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AN INTRO TO CZECH LITERATURE 

The Past

For Czech literature, the 20th century began in 1895, when the Manifesto of the Czech Modern (Manifest české moderny) broke radically with the national awareness-raising programme espoused by the National Revival of the 19th century and embraced literary modernism. Decadence, symbolism, and impressions began to influence Czech literature (examples are found in the work of Karel Hlaváček, Otakar Březina, Stanislav Kostka Neumann, Antonín Sova), and expressionism had an impact in the years preceding the First World War. Proletarian literature (Jiří Wolker, Karel Hora) opened the door to the avant-garde (first poetism and the art of playfulness, then surrealism), outstanding examples of which are found in the work of Vítězslav Nezval (and his collection of verse titled Pantomima, 1924), Jaroslav Seifert, Konstantin Biebl, Vladislav Vančura, Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, Vladimír Holan, and František Halas.

devetsil  XC1993.169karel-teige-0aaa

Devětsil, 1922, foto:kosmas.cz. Vítězslav Nezval: Pantomima, 1924, foto:wolfsonian.org. Konstantin Biebl, foto:meccaaudio.blogspot.cz

Epic interwar literature ranged in genre from social novels and ballads (Ivan Olbracht, Jarmila Glazarová, Marie Pujmanová), to tragic and humoristic writings (Poláček), work by Czechoslovak Legionnaires and Catholics (Jan Čep, Jaroslav Durych), work on historical subjects (Karel Schulz, Durych, František Kožík), and early forms of the psychological novel (Václav Řezáč, Egon Hostovský). Jaroslav Hašek published his four-part novel The Good Soldier Švejk (Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války) in 1921–23, and world-famous novelist and playwright Karel Čapek emerged on the scene. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, literature turned to the past and to a focus on the characteristics of the Czech nation (Vančura, Halas, Holan, Seifert). There also emerged a second generation of surrealists (Ra Group/Skupina Ra) and the civilist poetics of Group 42/Skupina 42 (Blatný, Hauková, Kainar, Kolář).

Capek Jiří_Kolář_1979_foto_Hana_Hamplová seifert

Karel Čapek, foto:fiatlux.wz.cz. Jiří Kolář, foto:cs.wikipedie.org. Jaroslav Seifert, foto:tyden.cz

After 1948, when the Communist Party seized power and Czechoslovakia became a totalitarian state, some writers were imprisoned (Jan Zahradníček, Bedřich Fučík), others went into exile (Hostovský, Čep, Ferdinand Peroutka, Ivan Blatný), and others tried to continue writing in samizdat or at least for the ‘desk drawer’ (Bohumil Hrabal, Egon Bondy, Jiří Kolář, Karel Hynek; and older writers such as Bohuslav Reynek, Jakub Deml). Official literature was limited to works of socialist realism and in the Bildungsroman genre. There was a slight thaw in conditions after 1956, which brought back a wider variety of perspectives and subjects returned, explored by the likes of Ladislav Fuks, Arnošt Lustig, Ludvík Vaculík, Ivan Klíma. This period saw the publication of Josef Škvorecký’s ground-breaking novel The Cowards and the rise of ‘poetry of the everyday’. In the 1960s literature underwent a profound transformation, the spectrum of literary subjects and genres expanded, and writers hitherto silenced returned to the scene. A new generation lso emerged (Ivan Wernisch, Jiří Gruša, Pavel Šrut, and Zbyněk Hejda in poetry; Josef Hiršal, Emil Juliš, Václav Havel, and Kolář in visual and concrete poetry) and writers František Hrubín, Holan, Oldřich Mikulášek, Jan Skácel, Karel Šiktanc entered their mature period. Prose was dominated by Hrabal, Škvorecký, Fuks, Milan Kundera, Vladimír Körner, Vladimír Páral. The theatre witnessed the rise of the ‘small form’ and the genre of absurd drama (Havel, Ivan Vyskočil).

In the normalisation era (when communist authority forcibly reasserted itself in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) literature became divided into three streams: official literature published domestically; literature published in samizdat; and exile literature. Official literature represented a return to a flat portrait of the world and it was dominated by second-rate authors loyal to the regime. Some important authors, however, were also allowed to publish work to a limited extent: Ladislav Fuks, Hrabal, Páral, Jiří Šotola, Körner. Samizdat and exile literature both produced some literary works of major importance (the work of writers Kundera, Škvorecký, Hrabal, Pavel Kohout, Gruša, Vaculík, Jan Křesadlo; the poetry of Seifert and Šiktanc; and works by multiple underground authors).

 žert   spalovač  zbabělci

 Milan Kundera: Joke, foto: databazeknih.cz. Ladislav Fuks, foto: tarzan.cz. Josef Škvorecký, foto: czechfolks.cz

 

The Present

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the collapse of the communist regime, the three streams of literature fused into one and all literature was official. The book market began to repay a publishing debt by releasing literary works that had been banned for the preceding four decades (this included, for instance, avant-garde writings, Western literature, spiritual and Christian writings), and a new generation of writers began to make its mark. Commercial pressures again became a factor in literature and some writers made concessions to reader popularity, such as Vladimír Páral and, in more sophisticated ways, Michael Viewegh and Petr Šabach.

Several basic trends gradually took hold in prose fiction. The first post-modernist wave was represented by the work of Milan Kundera, Jiří Kratochvil, Daniela Hodrové, Silvie Richterové, Jan Křesadla, Michal Ajvaz (the poetry in prose fantasy Return of the Old Komodo Dragon/Návrat starého varana) and Jáchym Topol (City Sister Silver/Sestra, 1994), and later Miloš Urban (author of the Gothic novel The Seven Churches/Sedmikostelí). Petr Rákos pursued the post-modern poetics of nonsense and wordplay. Bohuslav Vaněk-Úvalský cultivates a comical post-modernist approach and Patrik Ouředník challenges customary ways of looking at the past (Europeana). Fantasy is the realm of Richard Popel and Michal Ajvaz, mythology that of Miloš Urban.

The literature of the new millennium explores themes set in other cultures (Martin Ryšavý, Petra Hůlová, Bára Gregorová) and reflections on the past. Popular literary themes are the Second World War, Czech-German issues (Radka Denemarková, Květa Legátová, Kateřina Tučková) and communism (Jan Novák, Jiří Hájíček, Tomáš Zmeškal, Irena Dousková, Jáchym Topol, Jaroslav Rudiš, Edgar Dutka; Petr Šabach also writes on this subject but in a lighter tone), and the normalisation period is now also being taken up as a subject (Pavel Kolmačka, Věra Nosková). The work of Jan Balabán and Emil Hakl reflects on society and the position of the individual within it, while Petra Soukupová, Jan Němec, Jana Šrámková and Tereza Boučková explore the intimate sides of life.

soukupová  šabach tučková

Petra Soukupová, foto: kosmas.cz. Petr Šabach, foto:bux.cz, Kateřina Tučková, foto: idnes.cz

Since the early 1990s poetry has been marked by two main tendencies pulling it in different directions: one is inward-looking and in-depth in its focus; the other is outward-looking, harks back to the avant-garde, and is richly imaginative and provocative to an extent. The former tendency characterises Catholic poetry (Ivan Slavík, Rio Preisner, Ivan Diviš, Zdeněk Rotrekl, Jiří Kuběna, Jaroslav Erik Frič, and more recently Petr Borkovec), which over time has been growing more allusive and is coming to resemble informal poetry (Borkovec, Pavel Kolmačka); this is true also of the Ivan Martin Jirous, who has come to adopt a simple, down-to-earth key in which to express his devotion (e.g. his collection Iron Scales/Okuje, 2008). Poetry of the everyday is represented by the work of Petr Halmay, Petr Hruška, Milan Děžinský, Štěpan Nosek, Jakub Řehák and Jonáš Hájek.

The second tendency is embodied by the surrealists and the artists who create ‘imaginative poetry’ (Jaromír Typlt, Pavel Řezníček, Ludvík Kundera, Egon Bondy, Jáchym Topol, Ivan Wernisch, Jiří H. Krchovský, Jiří Kuběna; Fantasía Group: Adam Borzič, Kamil Bouška) and experimental poets (Radek Fridrich, Ivan Wernisch). The poetry of Patrik Ouředník, Eugen Brikcius, and Karel Šiktanc explores word play.

Some Czech authors have long enjoyed international readerships, such as Bohumil Hrabal, Jaroslav Hašek (his Švejk is the most translated Czech novel), Karel Čapek (his play R.U.R. is the source of the now international word ‘robot’), and Milan Kundera, who now writes in French. Czech literature became the focus of international attention when Jaroslav Seifert won the Nobel Prize for literature (1984), and the name of playwright and former president Václav Havel is also world-renowned. Current writers who have known success abroad include Ivan Klíma, Patrik Ouředník, Jáchym  Topol, Michael Viewegh, Petra Hůlová and Michal Ajvaz, and Radka Denemarková and Jaroslav Rudiš in particular have become popular in Germany. Czech literature (and culture in general) is especially popular in Poland.

 

Author: Pavel Šidák

Editor: Lucie Ševčíková

Translation: Robin Cassling