5) Eduard Bass’s The Chattertooth Eleven: a football fairy tale for grown-ups and children

'The Chattertooth Eleven', illustration by Josef Čapek, photo: repro Eduard Bass, 'Klapzubova jedenáctka' / SNDK

Eduard Bass’ The Chattertooth Eleven, a novel about a father who brought up his eleven sons as a phenomenal football team, is one of the famous Czech works of fiction. It was published in 1922, the same year that saw the establishment of the Czechoslovak Football Association, by a former singer and cabaret director from Prague and has since enchanted generations of young and adult readers. The book was translated into English already in 1943. Its second English edition was published by Karolinum Press in 2008.

'The Chattertooth Eleven',  illustration by Josef Čapek,  photo: repro Eduard Bass,  'Klapzubova jedenáctka' / SNDK

In Nether Buckwheat, in the province of Bohemia in Czechoslovakia, there once lived a poor cottager named Chattertooth. He had eleven sons and not a penny in his pocket. He used to rack his brains as to what to put his sons to. At last he decided to make a football team of them. Behind the cottage was a level piece of meadow; this he called the Playing Field.

Then he sold the goat, bought two balls with the money, and set about training the boys. Honza, the eldest, was a maypole of a lad, so he was put in goal: and as the two youngest, Frantik and Jura, were small and wiry, old Chatter-tooth put them at outside right and left. He would wake the boys at five in the morning and walk them briskly through the woods for an hour. As soon as they had covered four miles the order would be given, “About turn and back at the double.” Only after that did the boys get their breakfast, and then work began in real earnest. And old Chattertooth saw to it that everyone of them knew his job inside out. He taught them how to take a ball in mid-air, stop it and pass, to feint, to centre, to kick from a stationary position or on the run, to throw the ball in, and indeed everything that a footballer should know.

So begins Eduard Bass' story from 1922 about a group of village boys from Czechoslovakia, who went on to defeat the most famous football teams in the world. The book can be read as a celebration of the spirit of fair play, perseverance and enthusiasm for sports as well as a slightly ironic story, making fun of the First Republic’s fascination with Czech soccer.

Klapzubova jedenáctka or The Chattertooth Eleven turned out to be an immediate success upon its publication in 1922, and has since seen some 30 Czech editions. It was turned into a film by director Ladislav Brom as early as 1938. More recently it has been adapted for the stage by the Prague-based Minor theatre.

The Chattertooth Eleven is subtitled a 'tale of a Czech football team for boys old and young'. So is this fairy-tale, set in post-war Czechoslovakia, really a book for both young and adult readers?

Eduard Bass,  photo: Public Domain
And can the book, despite its subtitle, also appeal to girls and women? I put that question to Michael Baugh, an editor for Charles University’ s publishing house Karolinum Press who lectures at the Institute of Translation Studies:

"What struck me was that the story itself of an unbeatable football team is very much a comic book in a way, with these superheroes. I have to say they are presented in a two-dimensional way. I have a hard time remembering the names of the individual players. I know there is a Honza and a Jura and a Toník, but they don’t really stand out in any way. They are not particularly deep characters.

"But the book is written in an almost experimental, modernist narrative style, and it is taken from lots of different perspectives. There are strange interludes, where it will skip from action in Czechoslovakia to a Czech grandfather in Oregon making up a fairy tale, and then you’ll get reports from a ship that we find out later The Chattertooth Eleven are on.

"So it has this kind of fragmented narrative that I find fascinating. So I think the story itself is nice and it will definitely appeal to a younger audience, but I feel that the stylistic choices Bass made and the way he wrote the book could appeal to adults.

"And the truth is we are all kind of young at heart. And who doesn’t want to read a story of this kind of a remarkable soccer team showing the world how impressive the Czechs from a small town can be? It’s a great story."

At the same time, present-day readers might be put off by the fact that there are not many female characters in the book. One of them is old Mrs Chattertooth, portrayed as an anxious mother and housewife who has no clue what her husband and sons are up to.

"There is a part where the soccer team meets eleven female runners and they have a huge amount of respect for them because they are athletes as well and they not portrayed in any sort of frivolous way, which is interesting.

"Although there are not many female characters, one thing that I thought was interesting is that I believe there has to be a story for those eleven runners as well.

"Maybe they have a similar story going on as the Chattertooth Eleven, but it isn’t the focus of the book. So that is something I wonder about with regard to today’s audience, if girls will feel left out when there is this story that really was written with boys in mind."

'The Chattertooth Eleven',  illustration by Josef Čapek,  photo: repro Eduard Bass,  'Klapzubova jedenáctka' / SNDK

The Chattertooth boys were at the top of their form. The Slavia team, too, played a good game, but at half-time the score was 3–0 for the Chattertooth Eleven. In the second half they got another three, and won easily by 6–0. The boys from Nether Buckwheat were borne back in triumph to their hotel by the crowd, shoulder high. Before the hotel there was such a crowd that the Chief of the Policehad to beg Mr. Chattertooth to address them; otherwise they would have refused to budge. So old Chattertooth went out on to the balcony, took his pipe from his mouth, pushed his lambskin cap on the back of his head, and, once the wildly cheering crowd below him had calmed down, began: “Well, it’s like this. I just said to them, well, boys, I said, you just learn ‘em. And they did learn ‘em. There’s nothing like children doing what they’re told by their parents.” And that was the speech made by old Chattertooth to twenty thousand people when his team had won the championship with a total score of 122–0.

In his foreword to The Chattertooth Eleven, translator Mark Corner describes it as a typical example of mid-20th century comic writing, likening the style of Eduard Bass to the famous British comic writer P.G. Woodehouse. Michael Baugh says that despite its many humorous moments, for him it is much more an example of a modernist novel:

"The structure itself reminds me much more of Čapek’s War with the Newts or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. There are really interesting things going on there. So I think that the spirit of the story is very much one of these 1920’s comic novels but the structure itself seems very experimental to me.

Michael Baugh,  photo: David Vaughan
"But maybe it takes that kind of fractured narrative from comic books. That’s something I was thinking about when reading it, that it would make such a great comic book."

The Chattertooh Eleven was published in 1922, just four years after the establishment of Czechoslovakia, and it seems to embody the very democratic spirit of the newly established state.

"This idea of Father Klapzuba or Father Chattertooth trying to decide what he is going to do with his family, how he is going to present them to the world, to me it seemed like a very clear parallel with this kind of fresh, successful, new country trying to figure out how to present itself.

"The reason that the team is so successful is simply that they respect each other, they like each other and they spend all of their time working. They are also shown repeatedly not to be morally superior, which I think is interesting, so I think that really embodies the democratic spirit."

“The Czech creativity, that seems to take the nation further, also seems to be an idea that is shown in the book. When the Chattertooths find out that the Barcelona team plays dirty they have a creative way of dealing with it. On the other hand they don’t resort to any dirty tactics. There seems to be a celebration of creativity and ingenuity that I think is very Czech."

The most recent English edition of The Chattertooth Eleven was released in 2008 by Karolinum Press and uses the original 1943 translation by Ruby Hobling, distinctive for its creative and playful approach to Bass' language while staying faithful to the original's style and the time of the story's conception.

"There is a feeling with translation that the original work is stat and you can’t change that. But that translations are almost living organisms because they need to be updated very often. And what seems appropriate in the translation in the 40s might seem archaic and old-fashioned that we will need a new translation.

Photo: Karolinum Press
"But Ruby Hobling’s translation is beautiful. It reads perfectly and it reads very much like an English novel from the 1920s, so that any archaisms that are there really work in its favor."

Instead of updating the translation, the new English edition of The Chattertooth Eleven is accompanied by new illustrations by Jiří Grus, which are no less charming than the original ones, done by Josef Čapek, and which have given the 1922 book a more contemporary style. And why should readers pick it up today?

"I think the first the first reason is that it is just fun. It’s a fun book with these kind of inventive and creative solutions to typical sports problems. So I like this aspect of it.

"I think the other reason is that it is really written in an interesting way. It is not just a straight narrative. There are these very stylistic elements of the narrative that I just find fascinating and quite frankly, beautiful at times. So I think that is really the reason to read it.

"It seems like a really straightforward story, but the style is quite experimental. And I like that something that looks like a children’s book is also fascinating for adults that love literature and compare this to other works and see how he approaches this material in such a strange way."

The Chattertooth Eleven ends with the team’s cunning escape from a cannibal island in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, the only time they ever brake from their tradition to maintain fair-play.

“And I say, Sparsit, that they are seals!” “I assure you, Carlsson, that they are porpoises!” “Want to bet on it?” “Good!” “Two quid, Sparsit !” “Two quid, Carlsson!” Mr. Sparsit and Mr. Carlsson shook hands on it, and then once more turned their glasses on those perplexing spots on the horizon. The rest of the passengers of the Jellicoe joined them, and the dispute soon spread. .... From five o’clock onward everybody on board was seized with a wild excitement, for the glasses had revealed that the twelve black points were twelve inordinately fat people. What tragedy had happened here? And by what miracle had they been able to keep afloat? And what grim jest of fate had collected this apostolic number of fat men at this point? Nobody could answer, and the imaginations of the passengers were as much under way as was the Jellicoe itself. Shortly after six o’clock in the evening the lifeboats were lowered. In one of them sat Mr. Sparsit, in another Mr. Carlsson. Neither won his bet, but they wanted nevertheless to be the first to solve the riddle which they had been the first to discover. The solution caused great astonishment, for as the boats came nearer they found, there in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, the world-famous Chattertooth Eleven. And in order not to get out of practice they were playing water polo with their father. And this brings to an end the history of the Chattertooth Eleven.

Eduard Bass, born Eduard Schmidt, (1 January 1888 – 2 October 1946, Prague) was a journalist, cabaret director, singer, actor and writer. He also worked as an editor and later an editor-in-chief for the newspaper Lidové noviny.

His novel about an invincible football team of 11 brothers, first appeared in Lidové Noviny in 1922, before being published as a book that same year. Bass’ most famous work, apart from Klapzubova jedenáctka, was Cirkus Humberto, depicting the life of a circus troupe, published in 1941.