A look at the life and work of Jan Neruda

Poet, writer, and journalist, Jan Neruda has long been recognised as one of the outstanding figures of 19th century Czech literature, an author who mastered the art of the feuilleton, whose column was published regularly in the politically-liberal Narodni listy, and read widely by the masses. An ironical but also often melancholic poet who strived for modernity and the defeat of provincialism; a writer whose works were carefully dissected in his day who was endlessly expected to write his 'great' novel, but whose ultimate masterpiece remains his cycle of short stories titled 'Tales of the Little Quarter'. Stories that offered a satirical but also gentle depiction of the loves, lives, and small failures of petty bourgeois inhabitants of Mala Strana. An area which to this day remains the most picturesque area of the capital beneath Prague Castle and Petrin Hill.

Jan Neruda was born in Prague and throughout his life he would remain a true Prague son. As a young man he studied philosophy and law in the capital but gave up both for journalism, where he would sharpen the art of the feuilleton, writing on themes from social life. Jaroslava Janackova, a professor emeritus at the Philosophy Faculty in Prague, says it is impossible to underestimate Neruda's impact writing for the liberal daily Narodni listy - over the years he managed to write more than 2,000 articles, sometimes writing as many as five feuilletons a week.

"He really did write about everything imaginable, which sets him a bit apart from the French or German feuilleton tradition. His style was both serious but also displayed great overview and humour. In his articles he also often expressed things about himself, using self-irony, a motif which was greatly enjoyed by his readers. Through this ironic humour he formed an understanding with his audience - though brilliant he did not set himself apart."

House of Jan Neruda in Mala Strana
One of the most memorable series of feuilletons which reveals Neruda's interest in social issues and dedication to Realism (promoted by the May School of which he was a part), is a series called about the so-called 'Trhani'. Roughly translated the title means 'People in Rags'. Professor Jaroslava Janackova again:

"This series was about manual labourers who worked on the railroads - at the time tracks were being laid down at a furious pace and in a sense workers on the railway were practically vagabonds. When one section of the railway was finished they headed in droves to another. In writing about these workers Neruda wanted to restore their dignity in the public eye, to counter the common view they were like gypsies or thieves, living dishevelled and improper lives. For local people living by the tracks the 'trhani' were quite simply hobos. Later this series would form the basis for a short story in which he elaborated his ideas further, in essence suggesting that at one time we could all become 'ragged' people - torn by unexpected downturns in life. Likewise Neruda believed there was a sensitive and potentially noble person deep in every 'ragged' life."

If Jan Neruda was extremely prolific as a journalist he published far less as a poet - just six books of poems in his lifetime including Book of Verse, Cosmic Songs and Ballads and Romances. His first book of poetry was titled 'Cemetery Flowers' a book full of irony and bitterness that came as something of a shock to the reading public. Still, Neruda's work on his poetry consumed years though the results were far and few between; of his prose too there were great expectations; says Jaroslava Janackova his generation largely expected him to write a great novel - to go beyond the short story.

"That was something that the literary world constantly expected of Neruda but he was of a different view. Although he loved the novel and supported all kinds of translations into Czech, including for instance the works of Jules Verne, he himself stuck with shorter formats. Why? He felt that shorter stories belonged to a more experimental genre. He was also confident - and we know he was successful in - 'filtering' the grand themes of European novels into a shorter format. One example is the story 'The Three Lilies', a story on three pages which shows Jan Neruda working with themes from Alfred De Musset's novel 'The Confession of a Child of the Century' (La Confession d'un Enfant du Siecle, 1836). Some of the passages which were sharper in their eroticism but also morals and moralising in that book were important for Neruda, though he used these elements in his own way to create his own original story. He was a little bit afraid: originally he had wanted to end the Mala Strana cycle with that story as a kind of provocation but in the end he buried it in the middle of the book."

The Tales of Mala Strana - The Three Lilies included - take the reader through the district's winding streets tiny courtyards, shops and restaurants, churches and cemeteries. As one reviewer has remarked: "death and funerals are often present", evoking the mysterious mood of the narrator sitting nearby in a pub as the rain comes down, noticing nearby graves that have been opened. In a flash of white lightning human bones become visible. A beautiful girl dances in the pub." Imagery from The Three Lilies that remains striking indeed.

Jan Neruda remained true to his writing all of his life and was able to enjoy the reputation of a well-known author. However, that is not to say his life was without melancholy and unhappiness. One example is the failure of his great love for Czech writer Karolina Svetla, a love not reciprocated for a lack of shared sentiment but because Svetla was already a married woman when they met. She dared not risk the fury of a public backlash by breaking the morals of her day - and with a cool head - certainly against her will pushed Neruda away. Professor Jaroslava Janackova says it was a great love, apparent from Neruda's surviving letters to Karolina Svetla, where he was uncharacteristically open about his deepest personal feelings he never expressed elsewhere:

"It was a powerful love but in the end it was probably better that it was never fulfilled, that they never married. Still, reading the letters now, they are an inspiration. We see Neruda in love, we see Neruda describing feelings of passion but also despair - extraordinary considering he was otherwise always so closed up in letters. In the end it has to be said though that it was socially convenient for Neruda remain on his own, after other failed loves. A writer who married became a poor writer with a poor wife and poor children; because Neruda never married he was able to retain the status of a respected writer. He made a living off of his feuilletons, went down to his favourite pubs, met with friends who had became something of a moveable family, who respected what he did. "