but in Hašek’s case, all these aspects of him are overshadowed by two other elements: his life of petty crime and his tendency to undermine and satirize everything that came his way.
On the surface, we might see a man possessed by alcoholism and a rebellious nature, refusing all constraint; yet he did marry and have a family. These potential roots and sources of stability were, nevertheless, abandoned, and in a sense he shed one personality and emerged into a new life, inhabiting another personality. We have to ask, how could a disreputable tramp become a political activist and speaker, in Bohemia principally, and then be reborn as a Red Army commissar? Here was a man who was active, throughout the Great War, in the politics of a corner of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, only to re-invent himself in Siberia, living in Russia and publishing for Chinese as well as Russian readers.
The enigma is in the confusion of all this, when motivations are blurred. Pursuing this elusive personality invites the biographer to compare Hašek to Lear, of whom it was said that ‘He ever but slenderly knew himself.’ Perhaps he wished to erase his character, to banish his Bohemian roots and to be the universal traveller, the writer who dissolves individuality whenever he switches from one community to another. Certainly this conclusion accounts for his need to repeatedly disappear (usually when the police were searching for him).
The reader may take up any one of a multitude of stances when reading Hašek’s masterpiece, The Good Soldier Švejk, yet of all the interpretations, one feature is impossible to overlook: Hašek shows a world of rigid maintenance of all the power structures which make and sustain the social world of the Empire, but he shows it from the bottom. If we look at such a rigid world of apparent moral enforcement and social hierarchy from a standpoint of a non-person, then the absurdity will show. Jonathan Swift wrote that he saw satire as emerging from the clash between individual and mass; when he pointed out absurdity, it was found in the ‘reasonable’ socially-constructed reality which sustained the status quo.
Švejk is very much this non-person, applied as a catalyst. Sometimes the reader senses a perception into nonsense which should be evident but in fact is a quality built into the structures of society. It might be an easy matter to walk past Švejk, to make him invisible, but he persists. Again and again he reappears, in front of Lieutenant Lukash, just as his breed of the proletarian servant, the lackey, the nobody, will persist somehow.
THE WORLD OF Hašek is as unfamiliar to English readers as a casbah or a suk. It is a place where things are done differently, but also somewhere that retains its mystery as depicted in popular media. In 1930, when Hašek’s classic appeared, for some readers anywhere east of Vienna was ‘Ruritania.’ A little further south of Slovakia, the Balkans and the complexity of that region’s history and geopolitics, tended to be represented as threatening and part-barbaric. Harry de Windt’s Edwardian travel-book, Through Savage Europe, included phrases such as ‘The land of unrest’ and ‘A Bosnian Smuggler’. But by 1933, when Patrick Leigh-Fermor travelled across Europe, Prague, and also Slovakia, were included in the civilised, culturally interesting Europe of Vienna and the Danube generally. Leigh-Fermor saw a city ‘teeming with wonders’.
Then, in contrast to this, we have Hašek’s Švejk working as counter to any apparent order and rank, any civilised behaviour, at the heart of the army and of civic pride and rationality. The force for anarchy, Hašek insists, segues into something charmingly creative, and that appeal is in the surreal humour of the ‘non-person’ at the core.
For all these reasons, we need to open up Hašek and his writings to today’s world, which has experienced and absorbed the waves of artistic and literary revolutions from Modernism to Postmodernism; the argument is that Hašek is one of the true founders of literary subversion; the fact that he has a political intent as well as a universal one serves to expand the scope of his work.
How is Hašek seen and understood by his compatriots and by the literary world today? He has been described as a‘bad Bohemian’ by his biographer, Sir Cecil Parrott, and so we have the geographical Bohemia implied, but also the ‘Bohemian’ which relates to the derogatory former name of Gypsies (cagoux in French, meaning unsociables.). Certainly Hašek’s life presents a profile of an ‘unsociable.’ As his life is inextricably bound up with his creativity and his output, some Czech views have brought the good and bad connotations together.
Hašek has reached the status of national symbol. One web site, www.kafkadesk.org, makes the point that his Švejk is ‘an iconic symbol of Czech identity.’ This is hardly a compliment when these words follow: ‘For his main characteristic is neither military genius nor patriotic bravery, but an undeniable idiocy, tinged with naivety, ingenuity and honesty, which leads him into increasingly senseless, idiotic and absurd circumstances.’
Arguably though, the achievement of Hašek, at his best in his great work, relates to something more profound and universal: an element in literature itself. The novel is ‘decoded’ in historical context, but having done this, the reader still has only a minimal aspect of the total work. More significant is the fundamental nature of writing as expressed by the Russian Formalists: to make the reader look again, to understand what has happened when the author has ‘made the stone stony’ and helped the reader also to turn around the subject in order to look from a more adventurous position.
The English reader, along with all other non-Czech readers, has to adapt to that specific sharing in a narrative that reveals the subject in a dynamic way; hence, in its surreal element, Švejk shifts the reader’s stance on morality and convention in order to reveal Hašek’s constant preoccupation with the need for anarchic discontinuity. In his life he refused the ties of social convention, until he was in Russia and had to employ is habitual need to belittle and erase values in a specific political cause. In other words, his life of shifting alignment with factions in uncertain political agendas, hit the buffers when the revolutionary regime in Russia compelled him to toe the line as a journalist.
Hašek’s life and writing were as one: his purposeless trajectory through life became purposeful, in that the impulse to be anarchic tends to create a median, repeated familiarity in style and voice. At times it seems as if he built everything of sand in his life, so he could kick it down again, but still he builds with sand in the next project. Such contradictions and open questions have continued to attract scholars. In 2014, for instance, a seminar at the Chicago Newberry centre looked at Hašek and Kafka together. Their focus was: ‘What kind of environment produced writers as dissimilar and alike as Hašek and Kafka?’ The extent of the enquiry is indicative of what reading Hašek demands: ‘History, geography, and demographic changes will be our guides….’
Studies also have to take account of the course of criticism and commentary on Hašek’s work, particularly after the 1980s, when the first real study in English appeared from Cambridge University Press2 and Cecil Parrott’s biography also was in print.
Attitudes to his work have ranged from the highly abstract, such as Gustavo Bernado Krause’s focus on ‘the terror of reason’3 to the intensely factual and contextual, typified by Jenifer Cushman’s essay ‘Criminal Apprehensions, Prague Minorities and the Habsburg Legal System’ in 2004.4
But Hašek’s work has also interested the wider journalistic community, online and otherwise, inviting a range of essayists and international politics specialists; many of these have opened up interesting viewpoints from which to see Hašek’s position as a writer on the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its last days. Typical of these is Aleksander Kaczorowski for the Aspen Institute, who provides a very wide examination of Švejk from a viewpoint covering Polish and other minority stances.5
It is not a difficult task to find elements of life on the fringes of the empire at the time of the Great War. But these materials tend to simply point out the specific background of Hašek’s life and family, or perhaps describe the enveloping metanarrative the Bohemians and Slovaks were involved in.
Writing about him tends to attract too much of the critical apparatus which has emerged since Czech literature attracted renewed interest, and also that my focus will be on presenting Hašek and his work across the reach of his varied writings and the changing audiences his travels created.
As already stated, what we need is a writer’s account before it is a critic’s view that entails primarily a study of the great novel and the many short tales, taking in the facts of Hašek’s modus operandi as a writer. That such a body of work could be produced while the writer was ‘on the hoof’ through turmoil in politics and then in the anarchy of war is astonishing. When I conceived of this essay, my first intention was try to account for how this was achieved. What followed was a realization that, should I be a reader new to the work as a whole, I would welcome some help in the attempt to absorb the Czech angle on the product. That fact that modern culture tends to assert that Švejk equates to something fundamental in the Czech character means that such a high claim requires some examination.
Finally, there is the core of a certain attitude to art. In Hašek, as in Kafka, this is in response to aspects of applied power and social conformity. In this, the British reader has to stretch the intellect in order to appreciate the narratives of dissent that the twentieth century generated.
If we look for a sensibility which perhaps goes some way to explain this Mitteleuropean sensibility, covering writers across the spectrum from satire to anarchic chaos, perhaps Elias Canetti’s education provides a template. In his three-volume autobiography, several threads run through everything: education in its social structures; the lust to learn and to be learned, and then the urgent need to make one’s writings or art carry urgent contemporary moral or amoral imperatives. Canetti had his long project concerning crowds and power; this gathered depth and compelling material through his cultivated European sensibility. He knew Manchester as well as Vienna, and Jewish culture as much as he knew proletarian and agrarian European life.
Such was Hašek’s vision: a constant effort to explain the anti-hero and the non-person, through a period in human affairs in which totalitarian designs were out to dehumanize. The early thirties, when Švejk had its first English readers, was also the time when Huxley’s Brave New World was published. Only a few years before Švejk, Orwell had seen the individual caught in a machine of empire, a pressure of conformity, when his protagonist, in ‘Shooting an Elephant’, had to cope with the absurdity as it expresses itself in an inescapable reality.
Stephen Wade is a writer and historian. His latest books are The Justice Women (Pen and Sword), which is a history of women in all areas of the law; No More Soldiering (Amberley), which looks at the conscientious objectors of the Great War; and Rejected: Literary failure and my contribution to it, published by us as part of our Odd Volumes series. An archive of his work for the Fortnightly is here.
- Often rendered Schweik, a name more phonetically convenient for English readers. The full title of the work is The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War.
- A Study of Schweik and the Short Stories, 1983
- In ‘How to face the Terror of Reason’, Flusser Studies 22, www.flusserstudies.net.
- Jenifer Cushman, ‘Criminal Apprehensions, Prague Minorities and the Habsburg Legal System in Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Shweik and Franz Kakfa’s The Trial‘, in researchgate.net, Jan. 2004.
- Aleksander Kaczorowski ‘Hasek in Galicia’, Aspen Review, Issue 02/2014.