Written by Elizabeth A. Haas
The Czech Republic has always been known as a nation of bibliophiles; for evidence of this, one needn´t look any further than the multitude of book sellers on the street, the bookstores and rare book dealers all about the city, and the novels on sale at the tabak, stacked right next to the daily gossip rags and bubble gum. Scholars quibble over the exact date of the dawn of Czech literature, but one thing is for certain: no Slavic people began producing literature in their own language before the Czechs.
In the Beginning
Somewhere between the 9th and 10th centuries the legends of St. Wenceslas were composed and written in Old Church Slavonic, the first literary Slavic language. Long before this time, a rich tradition of folk songs and stories existed, and the folklore of the Czech lands continued to flourish alongside its written literature. But Latin trumped Old Church Slavonic around 1100 when Czech literature was mainly comprised of Latin chronicles and Czech hymns. Later on, Czech literature reached an important zenith under the reign of Charles IV (1346-1378). Among many of Charles´s bright ideas was the foundation of a university in Prague in 1348. It was here that Jan Hus started tossing out Latin and German loan-words, in essence creating an effective literary language. Also contributing to the stabilization of the language and its literature was the publication of the Trojan Chronicle (1468). Two copies of the book exist today and you can view them at the National Library of the Czech Republic and the Library of the National Museum. The Kralice Bible (a translation of the bible) was completed in 1594. It is at this point that one can clearly see the birth and development of a distinct Czech literature. Epic compositions written in verse appeared, as did chronicles, lyrical pieces, legends, satires, and fables.
As borders shifted, war broke out, and the populace divided, literature followed suit. After the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, Protestants fled the country seeking safety in exile. The most significant of these exiles was Jan Amos Komensky, a philosopher who led a sojourn to Poland. He published a tome called Labyrinth of the World (among 153 other books) that has been compared to Bunyan´s Pilgrim´s Progress. Back in the Czech lands, Catholic literature written in Latin reigned supreme while Czech literary works were destroyed and national life all about extinguished. The Czech Republic was now part of the Austrian empire and would remain so until the end of World War I.
The National Revival
During the late 18th century, and spurred on by the ideals of the Enlightenment, a renaissance in Czech literature began. Philologist and historian Josef Dobrovský, who takes his place in history as one of the most important figures of the Bohemian national revival, led the charge, resurrecting the Czech language and upholding the importance of the distant past, ordinary life, and the beauty of folk traditions in his work. The second wave of revivalists was led by Josef Jungmann, a scholar who was noted for his brilliant translations of Milton as well as his History of Czech Literature (1825). In the spirit of the times, stories that evoked a sense of pastoralism and misty-eyed romanticism were in vogue. In 1855, Božena Němcová wrote Babička, her beloved tale of a young girl who spends her childhood in the Czech countryside with her grandmother. Jan Neruda was also a strong voice for patriotism. He wrote his Tales of the Little Quarter in 1878. The stories examine daily life in Prague´s Malá Strana neighborhood, evoking its streets, shops, and homes through the eyes of a rich cast of characters. Novelist Alois Jirásek´s work, including Old Bohemian Legends (1894) and Against Everyone (1893), were imbued with themes of freedom and justice.
Czech Literature´s Finest Hour
The Czech Republic gained independence from Austria in 1918, after which literature broke free of nationalism. The years between 1918 and 1938 were a golden age for Czech literature. Works coming out of the country were considered extremely sophisticated and urbane by a worldwide audience. Here the abstract and hedonistic style that characterizes much of modern Czech literature picked up speed. Jaroslav Hašek wrote his classic war satire The Good Soldier Švejk in 1920; original expat Franz Kafka, who wrote in German but considered Bohemia his adopted homeland, was the darling of literary circles in Prague. Science fiction writer Karel Čapek was an international success, nominated for a Nobel-prize in 1936. Čapek paved the way for writers like Orwell and Huxley after him; he even coined the word ‘robot´ in his play R.U.R. (Rossum´s Universal Robots). Vladislav Vančura was a satirist and humorist whose collection of stories, End of Old Times (1934), a bestseller about life in a Bohemian country chateau, tragically foreshadowed events to come: the writer was executed by the SS in Prague in 1942.
The Price of War
The Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic dealt a cruel blow to the world of arts and letters, with a number of writers felled by the evil regime. Victims of the repression include painter, writer, poet, and brother of Karel, Josef Čapek (he died in a concentration camp); prominent journalist Julius Fučík who wrote his book Notes from the Gallows on cigarette papers that he smuggled out of a Pankrác prison (he was eventually beheaded in Germany); novelist Karel Poláček was killed in Auschwitz. Václav Černý´s book Memories (Paměti) bears witness to the period of German occupation.
The postwar literature of the Czech Republic could be labeled as such: legal, illegal, and exile. In order to be published in communist Czechoslovakia, writers were restricted to themes that embraced and supported the tenets of socialist realism (i.e. communist propaganda). A period of strict censorship occurred after the Communist Party gained absolute power in February 1948. Avant-garde authors with revolutionary socialist leanings risked persecution and worse. A number of writers fled the country, while others chose to stay and write yet remain unpublished. Toward the end of the 1950´s censorship was slightly relaxed and a few poets were allowed to publish again. Prose, however, lagged behind. By the 1960´s literature began to transcend the officially approved style. Prose turned inward, rejecting accepted discussions on socialism and exploring themes of a more personal nature. Milan Kundera´s first novel, The Joke appeared in 1967. Bohumil Hrabal earned a reputation as one of the most prominent of contemporary authors, weaving his colorful characters into loosely structured, strangely beautiful narratives. The end of the decade saw a return to experimental literature with surrealist, abstract, and Dadaist texts appearing. Ivan Klima and Josef Škvorecký gained worldly reputations.
Prague Spring (1968) brought with it a return to severe censorship. Literary magazines and newspapers were shut down and authors who refused to conform were silenced. Kundera fled to France; Škvorecký to Canada where he established Sixty Eight Publishers in Toronto – he would later publish works by future president of the new republic, poet and playwright Václav Havel, and other ‘illegal´ authors. The publications issued by these small, underground presses were dubbed ‘samizdat´. By the 1970´s hand-published samizdat literature began to take on an enormous importance. Havel organized some of the largest editions of samizdat literature and many of the authors included in these publications signed, and were subsequently jailed for signing, the famed Charter 77 petition, which would become a crucial document in engineering the fall of communism. Also signing the petition was writer Jáchym Topol. Topol´s brutal, aggressive and vulgar work sparked a new movement in literature; writers began producing rebellious, brutally honest accounts of daily life in Czechoslovakia. Topol also founded the literary magazine Revolver Revue, which still exists today.
The fall of communism in 1989 meant the return of artistic freedoms. Works of illegal and exiled authors were finally published and many returned to their home countries, reviving their careers. Some say that contemporary Czech literature has since been marginalized by film, a genre that has remained vibrant and relevant throughout the years following the Velvet Revolution. Michael Viewegh is a familiar name in the world of contemporary letters; his work has been compared to Nick Hornby. Petra Hulová, one of the Czech Republic´s youngest writing stars has taken the literary scene by storm. Miloš Urban, the so-called ‘black knight´ of Czech literature is the master of modern gothic. To get a taste for contemporary Czech writers, two superb collections exist, compiled by internationally renowned translator Alexandra Buechler. This Side of Reality, an anthology of modern Czech literature, and Allskin and Other Stories, a collection of women Czech writers, are both essential additions to any library.