Czechs in History

Jan Neruda

A poet, writer, journalist, fast and merciless polemist but also an outstanding dancer, ironical skeptic and lonely hypochondriac - all this can characterize Jan Neruda, one of the most renowned personalities of 19th century Czech literature, and the subject of this week's Czech in History.

Unlike the majority of 19th century Czech literary figures, Neruda was born in Prague and he in fact discovered the city environment for Czech readers. But what was common for him and his colleagues was his poor origin. Moreover, he was born as the only child to elderly parents - his father, a military canteen owner, was over 50 and mother nearly 40 when Jan was born in 1834. He started studying philosophy and law, but soon quit university and started working as a journalist in Czech and German newspapers and magazines. Dr. Vera Menclova from the Department of Czech literature at the Faculty of Arts in Prague says the history of Czech newspaper columns and modern journalism as such is firmly linked with Neruda's name:

"Neruda devoted himself to columns for more that 25 years, and he wrote over 2000 columns. Their themes came from almost all spheres of social life and Neruda was taking all possible stands in them- from a sympathetic smile to a satirical denial. Neruda was excellent in conjuring up an atmosphere of confidence between himself and the reader by using spoken language. The columns reflected happenings in the Czech Lands and foreign countries. But Neruda himself was very critical towards his own writings - from a vast journalistic output he only published five volumes featuring domestic and travel themes."

For his whole life Neruda lived in Prague, in the Lesser Town when he was young, but his faithfulness to the Czech capital did not mean that he never left the city: he explored the major part of Europe and the Orient - countries such as Egypt, France, Italy, Germany and the Balkan countries, where he always traveled well prepared. In all the countries it was mainly ordinary people, their life and way of thinking that interested him most.

As for his private life, Neruda experienced several romances, but he never married:

"What is generally known is his love for Anna Holinova, to whom he devoted one part of his Book of Verses and with whom he parted after several years. Then, he fell in love with a famous writer Karolina Svetla, who - like him - belonged to a group of Czech writers associated around the almanac Maj. As a married woman, Svetla rejected Neruda's attempts to court her."

But it was her who made Neruda devote himself to literature, and the fact that he became a great Czech writer is said to have been thanks to her. He was 30, when he met young Tereza Machackova at a Shakespeare festival in Prague. Tereza was one of twin girls, their father was active in politics and her aunt later became a famous actress in the National Theatre in Prague. Tereza was a kind of sun that shined intensively in Neruda's life, but not for long. She died young of tuberculosis and Neruda was alone again. When already an elderly man, he fell in love with his niece, but soon realized that he could not give the young woman what she needed. So he stayed living with his mother until her death in 1869.

"As I've already said, Neruda was one of the initiators of the Maj Almanac, which was published in 1858 and with themes it concentrated on, it marked the coming of realistic literature to the Czech Lands. In connection with Maj, and as a representative of the young generation of authors, Neruda published many critical articles, in which he faught for the right to depict a true picture of the world. He demanded that Czech literature stopped being closed to influences from abroad, he wanted it to absorb all the new trends that modern literature was offering."

Since his young years, Jan Neruda wrote poems, but compared to thousands of columns, as a poet he was incomparably less fruitful. During his life he only published six books of poems, another one was published after his death and almost 100 years later an attempt to compile a book of his epigrams was made. Each book of verses has a different character, and it always took several years before a new one was published.

The first book, called 'Cemetery Flowers', caught readers unprepared due to its bitterness, irony, self-irony and a strong social feeling. It received just lukewarm reviews and for the following ten years, Neruda kept silent as a poet. 'Book of Verse' followed, which included mainly love and social themes. The 'Cosmic Songs' from 1878, full of optimism and interest in technical discoveries is rather exceptional among all other Neruda's works. In 'Ballads and Romances' Neruda developed his talent for epic verse, and it's this collection of poems that celebrates ordinary people. Generally speaking Neruda's books deprive saints of their inviolability, we watch famous personalities in their everyday life and God and the Devil always have a human face.

"Neruda's prose had always been shunted to the side when it came to critics' reviews, as it was always conceived as just an appendix to his journalistic activities. And frankly said, it is very difficult to draw a clear line between his prose and columns. Many columns gradually acquired the form of a short story, such as 'Trhani' - which would roughly translate as 'People in Rags', many short stories, on the other hand, lack their classic parametres such as the beginning and the point and rather resemble reportage. What critics disliked about Neruda 150 years ago, we now admire."

A typical feature of Neruda's short stories is his concentration on a unique, exceptional individual, who is despised by other people. Another typical feature is the title, which turns to irony as the reader gradually nears the end of the story. The culmination of Neruda's narrative art are "Short Stories from the Lesser Town," published in 1878.

"Thirteen short stories were undoubtedly influenced by Neruda's experiences from his childhood. All of them take place in the Lesser Town in the 1830s and 40s. The author was writing them more than ten years. They depict the typical characters of the Lesser Town, their way of thinking and relations among them. And it is a real masterpiece - had Neruda not written anything else, he would be one of the finest 19th century Czech writers."

This music is an excerpt from Ceska beseda - a Czech ball-room dance which was performed in a circle, and its existence is ascribed to Neruda and his dance teacher, a Mr. Linka. Neruda, an outstanding dancer himself, disliked watching only German dances, while folk dances seemed too rough to him. So he, Linka and musician Ferdinand Heller came up with Ceska beseda, which started with: "Brothers, brothers, let's be merry..." Within a few weeks, the Beseda was danced by as much as 140 couples and after a few months, the whole of Bohemia knew it.

Medical documents showed that Neruda was not a mere hypochondriac. He died in pain, of intestine cancer, at the age of 57.